A Play’s Progress

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"Oh, Jack, don’t be such a bloody twit. Come back to Hawthornden." That was British biographer Hilary Spurling calling in spring 2002. But twit or not, I wasn’t interested in returning to Hawthornden Castle International Writer’s Retreat. It had been 1989 when Spurling and I first met at the quiet Scottish arts colony. The stay […]


"Oh, Jack, don’t be such a bloody twit. Come back to Hawthornden."

That was British biographer Hilary Spurling calling in spring 2002. But twit or not, I wasn’t interested in returning to Hawthornden Castle International Writer’s Retreat. It had been 1989 when Spurling and I first met at the quiet Scottish arts colony. The stay was productive, the company invigorating and the surroundings breathtaking. Why would I not want another fellowship to a 15th-century landmark with servants and free accommodations? Simple! Having been a quasi- "colony rat" for about a decade, Hawthornden had been my Xanadu. I had peaked. Memory preservation was imperative. Like Rocky Marciano . Joe Montana . Ted Williams . I wanted to go out on top.

But wait!

I recalled that the castle was but a quarter-mile walk to the unmarked main gate where the Edinburgh bus stopped. In half an hour I could be on Prince’s Street just minutes from the Royal Mile, which during August becomes the hub of the world’s greatest arts orgy, the Edinburgh Festival. And didn’t I have a 90-minute, two-character political play, the archetypal product for the off-center festival "fringe"? And wasn’t the play good enough to buck worldwide competition?

Perhaps I should call my own bluff.

So I rethought Hilary’s advice. A residency for autumn ’02 would allow me to scout Edinburgh venues for a summer ’03 production of my new opus. I’d pre-empt the opposition. So I reapplied and was promptly reaccepted to Hawthornden, admittedly because artists’ colonies are dramatist-deprived. Most playwrights savor creative time with other theater artists rather than novelists and poets. But since actors and directors eventually corrupt my product, why give them a leg up on the work-in-progress?

I arrived at Hawthornden in October and settled into Ben Jonson’s old bedroom. (Honest! During the winter of 1618-19, or so we’re told.) My colony companions were a Chinese novelist, an Irish poet and an Anglo-American children’s book author, "trying to write for grown-ups." Since we were here to create, I let it be known that I’d be going to town often in order to "research." If the retreat’s brass interpreted that to mean I was working on a play set in Edinburgh, so be it. I was actually working on setting a play in an Edinburgh theater. Close enough.

As a guest playwright at Mount Holyoke College a decade earlier, I hadn’t imagined that that experience would eventually lead me to Scotland. I’d been brought to Mount Holyoke to collaborate with history professor Daniel Czitrom on a large-cast play about the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. We were able to use 41 performers. You can do that when the actors are young, ambitious and paid in credits. The collaboration worked, and Czitrom and I even became friends. Soon afterwards, when I was at the Universidad de Salamanca on a Fulbright, Dan wrote me that two of his Bronx uncles had been Abraham Lincoln Brigade casualties in the Spanish Civil War. He included letters that they’d written home to his aunt, a firebrand member of the militant International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. The correspondence stopped when one uncle, Leo Gordon, was killed at Azuara, and the other, Joe Gordon, lost an eye at Jarama (which didn’t keep him from getting killed in WW II). The raw power of those letters from doomed young men made me think "drama."

But not immediately. First-during my Universidad de Salamanca tenure-I boned up on the Spanish Civil War, dragging my wife to the battle sites of Jarama, Teruel, Belchette and the creepy Valley of The Fallen, Franco’s monument to himself built by captive slave labor. Between the Czitrom family letters and my own fascination with the international involvement in a localized war against fascism, I returned to Sarasota ready to dramatize. But soon afterwards, I faced a real-life drama of my own when I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Theater be damned.

But in matters of health I got lucky-very lucky. And working on Red Bessie was a perfect tonic while I recovered.

Today, I can’t conceive of Bessie as anything other than a two-character play. But like architecture, theater is an art form dictated by pragmatism. Czitrom and I had developed a clear line of demarcation: He’d feed me history, I’d theatricalize it. When I suggested that the play should be about his aunt and not his uncles, I rationalized before he could object, "There are two actresses for every actor in the American theater. Thus there are twice as many good women performers as men. Thus it’s four times easier finding one good woman than two good men." He nodded in puzzlement, unaware that I hadn’t convinced myself of the theory.

Since it’s always ideal to find a model for a developing character, I approached a fine local singer/actress who had national credits. When she expressed an interest only if there’d be singing I said, "Why not?" I called Dan and proposed that his late aunt should sing.

D.C. "But she couldn’t carry a note in a basket!"

J.G. "So what? We’ll fabricate."

