“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.
I had to choose between being with my people last night and being with my people. This is what happens when you wear too many hats.
What I mean is that there were I was invited to two awards ceremonies. One was the Lammies, the Lambda Literary Awards, the annual celebration of the best literature in the GLBT community. I was a judge in one category, a nominee in another. But in the same city, at the same time, there were also the Lilly Awards: the third annual celebration of women playwrights, by women playwrights, that honors our own, and the people who love us.
I am a woman, a writer, a playwright, a queer person (in so many ways it’s multi-dimensional). And it’s become clear to me over the years that such distinctions are specious and no one has the right to ask you to define yourself or put those categories in an order. You might as well say: I’m a little finger. I’m a pancreas. It’s impossible. They were honoring one of the people I love most in the world at the Lilly Awards, so the decision was easy: Playwrights Horizons, 42nd St., with bells on, for Tina Howe.
Theresa Rebeck, Julia Jordan & Marsha Norman.
As I took my place in the auditorium, next to a playwright we’ve decided is my long-lost cousin, I looked around and saw many people I knew: people I’d met through Tina; writers whose work I’d discovered and fallen in love with and just walked up to; people from up North and down South, and on the Internet. Not so many from Downtown, but I carry that particular state of mind with me wherever I go. We Independents represent whether we’re in a church basement with a pole in the middle of the stage, or in the ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental listening to Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli honor John Kander (where we’d been the night before, because we won tickets to the Dramatists Guild gala).
Tim Sanford, Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, resplendent in his “Miss Lilly” sash, an honor accorded to brothers who are also sisters, remarked that he is SO glad that The Lilly Awards are now a “thing.” He welcomed us, and introduced the divine Estelle Parsons to give the Invocation. Ms. Parsons spoke of her childhood (in the late ‘30s), discovering her voice in community theater, run as so many were, by a woman with intelligence and taste, who wanted more than the role prescribed to her by society at the time. Parsons, who would be honored later, finished with a rousing “Onward!”
Then the founders: playwrights Theresa Rebeck, Marsha Norman and Julia Jordan welcomed us, and reminded us that the reason they’d called us all together again was that just three years ago, they’d watched as awards season left the station with no women on board…and they’d decided to throw their own party, and created the Committee for the Recognition of Outstanding Women in Theater. As my shrink says to me each time I leave him: “Remember, Kathleen, living well really IS the best revenge.”
There was a delicious tension in the air as the women spoke of the need for self-recognition and celebration. The adjective “angry” was batted around, like a balloon, or a badge of honor. I’ve found that the word “angry,” depending on who is applying it, is often used as a weapon against someone who has a legitimate concern…or by someone who is frightened of what’s being said or asked.
David Ives, Miss Lilly of 2012.
There were a total of 10 awards given, for writing, directing, acting, design, and all around awesomeness. (I’m not sure that’s an actual category; if it’s not, it should be).
Joyce Ketay led off presenting the first Lilly, for directing to Diane Paulus, whose long resume includes the Broadway productions of “Porgy & Bess” and “Hair,” and who is the artistic director of A.R.T. Paulus accepted with alacrity (because she had to go off to a fundraiser for her own theater) and invited the women present to send her their plays, bring her projects they want to create or direct.
David Ives then came onstage to present the acting award to the divine (an actual goddess in his play, “Venus in Fur,”) Nina Arianda. The multi-tasking Arianda, who was scheduled to perform for the President in a few hours, also took the time to speak movingly of her parents, especially her mother, as well as the writer who created the character she brought to life. And she also stuck around to present this year’s “Miss Lilly” award to Ives: complete with red silk sash, bouquet of flowers, and tiara, which Ives wore for the rest of the evening. Because that’s the kind of guy who is worthy of the title “Miss Lilly.”
Tonya Pinkins then came to the stage to present a writing Lilly to Katori Hall, whose “The Mountaintop” had a successful run on Broadway last season (after its Olivier Award-winning run in London), and whose “Hurt Village” (starring Pinkins) was also seen at the Signature. Hall showed both gratitude and vigilance, reminding the audience: “We still have so much work to do.”
Director Trip Cullman presented the next writing award to Leslye Headland, who is about to make her directorial debut with the film of her play, “Bachelorette.” (and also wrote this season’s “Assistance.”) Headland talked about once having had a fear of writing, and urged everyone to get over it…and she spoke movingly of Wendy Wasserstein as a mentor and friend.
