Short of being an air controller in a busy airport when the weather’s iffy, there’s nothing like the insecurity, nail-biting suspense and sheer terror of being one of only three remaining repertory companies in the entire nation. I’m talking about the Asolo, of course, where I’m a new board member watching from the wings. And that’s quite close enough to feel the pain.
Mounting three shows in three weeks back in November would have been feat enough. Then consider that two of the plays were world premieres. And one of them, Men of Tortuga, features Mamet-like, uncuddly men who use nasty language. You’re right up there on the high wire without a net.
Opening night of Men of Tortuga reminded me of the world premiere of my play Strokes at American Repertory Theatre, which was a repertory theatre like this but isn’t anymore because repertory is very tough. The same actors have to play different roles in different plays every other day or so for three months, instead of the usual regional theater run of playing one character six times a week for one month. It means you have to import some actors for the season (and then where do you put them?), use actors from the conservatory where young actors are being trained, and of course, maintain the standing company while praying that everyone stays healthy.
Choosing exactly the right mix of plays to accommodate all those actors’ special talents is challenge enough. But when you add in the task of pleasing all the audiences all the time, you could lose your mind—and the community’s support.
Even though I’d been through a few as a playwright myself, I never really understood until now what a profound commitment a theater makes when it launches something untested to an audience it desperately needs to keep coming back. Michael Donald Edwards, producing director of the Asolo, explains the obvious: Plays that have had successful runs elsewhere have the stamp of approval on them already. Somebody else took the risk. Men of Tortuga’s director and Asolo associate artistic director Greg Leaming told the board at the November meeting that when you direct text that has been done before, the road is already paved. You may choose to veer off, but you know where the tears and laughs are and how the play holds together.
“Directing a new play is discovering how it’s supposed to work, where to push and when to let the dark elements out, and when the humor. Your heart is pounding during the whole process,” Leaming said.
And of course the author is right there, annoyingly poking his arm with a thousand notes of his own.
Yet Edwards believes that an important cultural center like the Asolo has an obligation to add to the theatrical repertoire, to inform the community about what’s going on in the world and to inspire it to think about what new voices have to say. What if no one had done Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee?
Robert Brustein, one of the great theatrical producers of the 20th century, followed the credo unflinchingly and produced my play. I was a novelist, but he didn’t care. I had written a black comedy, and he loved it. Strokes is about a stroke victim whose loyal wife finds out in the first act that he not only cheated on her but also gave his girlfriend all his money. In the second act she conspires with her children to kill him for the life insurance. I’ll never forget the first night a full house of Boston Brahmins sat in stunned silence for what seemed like an eternity before they realized it was okay to laugh at a man in a wheelchair whose wife finally finds her voice. Strokes later became a novel (Over His Dead Body) and was optioned for a feature film.
I was having lunch with Asolo development director Deborah Ann Trimble when she offered me a chance to hear the very first reading of Men of Tortuga. We sat in the back of the rehearsal room and listened to five powerful men in America who are planning the murder of an evil enemy—one who could well be a U.S. Senator or the Speaker of the House for all we know. First they consider a gun, then a knife, then a missile, and then poison gas. Pretty soon they’re taking down the whole building and everyone in it—and it’s funny! Then on page 72 of the script one of the characters erupts with an explosion of more than 32 expletives that I can’t repeat here. Just a lot of bleeping, freaking, something suckers and holy somethings that caused the laughter to stop.
Trimble turned to me and said, “Oops, and I was planning to bring my daughter.”
Have we ever said anything like that on the main stage at the Asolo? I asked. Not remotely like this. A board member who shall remain nameless found out and suggested a purge of the script. Jason Wells, the author, said hell, no, he wouldn’t cut a single bleeping word—what is this, the Middle East? We can’t express ourselves, for cripes’ sake? His agent backed him up, and Edwards backed them both up. Turns out we are not the Middle East. We don’t go in for censorship here in Sarasota.
Instead, all the season’s promotional materials and the Asolo box office staff warned: Nasty words coming. Everyone braced for the reaction. One angry man wrote a letter, saying he didn’t want to see the play. And that’s okay. You can’t always please everybody—you really can’t.
Tortuga opening night finally came, and I was scared. If the laughter stopped that first day in the rehearsal room, would it stop now? Everyone was there to find out. Ron and Rita Greenbaum, Flori Roberts, Diana and Howard Armbrust. All the board, all Tortuga’s sponsors, Susan and Jim Buck, Nate and Annie Esformes, Ann and Alfred Goldstein, William Hawthorne. All the Asolo’s friends and family.
It looked like Broadway. The set was like a real glass office building. The actors sounded like Broadway. They walked all over each other’s lines and pulled off a tour de force. People laughed from the get-go, and when the expletives came in the second act, there was—get this—applause. When the curtain came down, I asked what people thought. “I loved it,” said Bruce Rodgers. “I loved it,” said the sponsors.
“They seemed to get it; did they like it?” Michael Edwards asked. Asolo managing director Linda DiGabriele was shocked. “They applauded the profanity,” she said. “Did you hear that?”
Yes, and it was amazing. Here’s what happened: The expletives actually provided comic relief and made the would-be killer ridiculous. As directed by Leaming, the killer was raging impotently around the stage swearing his head off, and he seemed almost…human. And no one cared what he said. Some board members thought the play was “interesting” and one said, “Eh.” (That’s New York for “not my thing.”) Brenda Landry thought the second act was better than the first, but she called me the next day and changed her mind. “I can’t stop thinking about it. This play is better than I thought. It grows on you. I think you need to see it twice to understand how good it is.” Good job, boys.
Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD’s April Woo.