“When I was a little girl, there was this wonderful show on TV.”
That’s the first line of my play, “The Adventures of…” As a playwright, it’s taken me downtown, midtown, Provincetown (3 times) and to Dublin, Ireland. It’s never had the same cast for more than one production, a streak that remains unbroken in 2013.
Last Wednesday, two days before the show was to open (again) in Provincetown, I got an email with the news that our leading lady had a family emergency. And I would be going on in her place.
After thinking about it for a few seconds, I realized it was the best solution. I wrote the play, I’ve seen it more than anyone else, and the character is essentially an adolescent and adult version of me. As Tina Howe says: “It’s all true, but none of it happened.”
My play had taken me back onstage.
Will Clark and Nick Lazzaro, in the EATfest production.
To begin well before the beginning, I came to New York to act. After a brief stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I was not asked back. I kept up with acting classes, and made the odd appearance in a showcase or two, and in summer stock. I was determined to stay in New York, and find a place in the theater and started fumbling toward what’s become a body of work as a playwright.
Fast forward a number of years, and I’m doing my second 24-hour play festival at Wings Theatre. I liked the horror and excitement of it so much the first time that when they asked me back again, I said yes.
We followed a standard drill: you pull things like settings, and actors and director out of a hat, and have words or phrases you must incorporate into the text.
I ended up with: birthday cake, obstinate, and gymnastics; 3 actors, one of whom was my summer stock buddy, who’d since been in one of my full-lengths; a director I knew was quite good; and a setting: ATLANTIS, 1 MILLION YEARS, BC! (THANKS, Peter Bloch). Oh, and we also had to mention Clay Aiken.
I muttered to myself on the train, pulling up, then tossing aside, ideas for plots, characters, how the hell to show Atlantis…briefly considering setting the whole thing underwater…trusting that I would get the idea I needed by the time I got home.
Back when I was a sportswriter, I’d walk into the newsroom after a game, take a look at the clock, and know that by deadline, I’d have a story. It didn’t block me, rather it gave me the confidence to begin, because I knew I’d be done in time.
At a certain point on the walk to my apartment, just as my building came into sight, I got the first line, and where it fit, and the idea for the rest of the play, and for the characters in it. I got home, I wrote it. When you’re doing a 24-hour play, you have to write with your id, rather than anything above it. Go deep, go personal, go mad.
I finished it and had it at the theater by 10am (with mention of Clay Aiken in a totally organic way). I handed the scripts to my director and leading lady…but the other two guys in the cast were nowhere to be found. (Later we’d learn that…well, I forgot why they didn’t show up. What mattered is that they didn’t. I remember their names to this day).
We drafted an actor from another play, and everyone got on the phone to see if we could round up a third. We briefly discussed me going on in the third part, which I discouraged. I went to the church across the street and lit a candle. And when I came back, one of the producers had found a guy in Jackson Heights.
Jamie Heinlein, Jason Alan Griffin and Hunter Gilmore in the Dublin production.
The cast rehearsed all day, and I asked the director if we could go on last, so people would have more time to learn their lines.
And…they did it.
The audience loved it, and laughed so hard at the Clay Aiken reference that the actors had to hold. I knew I’d written a decent play, possibly one of the better things I’ve written. This unnerves me, because it was written in a blinding flash, in such a random manner. But I’ll take it. And hope to write something as good or better that’s…longer.
I did a little tweaking and submitted it to Emerging Artists Theatre and it was accepted for an EATfest…with two out of three new actors. I submitted it to the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival in tandem with a piece by J. Stephen Brantley, in part because he had two men who could double in the male roles in my piece. We were accepted, and went to Dublin with two new actors, and the original leading lady.
Mark Finley, Jamie Heinlein and Lee Kaplan in the Women's Theater Festival production in Provincetown.
I applied to the Universal Theatre Festival in Provincetown, and we were accepted, but our leading man had moved away, so we picked up another new actor. We were asked to come back the next fall, and this time, we had to bring along a new juvenile. The play was picked up by a theatre in San Francisco, and a friend of mine who went to see it said it was done very well; it’s on YouTube now.