Acclaimed set designer Louisa Thompson presented the next award to Sarah Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep, whose award-winning work has included a production of Sarah Kane’s “Blasted” and new works by such wonderful playwrights as Annie Baker and Young Jean Lee. Benson was giving birth (pretty much) last year when she was first offered the award, and came back this year to talk about both artistry and motherhood.
It was a theme mentioned by several of the women presenting and receiving awards: how they had been told that women “stepped away” when they had children, and couldn’t keep up their artistic careers…and then they told stories about how they’d done it (with the support of other artists, and also by multitasking such functions as tech rehearsals and breastfeeding.
Marsha Norman presented the next award to Heidi Ettinger, whose many designs have shaped and enhanced Broadway plays, musicals, national tours, and operas. She designed the set for Norman’s “ ‘Night Mother,” and “The Secret Garden,” as well as the original production of Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches,” among many others.
The next award was for musical acting, and went to Christin Milloti, and was presented to her by her co-star Lucas Pappaelias, who brought his guitar to the stage and serenaded her with a song of his own composition, which cited her various credits and had a chorus of “I get to party with Christin Milloti.” Christin broke the “f-word” barrier (and apologized profusely to her parents), and while it got used a time or two more, no one else really worked blue.
Tina and me. She gave me that necklace, of course.
Then Robyn Goodman presented the Lifetime Achievement award to Tina Howe. She said “Tina Howe is her own most gorgeous creation,” and that she is a “great winged beauty,” which she is.
As for me, I can’t begin to find words to say how much Tina has meant to me as a teacher and a friend. She’s someone who has touched so many lives…one by one…that there are generations of us whose hopes and views have been shaped by her kindness and wisdom.
And Tina accepted the award in her inimitable fashion, citing her traumas as a schoolgirl, and her awakening to Ionesco, and how she put the “white gloves” on as a playwright, in order to be heard, while keeping her surreal, sublime vision close and visible to those who look.
And Estelle Parsons was brought back to the podium for her award by Frances McDormand, who also knows a thing or two about making a playwright’s work sing.
Then we all levitated and went across the street to the West Bank Café, where everyone mingled and consumed potent potables, and I’m so glad that the Lillies are a “thing” and not an institution, where we can repair to the bar after, and talk and get an eyeful of each other and tell stories, and pass the pizza and realize: we got it going on. And say “thank you.” To the women who’ve come this far, and the ones who are making it happen now, and pushing the ones after us into the future.
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.
I came to New York City to be among writers and artists, including imaginary ones. Some real writers have become my best friends, and some of the ones I made up have served me pretty well, too.
I have a show opening next Monday, June 6 at 7:30pm; The Last Dream of Arky Malarkey
will be in evening A of the East Village Chronicles, Vol 7
, along with Bitter Fruit from the Bowery
, by Larry R. Yates, The Pretty Young Girl
by Claudia Barnett, and Three Rooms. Inspired by a Totally True Story. Or Three.
by Michael Ian Walker, all four plays are directed by Laura Livingston.
The festival runs through June 26 at the Metropolitan Playhouse in the (wait for it) lovely & fragrant East Village on 220 E. 4th St., almost right across the street from Kate’s Joint, which is a vegetarian bar. Beer & fried tofu things! Tickets range from $10 to $20 and you can get a festival pass for $40 here
Evening B of the festival includes The Philosophers
by Robert Anthony; Stained Glass
by Lawrence DuKore; Baby Marty
by Bryce Richardson; and Big Black Mexican Woman
by Alberto Bonilla, directed by Andrew Firda.
Russell Jordan in "Sharing the Pie."
The company playing all the work is Paul Bomba, John Fennessy, Sidiki Fofana, Kate Geller, Emily Gittelman, Ralph Pochoda, Russell Jordan, Gordon Kupperstein, Rob Maitner, and Teresa Stephenson. (Russell was in my play “Sharing the Pie” at Emerging Artists Theatre and in Provincetown!) The cast of “Arky” is John Fennessy and Kate Geller.
And the third leg of the festival (what? You’ve never heard of a 3-legged festival?) is Alphabet City VII
, six solo shows based on the lives of real people, who are East Village Residents. That’s directed by my EAT
colleague Derek Jamison, Evening A features Abraham Sparrow
as Alex Sanders
, a Hondler (A guy who makes things happen -Yiddish
) Retired? Age 85; Jane O’Leary as
Patricio Jardines, colorist/stylist, former drag queen; Me’Lisa Sellers
as Frances Goldin, human rights activist, radical literary agent. Evening B is Clare Barron
as James Tigger! Ferguson
, "The Godfather of Boylesque" & "The Original King of Boylesque”, Joel Putnam as
Danny Cornyetz, Video Jockey; From a little home studio came one of the first hip-hop music videos at the dawn of a national sensation; and Keri Setaro
as Miss Aurora Cenzia
, MA, Director, Virginia Day Nursery Episcopal Social Service, impacts the lives of up to 5,000 New Yorker annually.