D.C. "But I’m a historian. I can’t bend the truth."

J.G. "Then write a book about her."

D.C. "She wasn’t that interesting."

J.G. "She would’ve been if she’d been a folksinger."

I won that one.

I had forgotten one thing as I wrote the text and researched The Little Red Songbook, a legendary tract not in the Sarasota library (who needs John Ashcroft?). Could my actress play an instrument? She responded, "My voice is my instrument." Good answer, but not the right one. I didn’t want to use a band; too expensive. An accompanist in a narrative play would be artificial. A second actor/singer was needed, one who played an instrument. When I phoned my co-author with my new angle he responded:

D.C. "This is getting out of hand. Just read the letters."

J.G. "An evening reading the mail?"

D.C. "It worked for Love Letters."

J.G. "A.R. Gurney created his letters. You’re a historian, remember? We wouldn’t want to fabricate."

As Dan was sputtering, I hung up.

But we negotiated, compromised and pushed until we had a solid draft by 2000. I appealed for a staging opportunity to Michael Judson and Charmaine McVicker, who were the Players Theatre’s administrators at the time, and they graciously took pity on the Red Bessie project. But the woman for whom I had written the work was busy. To this day, she’s never seen the play she inspired nor has she asked to read it.

I asked my old friend, Preston Boyd, to play the supporting role. Not only did he act, sing and strum with distinction, but he composed four original songs for the lyrics I’d written. Kim Perkins rescued us as Bessie after two other performers didn’t work out. We played to small but enthusiastic audiences and terrific notices by our few press attendees. I’ll be forever indebted to that intrepid company for setting the table.

By this time, Red Bessie had become a love story told in song and letters about two left-wing troubadours and the course of American radicalism, beginning with the Spanish Civil war in 1938 and ending with the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953. Bessie-aside from the "folkie" angle-was close to Czitrom’s aunt (youngish, Jewish and Marxist), and the man had become WASP-pacifist and influenced by the young Pete Seeger.

I returned from Scotland in November 2002 excited about returning the following summer to present the play in the Edinburgh festival, only to find that Preston and Kim would be occupied then. If I had my druthers-or just one druther-I wanted a real-life couple. That would allow for the 12 songs to be rehearsed by the pair on their own.

I auditioned prospects from Tampa to Naples. Traditionally, expenses for the fringe fest are undertaken by the artists. But we were offering transportation and board. One non-union couple also wanted a salary as well as a refocusing of the central character to the male actor. I asked if Ibsen would have changed Hedda Gabler to George Tesman. Exit that pair!

I was looking for actors who could sing when my friend, Monica Kennedy, suggested that I might look for singers who could act. She directed me to the folk group Not from Texas. It hardly bothered me that these locals named themselves as a George W. Bush send-up two years before the Dixie Chicks’ brouhaha. I knew two-thirds of the group, John Barron and Lauren Wood, so slightly that I wasn’t even aware that they were hitched-and had two babies. If I had known about the tots, I certainly wouldn’t have considered their parents. But they impressed me as singers and subsequently auditioned beautifully. They also said that bringing the two- and one-year-old along to Edinburgh was "no problem." With great trepidation, I proposed rehearsals to start sparingly in February. Great, they said, and requested that we rehearse at their house. Later I realized that this was calculated to melt my icy old heart amidst the kids. It worked.

When I warned that there’d be no local previews because of budget constraints, John shrugged and booked performances at Bradenton’s funkily wonderful Fogartyville Café and a fund raiser at the Celtic pub McSwiggin’s in Bradenton. Not to be outdone, I contacted Dick Morris at the Sarasota Film Society, who gave us space at Burns Court Cinema, and Lisa Confessore, who booked us at Art Center Sarasota.

Well into rehearsals, John casually dropped a bombshell. He’d have to go to Boston for his brother’s wedding, mid-fringe. He said that he’d fly from Europe and back in under a day in peak season. I estimated it would take three to four days, but before I could recast, he offered me an interim "Martin": Damon Bonetti, an MFA from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. The Barron/Woods had airline vouchers and would also bunk him (away from the kids).

That crisis aside, Lauren informed me that her mother was suffering from an incurable illness and could pass away over the summer. Before I could consider junking the whole project and forfeiting our considerable advance payment, the actors had another solution. We’d take the show to Lauren’s mother. By now, I was no longer questioning their sanity but I was starting to doubt my own, as I considered their proposal. Since John and Lauren had met as apprentices at Tony Award-winning Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, we could rent the mainstage, which was idle during the summer, on the cheap. Thus we’d get more previews and play to big crowds of hometown friends, including Lauren’s mom. It turned out to be a loving tribute to a brave and beautiful woman, and I was humbled to be a part of it. Most important, Lauren’s heartfelt performance gave a boost to her biggest booster.

