Tuesday, January 5, 2010

'For Brenda, Vince, Aurel, and Gerry, Once We Were Kings'

Wow! Yesterday was a fast and furious day. Still lots to do, my sub-lease is up a week from Saturday, so it's looking for another place to live. Tonight, I'm going to the Broken Spoke, (an old honky-tonk place here in Texas) to meet with Carl, (an old cowboy Viet Nam vet) who came and saw the show and is trying to 'book' me there. (Not in Viet Nam, The Broken Spoke) Of course, Carl wants me to go to Afghanistan as well, which I'm not to keen on. Still, he's one interesting cat, and fell in love with the show. Aaah, the kindness of strangers. Today, at the dog park, I met a geologist named Wyatt, who was having an argument the night before with his roommates on whether there was a Boulder, Utah, or not. I assured him there was, and not to go on about it, but the dog park makes the world go around. How on earth can one explain this conversation? You can't.

I'm discovering that I'm loving this blog world. Its similar to the way I used to feel when I brought a fresh piece of theatre into the playwriting workshop at Playwright's Workshop Theatre. It was always exciting, even when the piece or play didn't work. The playwriting workshops were such a vital part of my growth as a writer, I learned that if something I wrote caused an argument, then I had something worth pursuing. If the reception was warm and polite, I knew I had nothing. I learned how to listen to writing, and how to analyze it. So much of it in the early days was instinctual, and later became pretty accurate. Over the years, there was such a variety of plays, going into the theatre daily to hear the new work develops in one an objectivity, when at the beginning it was simply hearing what I liked. As the ear gets better, the subjectivity begins to subside, and a certain kind of mastery takes its place. When I say mastery, I'm not speaking of myself, I'm speaking of a collective mentality that comes when a group of people work together for a long time. Although many people would come and go, (usually after learning that playwriting is not as easy as they thought) there was a group for many years at Playwright's Workshop Theatre that stayed together. We watched each others' plays go up. We acted in each others' plays. We developed them, sometimes multiple times. For over a decade, we did something extraordinary.

I believe this work culminated to its pinnacle when we did Brenda Edward's play, (Duel Pardoning) Marshal Mason said in his review, "Its extraordinary that a group here in Phoenix could nurture and produce such a play..." That said it all, how could he have known it was twelve years of work? (and also because Brenda was a hell of a playwright) A work that so many tried to ignore and pretend it didn't exist? Most of the time, people seemed to think that we did not have the credentials to do what we were in fact, DOING. For example, one of our lowest attended shows we produced and nurtured, was a play called, 'The Snowstorm', written by a Romanian dissident (Aurel Badieu) who was a physicist in Romania, (because they made him be one). The play was performed one other time at the French Embassy in Bucharest, after which he was expelled from the country. After it was translated, I found another political dissident from The Czech Republic who was a director. If that was not enough, it was within two months of the Berlin Wall coming down, and it was an anti-communist play, metaphorically disguised in a train station where no one could leave because of a snowstorm. Both the playwright and director where both very much involved in the production of the play, often having some difficulty communicating with each other, even though they were both from Eastern Europe. There were fifteen actors who braved the production, and it was virtually ignored by the public and the press. I remember thinking, this production is light years away from any kind of thinking here, and I was correct, no one could wrap their minds around a small theatre group on the edge of the desert doing a project with such dynamic ramifications. This was one of many of the stories we created there.

How about the play my mother, Gerry wrote, 'The Prince From Saturn' which dealt with a homeless man and his wife, (who my mother let live with her for a time) who thought he was brought here to earth by a griffin. Not only was it a spectacular production, but one night, the six characters that the play was based on, were all sitting in the audience watching the actors playing them perform. It was an extraordinary night in theatre. It changed my life as to what effect theatre could have on peoples' lives. For the run of this play, a man who was virtually obscure in a society, became a star, his life being told on stage. Another amazing part of that production was going to my mother's house, (in the roughest housing project in Phoenix at the time) and loading up her entire living room for the set. How could a 'critic', and Phoenix, begin to wrap its mind around this kind of a project? They couldn't, and proceeded to review it like it was another production of 'The Odd Couple'. It was though the press were ready to pounce on us to prove that we weren't really doing this extraordinary work. The stories go on and on, which I will write about in detail in my book. Virtually ever play we did, exploded with the story behind the play.