We were invited back to Provincetown for the final Universal Theatre Festival, a “best of,” and…we needed a new actor. I remembered the guy who came in from Jackson Heights for the first performance. He was available, and we were good to go.
And then…I was in the mix.
I can certainly be in front of people; I host a reading series, and appear on panels, and read my own work at the drop of a hat. But I haven’t set foot onstage as someone else since Ed Valentine’s “Women Behind the Bush,” in which I was a homicidal society matron (with one line), that we did all over town one summer.
I printed out the script and highlighted it and started trying to learn it on the subway home. And in the car on the way up.
I got a wonderful note from one of the other actors going up (who was taking the other part played by the actor who had the emergency). It was sweet and supportive, and she said she’d sit in for me at tech and not to worry, everyone had my back.
About halfway to Provincetown, my wife realized that we were opening that night (she’d thought it was Saturday, and wondered why I was so frantic). We got there midafternoon and I rehearsed with the guys for about an hour, then went to find something to eat (not an easy thing in Provincetown on a January afternoon). I’d bought a couple pieces to wear as my costume, and accessorized a bit.
I had the cut-down sides in my notebook (a handy prop I’d thoughtfully written in the original script for just such a purpose), but I didn’t need to refer to it.
There was no way I could, or would, imitate Jamie Heinlein, the real Maggie. Instead, I took a deep breath, and looked at the audience, and just tried to live for a few moments, truthfully and loud enough to be heard, on the stage, with my own words. If I did it right, it would be enough.
Memo, me, and Mark Finley at the Universal Theater Festival, Provincetown, Jan. 2013
I was very tired when it was over…and remembered I had to do it two more times. I was surprised how quickly the routine of going to theater early, putting on costume and makeup, and getting ready came back. Waiting backstage with the other actors, warming up and listening to the other plays, and eating fudge. I think I might have said “yes” to the whole thing because of the large pan of fudge I knew was backstage.
Then it was over, and I could take off the red hi-tops I’d bought for the character, and put them on as myself when the weather gets warmer.
The festival evaporates quickly…the out-of-towners have to drive a long way that night. There's no lingering over good-byes, or marveling over what we’d done. We were all on our way within minutes of the final bow.
My wife and I stayed over one more night in Provincetown, and drove back the next day, still tired, relaxed, and tearing up as we listened to the President’s inaugural address on the radio.
I have always thought that play could be longer. Whenever we rehearse it, I think of the ways it could be expanded, maybe even into a full-length. And having played it, I learned new things about it (and the writer). It hit me harder than ever that I want to expand this one. I know where I’d put the new scenes and what should happen when.
If I do this, as I suspect I might, I promise, I will never, ever, go onstage in it.
Acting is HARD.
We'll all over in Ireland and shit, and I have been posting to the blog I created many moons ago (2009?) when we first played the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. Read all about it here
Eric Hellberg, Tracy Baker and Meghan Cary in "A Bushel of Crabs," En Avant Playwrights.
For a long time, I would not admit to it. Sure, I budgeted, talked directors into signing on, arranged for rehearsal space, built websites, ordered postcards, bought snacks to sell during intermission, handed actors an envelope with a stipend. That’s part of being a playwright, isn’t it? There would be a point, I thought, when I passed all that off to other people, and just went to rehearsals, did rewrites, and read the program, rather than handing it out, on opening night.
Surely, all that would give way to…something simpler, less fraught. (And don’t call me Shirley). I was a playwright, not a producer.
After a wonderful production of my first full-length play, “To the Top,” at South Carolina’s Trustus Theater back in the last century, I realized…that wasn’t going to happen again very often. And if I waited for someone else to do it, I might be waiting a long time. I kept writing, and sending the plays out…and somewhere in there was accepted into the Turnip Festival with “I’m Gonna Run Away,” a play I was supposed to produce myself! “Oh shit,” I thought. And immediately called Peter Bloch, friend, fellow veteran of John Strasberg’s acting class, and someone who had already started to direct (including a staged reading of one of my short plays at Dixon Place). Peter took me in hand, and showed me what a director does, and gave me shoves in the direction of how to put a show together.