So in late July, two actors, two babies, unflappable stage manager Naomi Miller and I flew to Scotland from Chicago after a whirlwind week of performances at Art Center Sarasota, Fogartyville Café and Victory Gardens (where we actually made a small profit). The fringe festival would practically be a respite.

In fact, during all my 30-some years as a playwright and over 100 productions, this 25-day run would turn out to be the most stressful-and the most satisfying. Satisfying because the play was an "artistic success." Stressful because in theater circles, that’s synonymous with "box office loss." We had anticipated brutal competition with 640 plays-"theatricals" is more like it-and 1,500 events going on during the festival. That, and our status as Edinburgh fringe neophytes, back-burnered us at the press office. But the lack of publicity was only one of the challenges we faced.

The previous fall I had settled upon a space for our production called Dining Room, in the Teviot Building of University of Edinburgh. But after a downtown fire in December, organizers made a concerted effort to sell me on a "much better deal" in another 120-seat space. I bought into the pitch.

When we arrived we discovered that we were half-a-mile from the box office up a dead-end alley, while Dining Room, my original venue, was just feet away from the newly created box office at Teviot. At aptly titled, 400-year-old Cave I, we played to one patron on the first day of previews. But we considered that a blessing, since we were treating it as a just-off-the plane rehearsal. We would have preferred no one.

Soon after the lights came up on our 90-minute, intermission-less "play with music," I determined that our young viewer was writing feverishly. A critic! At a preview? While we were working out the kinks? Dirty pool! When the play ended with Lauren’s militant gesture to her offstage adversary, I made a beeline to the unscrupulous "critter."

J.G. Excuse me, but I’m the co-author and-

CRIT (British accent) Congratulations, I loved it.

J.G. (Pause . reflection .smile) Can I buy you a pint, lad?

And he did love it. Writing for the arts journal, Three Weeks, Ron Nussey concluded, "See Bessie while you still can-a brilliantly illuminating, frequently hilarious political show." Unfortunately, the review didn’t break for 10 days.

On Aug. 3 we opened. Since few veterans from the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War were still around, we had offered them free admission. Glasgow’s 95-year-old James Maley showed up with his large family. We took pictures and presented him with an authentic International Brigades T-shirt. He sang along on Jarama Valley and Vive La Quince Brigada. Lauren wept when she paid post-play tribute to this old gentleman, who had fought valiantly to stop Hitler in Spain. Floating on air, we went to the press representative-for whom we were mandated to pay $800-but he’d never heard of the Spanish Civil War, thus no coverage. Had this guy gone to school in the States?

Dan Czitrom arrived in week two and loved the end result. We all pitched in and busked (performed free scenes) daily on High Street in the spirit of the fringe. Damon deplaned and performed seamlessly. The two actors gave different performances but nothing suffered. The strong reviews kept flowing in, and the audiences, although sparse, were impressed. After one performance, I noticed a youngish couple reluctant to rise. The woman assured me, "We’re OK . just stunned. Grand, it was."

The company never faltered, never became discouraged by the lack of patrons. After all, some really good shows by newfound friends were faring far worse. Word about Red Bessie had spread to the London Times Literary Supplement, the world’s major literary weekly; and Keith Miller chose us as one of only seven shows, three from the fringe, to review. Of the seven-including some London big-budget productions-we were judged second to none (". clear-headed and humane.more fun than might be expected of such a high-minded project."). Alas, the TLS review was published a week after we returned home.

Was the trip worth it? Well, we never played to a full house. What’s more, Dan and I lost money despite the generosity of Sarasota-Bradenton preview audiences, in particular Peggy D’Albert, June and Bill Gordon, Margo Rogers Drewis and David Smith (another playwright-will wonders never cease?). And even more in particular thanks to my wife, Jo Morello, whose insight, guidance and patience with my computer deficiencies saved me a small fortune.

But I know that every member of our tiny band would say, "Absolutely worth it!" We met swell people from around the world, including a group of ex-miners from Cowdenbeath who had been "Thatchered" in the ’80s and had taken a shine to our political theme. We saw lots of other international plays and bowed to none. We garnered six four-star and one three-star review (of seven). And we established a rapport with each other that will last for the rest of our lives.

William Goldman, in his wonderful "insider’s book" The Season, contends that as the stakes escalate the work becomes less and less the dramatist’s vision, because he/she loses "the muscle." That’s one more reason to cherish this experience with the definitive company of Red Bessie-now and forever.

Jack Gilhooley was recently awarded the first John Ringling Fund Artists Fellowship Program Grant by the Sarasota County Arts Council for his play, Gulf Wars. The book Three Plays by Jack Gilhooley will be published this year by Broadway Play Publishers.

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