This is my second time in the Chronicles, which present new work that’s based on the lives and times of one of the most interesting neighborhoods in New York City. A couple years back, they did my Joey Ramone play, All Good Cretins Go to Heaven
, another of my imaginary histories/encounters. (That play is published in Best Short Plays 2009
by Smith & Kraus )
Each year, the Metropolitan Playhouse (and its handsome artistic director, who has exquisite taste) Alex Roe, send out a call for short plays about their neighborhood. This year, I pulled out “Arky,” which I wrote for the last festival, but it didn’t get in. I am nothing if not stubborn. (It’s actually my second play about a dying poet, but the other one is set in the West Village, so it’s not eligible. Also, it’s published
Amy Fulgham and Will Cefalo in "All Good Cretins..." East Village Chronicles 5.
I love having a real setting for the characters’ lives. I realize that I’ve written a number of plays which are imaginary histories of real people (like Amelia Earhart and Joey Ramone), or in which fictional characters participate in historical events. And as I wrote, I did something I rarely (if ever) do, which is write a bio for the character.
The bio helped me figure out my poet’s timeline, and as I worked out his age, and how old and where he might have been from birth to death, the story took shape. He became a kind of East Village Zelig, crossing paths with the great and the subway grate, rubbing elbows with people I wish I’d met. I liked the bio so much, I put it in the stage directions. It’s not performed or read in the play, though it could be a program note. It was for me and for the actors and director, so they’d know just who this man is. But since I have a blog, I thought I’d share it here.
If there were an entry for Arky Malarkey in A Guide to Modern American Poets, this is what it would be:
ARKADY (“ARKY”) MALARKEY: (1918-1988) b. New York City. The poet known as Arky Malarkey was born on the Lower East Side of New York City in a tenement on East 7th Street. His parents were Sofia Gorki Malarkey (b. 1900, Uglich, Russia, d. 1933, New York City) and Francis X. Malarkey (b. 1895, Limerick, Ireland, d. 1918, New York City). Francis Malarkey died in the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, and Sofia worked as a seamstress in a garment factory to support herself and her son. The factory closed in 1930, and Arkady, known as Arky, left school. He held a variety of jobs, from newsboy to dishwasher to theater usher. He also sang songs and told stories in the saloons of the Lower East Side. He began selling “Poems for a Penny,” then a nickel, then a dime, impromptu verse he made up, and sometimes wrote down. He’s mentioned in a Joseph Mitchell “Talk of the Town” piece in the New Yorker ca. 1940. It’s thought Arky Malarkey introduced Mitchell to his fellow street poet, Joe Gould (see Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell). When Irina Malarkey died in 1933, leaving her son on his own at the age of 15, he claimed never to have had a fixed address again, except for “U.S. Army” from 1942-46. After his discharge following WWII (where he case of malaria, which recurred throughout his life), Malarkey returned to the streets of New York, and was on the periphery of several Postwar literary, theater and social movements, including the Beats, and off-off Broadway. In the early 1960s, he gravitated to the experimental theater scene in Greenwich Village, and he performed his poetry at Café La Mama, the Caffe Cino and Judson Poets Theatre. The Rev. Al Carmines, Jr. staged a series of Malarkey’s poems as a dance piece, with music by David Amram. Diane Arbus photographed him with his shopping bags of poems, in front of the offices of The Village Voice, which occasionally published his poems, and to which he often wrote letters to the editor. Malarkey lived in a series of abandoned buildings and squats on the Lower East Side through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Several early punk bands embraced him as a mascot and inspiration, and he was sometimes seen outside of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City with the likes of Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. He spent most of his summers in Tompkins Square Park, where he was present for the Tompkins Square Riots in August, 1988. Witnesses report that Malarkey sustained a head injury when he was trampled by a police horse. He broke into an apartment in the building where he was born. The tenant called for medical help, but Malarkey collapsed and died before assistance arrived. The city coroner ruled he died of traumatic brain injury. No charges were filed.
You better hold on
Something's happening here
You better hold on
Meet you in Tompkins Square
--Lou Reed, “Hold On”
See you in the East Village.