We won “Audience Favorite” that year at Turnip, which came with a check and a trophy. Peter and I went on to produce “The Space Between Heartbeats” at the Samuel French Festival (back when it was at the American Theater for Actors, where there were holes in the stage and about a dozen plays a night). The play was entered under the auspices of Mirror Repertory Company, an off-Broadway company, where I’d worked as assistant/general dogsbody, in one of the more learning-intensive jobs I’ve ever had, to Artistic Director Sabra Jones, and I considered it a great coup when I talked her into playing one of the parts. I didn’t however, actually SEE the performance, as I was backstage, holding up a flat.
Somewhere in there, I was acquiring a tribe: other playwrights who had work they wanted to be produced. We got together one weekend and came up with the idea of organizing a group to send out our work…then one of us suggested: why don’t we pool our resources and put up a night of our work? That is the 2-sentence version of how we formed En Avant Playwrights, with the considerable help of Tina Howe, our mentor at Hunter College.
We produced three nights of new work at Hunter’s Loewe Theater through En Avant over about two years, each playwright producing his or her own play, and all of us divvying up the responsibilities of the overall production. We got stronger in our skills, and connections, and found actors and directors we liked, and kept working with them. Some of us started producing our work elsewhere, with other companies, or on our own.
Karen Stanion in "Grieving for Genevieve."
Somewhere in there I went on a game show. That itself wasn’t unusual; I’ve been on five game shows. I call it “the new arts funding.” But I had my biggest score on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” winning $50,000 before walking away from a question I wasn’t sure I could answer (and it was a good thing, too, because I would have gotten it wrong).
Talking with Peter Bloch, I said: maybe we can produce a bunch of my short plays. And he said: why not a full-length? And I was stunned. I didn’t realize I could do that. So we applied to the Midtown International Theatre Festival with “Grieving for Genevieve,” and got in. We recruited a cast we liked, and had enough friends and followers to make some cool costumes, snag some unique props, and load it all into the wheelchair (which I bought off eBay when this guy’s mom got too fat for it), and pack it into the car (which I’d also paid off with the Millionaire winnings), aka the Propmobile, after each performance. We sold out most of the run, got some good reviews, and I didn’t have to go on (which looked like a distinct possibility when we lost one actor, Derin Altay, to an Equity regional gig…but I was able to convince another actor, Meghan Cary, who’d been in “A Bushel of Crabs” to learn the script in a long weekend and step into the role for the second half of the run).
Noelle Holly and Karen Stanion in "Rock the Line." (Yes, that's the same shirt).
Somewhere in there, I got involved with TOSOS II, when Doric Wilson took an interest in my work. “Send me something,” he said, and I sent him the full-length “Rock the Line,” and he said: “let’s read it.” We did a helluva reading…I’d asked Peter Bloch to direct, but he ended up in the hospital (not at my hand, I always remind people) and Doric found Steven McElroy to take over. We had a great cast, including Meghan Cary and Stephanie Deliani, from En Avant days, Karen Stanion from “Grieving for Genevive,” and Jamie Heinlein, from Mirror Rep days, among others. Paul Adams, of Emerging Artists Theatre asked if EAT could produce it. And they did, beautifully, and have since produced my plays “Some Are People,” “The Adventures of…” “One Small Step,” “Sharing the Pie,” “Staying Put,” and “Secret Angel,” (some of which I later produced again at the Universal Theater Festival in Provincetown).
Doric asked me to help with the Robert Chesley/Jane Chambers Playwrights Project, which presents staged readings of new work and revisits GLBT plays that need to be seen. And somehow, I failed to connect that if you present staged readings…you might end up producing them. I kept bringing in cool plays, and Doric and Mark Finley and Barry Childs of TOSOS kept mounting great readings…and you know something’s going to happen here, right?
