In 1997, Playwright's Workshop Theatre produced 'The Fish Must Die'. It was the 'back stage' play that many playwright's write after a couple of decades of to much time on the inside of a theatre. The play opens in the greenroom/dressing room of a small-dilapidated theatre, (the actual stage of the theatre is unseen). When the lights rise, this backstage area is open to the audience view, giving them the full inside of 'what happens backstage' before or after a show. The audience first hears the actors who are still performing and reciting the play, a very melodramatic ending of a very pretentious 'environmental' play. When the actors off stage finish, a 'smattering' of claps can be heard off stage, (performed live by the actors and stage manager), and the actors enter the backstage area, clearly angry with each other after what has occurred on stage. One of the actors (the forest ranger) is clearly a gay man, as his side of the stage represents his eccentric tastes, on the other side, a very straight cowboy, his half of the stage reflecting his 'womanizing and drinking' lifestyle. I always loved this beginning for a play because it just reverses what actually happens in a play, and, instead of an opulent setting you might find backstage of say a large 'downtown' theatre, you find one that is on its last legs. And as a company, this statement could not have been more prophetic, our legs were very wobbly.
I wrote the play for several reasons, the first being that I wanted to write a straight out farce, and make fun of the compilation of everything I'd seen working in theatres. The next reason is that I wanted everyone who worked in these small theatres to see a little bit of themselves in each of the characters, or maybe just one or two of them. I wanted the theatre community to know that this play was based and written for several of the local theatre 'activists', and in return, could get an audience. My theory did prove true in this regard, as the normal reticent theatre community came to see if it was 'them' indeed in the play. Oh, and I also wanted to make a little fun of a local artistic director who always ignored me whenever we were in a room together, as if I was someone who was not worthy of his presence or opinions. Note to artistic directors/producers: Don't ever continually snub a playwright, you might find yourself caught in a farce and come off looking like an ass… he did, and it was very funny. (Don't worry, I don’t' think he ever lost any sleep, but he did actually begin to talk to me after that, can you imagine?) The other reason I wrote the play was because of a sign in the post office in Boulder, Utah where I always spent my summers. The sign said, 'Save the Fish!' Without getting into the particulars, the local fishermen and cowboys in the area were trying to 'save' some local trout from being poisoned, and it was during a 'save the whales' period that was basically ridiculed by some of the same political groups that were saving the fish. I just thought it was very funny, (not for the fish) and really, politics do become very localized when it gets right down to it. All of these experiences evolved into 'The Fish Must Die!'
The 'back-story' of the play within a play (that you never see) is that of a forest ranger, who is working underground for the 'save the fish' group, and his antagonist, the cowboy government agent who has been sent to stop the forest ranger from 'saving the fish'. I can still laugh at this scenario this morning, because you can make this stuff up, but the truth of it all is still stranger than the play.
So, the characters in the play. The gay actor who plays the forest ranger, the drunken cowboy actor plays the government agent, the director of the play who is having a sexual identity crisis, the very pretentious playwright, a 'born again' Christian stage manager who swears like a sailor, and lastly, the very crazy woman who has been stalking the cowboy actor after he never called her back. Think these are 'made-up' scenarios? You would only be partially correct! The play would be produced five times. Three times in Phoenix, once in NYC, and once in Australia. In retrospect, it really deserves more production, and not just because I wrote it and think it’s a very funny play, more because of the dedicated work of the actors who really have to get credit for its development. (I had to say that do you feel better actors?) There are so many lines in the play that I 'stole' from actors having fun. I think the play still has a very original premise, and I think it speaks a very powerful underlying message to this day about what is so crazy about doing a play, and specifically in Phoenix. At the time I did the play, Playwright's Workshop Theatre was beginning to experience many of these same crazy themes running through it, and though I think that we had evolved to the point where I think we were doing very good work, like a rock band that have all become heroin addicts, like a family whose neurosis had reached a point of nonfunctioning dysfunction, like an old west town that was running riot with drinking, sexual escapades, and a very self destructive mayor, it was near the end of its run. I was drinking episodically, the managing director had become dysfunctional, the actors who were becoming playwrights were out of control and bitchy, the funds where 'skimpy', the building that housed the theatre was about to be 'leveled' for condominiums, Bill Clinton was being impeached, the guy living in one of the rooms at the theatre was mentally unstable, the managing director's son was having sex with all my actresses, the puppet theatre we housed was leaving us, the equipment was failing, and well… you get the picture. Again, in retrospect, when you are in the middle of all of this, it's very hard to rationalize and glean a justification for keeping it going, the 'can't see the forest for the trees' scenario, we were definitely 'spun' at this point.