There was the story of 'Writer's Block', written by one of my very special students, Vince Sorren, (I taught him for four years) who contracted the HIV virus in the early nineties, who acted in his own play, (directed brilliantly by Brenda) who did the play in September, and died on Christmas Eve that December. He was only twenty-four, his last gift to the world. Not only did I get death threat calls for doing the play, but the press virtually ignored that play and that story. IT WAS LIFE AND DEATH in the theatre! How could you possibly ignore it? Think about it. The nut jobs who wanted to stop it didn't ignore it at all, but THE PRESS DID! I know, I'm sounding a little bitter, but I really do look at it with some perspective. Bitterness, I believe, is the enemy of the artist, and has stalled many a career. Whether the theatre community in Phoenix chooses to ignore this amazing history, I know that these things happened! I was there witnessing all of them, and somehow keeping it going. If it had not been for the neurotic forces that where tearing it apart, (every family has dysfunctional elements) I believe it would still be alive today. "God chooses the foolish things in the world to confound the wise..." I believe that in some ways, our ignorance played a magnificent part in all of this, We didn't know we were supposed to have credentials to do the impossible. We didn't know we weren't supposed to create, (actually twelve years) 1988 - 2000, RIP, a theatre diet of only new plays. Something like eighty five new plays. Were we foolish? Maybe, but maybe that city was foolish in not supporting it the way they could have...

"Oh, memory, Oh light, land upon my skin again, I shall sing a different song, I shall sing louder and clearer, I shall sing with the heft of wisdom..." R Shurtz

So sweet, really, to think of these memories and write them down, for a little while, I was returned, reliving, my palms sweating, the excitement rising up in my spirit in the same way it used to then, we were warriors, we were theatre kings, with a few 'queens', to give us some color. We did the impossible, and only 'we' who experienced it know, and some small part of the universe...

5 comments:

caroline said...

"...we were warriors, we were theatre kings and queens. We did the impossible, and only 'we' who experienced it know, and some small part of the universe..."

So you still are.

Gerry said...

I am already excited by the book you will be able to write about the history of Playwrights Theater Company, because you lived it! I have thought how so many times if the newspaper's theater critic does not see the opportunity to bring life to a community by featuring the work of local playwrights, it can be as though it never happened, but all of us who got our plays up know that it did happen. There were a lot of theater critics covering the beat the time with the afternoon paper, The Phoenix Gazette, still in existence and covering theater, as well as the Mesa Tribue whose theater critic, Max McQueen, never missed a production once he started coming. The coverage and the reviews were hit and miss. It was as though the 'hard boiled' newspaper people could not relinquish their skepticism about the talent being out there to embrace our nerve and conviction that we could develop and stage great plays with great themes, and whether they believed it was happening or not, we did it! People who did not see enough of the work will think your history is fiction, which makes me laugh because so many of us can bear witness that this was the most exciting period of our playwright lives...

kanyonlandking-annk.blogspot.com said...

The story you tell is the story behind the story and needs to be known. How could people know what actually happened...was happening when the play went on.
As we link to the world, we need to know what becomes important. This is a novel you should write as only you can. Keep remembering!
(interesting that the word today is rembr)

Chuckh said...

Yeah, I got there just near the end. Too bad, I would have loved it.

DB said...

Raymond you have exorcised out of my artificial forced retirement important memories of my many years in theatre. The story of theatre is theatre itself. A story many people don't understand or even know about, especially critics. Theatre has its own special God, it's own special Spirit, and to become acquainted with the Spirit is a rare and wonderful gift which only the performer can enjoy.

I was associated for many years with the Cricle Rep Lab in NYC where all we did were new plays. Excellent actors, most of them working actors, we pushed our best talent and artistry through the grid of a script that had never been done before, discovering its beauty and strength, and its importance. Sometimes some of them, but by no means the best, would go on to Broadway. But that was superfluous. Otherwise we were, as you say, ignored.

Please write your book Raymond. We need it.

DB