Somewhere in there, “Rock the Line” won the Robert Chesley Award (which came with a check), and we took the money and went to Ireland…and discovered the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. I came back with the resolution that I’d find a way to get one of my plays there. EAT had produced “Some Are People,” directed by Mark Finley, with Karen Stanion, among others, at EATfest, and I thought it would be a perfect candidate for Dublin…along with two plays by Kevin Brofsky and Matt Casarino. Paul Adams said: well, you can go if you take responsibility for it, and I referred to myself as the Dublin “wrangler,” raising money, buying plane tickets, arranging for an invited dress rehearsal…and once there, handing out postcards, buying props, you know, all the stuff the playwright does.
Jamie Heinlein, Jason Alan Griffin and Hunter Gilmore in "The Adventures of..." at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.
We went back again the next year, at the invitation of Artistic Director Brian Merriman, with my “The Adventures of…” and J. Stephen Brantley’s “Break,” and TOSOS went with Chris Weikel’s “Pig Tale.” It was actually, well, not easier, but more familiar, the second time around.
Then Mark said: what if TOSOS produces Meryl Cohn’s “And Sophie Comes Too” in the NY Fringe? And I pretended like I wasn’t going to doing so much, because after all, it wasn’t my play, even though I’d brought it to TOSOS, and I love Meryl’s work (and Meryl). Somewhere in there, I found myself getting the postcards, and taking pictures to use until the real photo shoot happened, and chatting with reviewers I knew and…being on the crew for the shows when the other crew couldn’t be there. It was interesting to sit backstage and listen to the show, and hear stuff that told me things as a playwright; to feel the audience, and compare them from one show to the next, and put it all in the magic trunk to pull out in one form or another some other time.
The next summer, TOSOS produced The Five Lesbian Brothers’ “The Secretaries” in the Fringe, and I said YEAH when Mark announced it. And I was proud to be called Associate Producer. I’ve never been so thrilled to work on someone else’s play…or as pleased with the results. The quality of the work, and what we all brought to it, gave me as much joy as anything I’ve done in the theater.
Though at one point, sitting at the bar at Cowgirl, someone I sort-of-knew came up to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing publicity for her play…and I said: “No, I’m a playwright,” and it left me feeling… unsettled. How come she didn’t know I’m a playwright?
Later, at another EAT show, a friend introduced me to the person she was with, saying “And this is Kathleen…she’s a marvelous publicist and producer…” and I was surprised at how angry that made me, and reminded her: “no, I’m really a playwright…you were in one of my plays, remember?” (And I’m not marvelous. I’m competent, and occasionally inspired).
And somewhere in there, a couple of dear friends passed away, and I helped to produce their celebrations of life; because that’s what it is, when you have a theater, and music and performers, and video and lights and sound. It’s a production. How can you feel obligated or weird about that? Do a budget, arrange for programs, work out a running order…
And now, it’s 2012, and I’m wrangling… organizing…PRODUCING the world premiere of my play, “Outlook,” at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival for Emerging Artists Theatre, directed by Mark Finley, with Meghan Cary (from En Avant and Grieving for Genevieve and Rock the Line days), and Donnetta Lavinia Grays (another playwright who produces); Irene Longshore and Danielle Quisenberry from EAT, and Jen Russo as production stage manager; Jen who marched with me in the St. Pat’s for All Parade two weekends ago in Queens, carrying the Dublin banner.
I am a playwright. And producing the work is part of my job. I’m proud to be a member of the Honorary Awards Committee for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, because they are me: people who do it on inspiration, luck, talent, training and no money. We’re the direct descendents of the Caffe Cino, WOW, LaMama, and all other mothers and fathers of us; all the people in basements and the backs of bars, and Brooklyn, where the audience sits three feet away from the stage (if there’s a stage), and the bathroom is backstage (or not working at all), and when the lights go down, and the bells ring, you can almost hear Joe Cino say, “it’s magic time.”
It’s made me who I am today: a playwright. And a producer.
It’s also completely a manifestation of the economic and class system in America today…but that’s another story for another time.
Below is the IndieGoGo link to our fundraising campaign. You’ll probably be hearing from me soon. Because, you know, I'm a producer. And a playwright.