I think the play was a subconscious attempt at seeing the humor in all of this; however, it was coming to a close. Within a year, Playwright's Workshop Theatre would move to another building, (which would continue on for about a year after that) I would go to NYC to do this same play there, (I would also would reach a bottom where I would almost destroy myself from living out my characters' dysfunctions) and as with a lot of groups that began with a lofty goal and a righteous mission statement, it would implode and then explode, and not in the 'exploding' good way. Although I gained many years of experience and learned the painstaking craft of theatre in every little nook and cranny, I was definitely ready for a re-invention. When 'The Fish Must Die' hit NYC, it was a fantastic experience, which I'll write about at another time. It was rife, however, with a very theatrical 'back story', and is probably directly responsible for a divorce, a break-up, a bankruptcy, a couple of fist fights, an arrest, and God only knows whatever else happened that I can't remember because I was drinking and carousing every night. There was interest from a very 'real' producer there, who was willing to put $30,000 dollars in the play to keep it running if I could find another 30,000, but I was more interested in 'runnin' and gunnin' at the time. I did return to Phoenix and get sober, and I re-produced the play to try and find interested parties to help finance the other half of it in NYC, but like lots of plays eventually do, it fell on a pile of memories, and well I, began a teaching career.
In many ways I think the original cast of the play was the best one, (although I didn't see it in Australia). Chuck Hinckly in the lead role had the chops, the intelligence, and the likeability factor to really make that character fly, and he is definitely the key. The rest of the cast were also great in their roles. Jim Gulliford went on to play the forest ranger on a mission with me in the role of the cowboy in another Phoenix production. Eva reprised her role as the 'stalker girlfriend', and various other actors came into the other roles, Judith Eisenberg noteworthy as the 'Jesus driven stage manager', Elaine Boothby as the playwright. The NYC production had some brilliant performers. Kent Harding, who was also living to close to this cowboy's self-destruction, (which actually didn't really serve the play), played the cowboy character there. All of it is a great story, and could be a book in itself. The I theatre Collaborative production in Phoenix several years later was a good one except for the lead cowboy character who was unfortunately miss-cast, because the rest of the play was really cast well. Robert X Planet, as the 'theatre director with a sexual identity crisis' was brilliant in the role.
Just so you have an idea of what went into that play, I still have over eight different versions of it, almost four hundred pages of dialogue to get the final 110 pages, and a very interesting and colorful history of various art work, programs, and posters. I can pick up the 'last' version of the play, read it and think, my God! What I went through, 'again' to get a play. All of these years later, there is so much of the sub-text of that play that rings even truer with the wisdom of time. When the main character of 'Tom' gives his climatic monologue of why he did theatre in the first place, and how 'spun' and disillusioned, and jaded he had become is such a powerful statement of truth. In its truth, Tom is at once heroic and tragic, a womanizing drunk who really did once have notions of nobility when he started out as a young idealistic actor. Boy, does that ring a bell. The fact that all of the characters have a 'moment of truth' in the final scene when they all seem to be on the path of rediscovering there original vision, is a scene that is haunting, because in the theatre these 're-discoveries' so often occur in the light of the high of a post performance, only to be dashed again at the light of day the next morning.
Its difficult to access the play in terms of critical analysis, although I garnished some really good reviews for the play, however, Chris Curcio of the Arizona Republic was furious at the play. If there was ever a critic who took himself to seriously, it was Chris Curcio. He lashed out at ideas he could have had such a good time laughing about. Kyle Lawson 'got' the play, and even though I think he approached it as fluff, at least he had the good sense to see it as something that was approaching a reality that exists in the theatre. The critic in Brisbane, Australia loved the play, and gave it a rave. I put a line in the play, "I refuse to be affected by a review of a one-eyed theatre critic with vodka on his breath…" There was actually a theatre critic in Phoenix who wore an eye patch to performances, (such a tasty metaphor!) who was arrested once for carrying a gun on his person after a show. I suppose in Arizona, he may have believed that being a theatre critic could result in a gun battle, and he may have had warranted fear. (I used to get drunk and call Christopher McPherson up in the middle of the night after a bad review) I never threatened him, but I did rake over a few coals. I still so love the theatre! My God, how could you ever make this stuff up!
I'm feeling a little sorrowful about 'Bohemian Cowboy' this morning, because even though I don't think its life is finished, there were so many good plays that have passed on to a crate in a closet. So much life created in those pages, so much success, but like an actor who dies much to young, so many of these plays died the same fate. Where are all the theatre producers? Have we reached a point in American History where a committee decides the fate of a play? Hell, I'm nostalgic once again, someone take me out for lunch and a talk about yesteryear…