30 Years Ago: My First Professional Play Production

In April 1988, the first professional production of a Trav S.D. play occurred. The photo above is only tangentially relevant — it’s the only pic I could find that was relatively close on the timescale, featuring me (in the shades) and one of the actors, Alan Brown, in the foreground. As a bonus, to the right, in sunglasses, is Suzanne Hilleary, a friend with whom I worked at Tony Bennett’s office. This photo was taken at Coney Island in June, 1989 — my first Mermaid Parade.

14 months earlier I was in Portland, Maine. My then-girlfriend/ later-wife (who took this picture) was an intern at the Portland Stage Company, and she directed my play, called White Trash in their annual one act festival. I might have been paid a small stipend, and it went up in their blackbox, with paid actors, before a proper audience of strangers — professional. The play was semi-autobiographical. Alan was the stand-in for me, and it also featured Amy Engelhardt (later a member of the Bobs), and a couple of other folks I’ve lost touched with. It was one of my few experiments in naturalism, punctuated with outbursts of direct-address. I was inspired by a famous Chekhov quote “People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.” And I was influenced by Sam Shepard’s Action, which I had acted in a few weeks earlier, and was probably also influenced by the then new tv shows Roseanne and Married with Children — it’s about a working class family who say appalling things to each other.

Later I adapted the concept into a full length pay with music called House of Trash, which was produced at HERE Arts Center and at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2000, although House of Trash is a very different play from White Trash. I’ve long wanted to write a second act for White Trash to make it a full length, using a strategy similar to Albee’s Three Tall Women. What’s stopped me? A need for incentive, I guess.

I’ve always used anniversaries and other benchmarks as occasioned for stock-taking. And so this is where I am at. The theatre is a hard broad to love. I love her too much to ever quit her, but, O, the heartbreak and punishment. I remember when I was just starting out, a teacher saying, in essence, “If you didn’t go to Yale, it’s almost not worth bothering.” To a certain extent, there’s a certain truth to that; you have to be in (and do well in) some high visibility program in order to get certain people’s attention and respect. And you have to have access to dough to throw at the problem, either your own, or O.P.M. But, it’s also true that I have several friends and peers who are much more widely produced than I am, who don’t necessarily have those benefits. What they do have (in addition to their talent, naturally) is much more focus and enthusiasm. They’re not just happier with the playwright’s lot, they’re into it.  And I lack both the focus and the enthusiasm, I think.

As for the former, at the same time I have been writing plays and trying to get them out there, I’ve also been producing variety shows, performing, acting, writing books and critical reviews and blogs, lecturing, etc. I can’t bring myself to put all my eggs in one basket. And the reason for that is probably, reason #2,  that I lack the enthusiasm. As a playwright, I’ve always felt I’ve had but two horrible choices, both of which are intolerable: 1) self-produce and self-direct, the workload and complications of which make me tear my hair out with anxiety, make me foul tempered and nasty and snappish; or 2) let someone else produce and direct my play, which makes unhappy because everything they’re doing is wrong, wrong, wrong and not what was in my head at all!  My last big production (which wasn’t even of one of my own plays) was in 2014. The last big production of one of my plays by someone else was in 2015. And my last self big production of my own work (a vaudeville show) was in 2012, I think. Last major self production of my own plays in 2011.

Naturally, I’ve been working on much else since then. Most recently, I was commissioned to write a screenplay, which took up the early part of this year. There’ve been one-shot vaudeville shows, and playreadings and acting gigs, and book proposals and talks etc etc etc. Which all goes back to the lack of focus on, or enthusiasm for, the experience of writing plays and seeing them produced, one would think. Yet it remains a life goal. I still have numerous plays in the hopper I want to see done. I have visions of new ones I want to write. It’s like being in love with a wifebeater.

The tumultuous times have slowed me down even more. Since the disastrous election of 2016 I’ve largely been paralyzed by the question “What is the right action?” The events of September 11 ruined two of my productions in 2001. There are hundreds of thousands of much more significant victims of that disaster, but that doesn’t prevent the memory from having a chilling effect on my planning process. I’m reluctant to commit to something when any day may bring a deal-breaking disaster.

And yet I have all this creativity, above and beyond this blog — stories to tell. Gradually, I have been kicking around a couple of solutions I’m leaning toward implementing. One is solo theatre. I have dabbled in it before on several occasions. I am gearing up for workshops of a one man show to premiere at the Brick Theater’s Festival of Lies in June. Where it goes from there will depend on HOW it goes there. The idea is that, instead of presenting other vaudeville acts (which is a grind as anyone can tell you), to BE the vaudeville act, whatever that entails — monologue, songs, etc. It would also be an excuse to travel, which I have always wanted to do much more of. And my other idea is podcast radio theatre. I’ve also had quite a bit of experience at this form. There’s a lot of competition nowadays but I love the scope it allows your imagination, the control you can have over the product, the potential reach, and the relative lack of expense. And my cohort in the radio enterprise would be my longtime collaborator Robert Pinnock. We announced this project a couple of years ago, but it got derailed. We’re talking about dusting it off. So these are both likely directions in the coming months if the creek don’t rise. And/or maybe I should just write for the page, with no performance aspect at all. Just write books. There goes that lack of focus again…

 

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