Writing for the Stage
When I was growing up, all I wanted to be was a movie star. Well, initially I wanted to be a Mousketeer, which would lead inevitably to all that other great stuff, right? (I didn’t have a crush on Annette, by the way – I had a crush on Darlene, and poor Darlene ended up in jail.) I kept this secret for many years – I was, I suppose, a sort of closet-movie-star – and when I finally told my parents that I wanted to study acting they were, to my surprise, very supportive.
I wrote my first play when I was in the second grade. It was called Johnny Christmas and was a total rip-off of Peter Pan with a Christmas theme added to make it more commercial. It starred myself and my sister and was performed in our living room for, I believe, an audience of none. I wouldn’t allow my mother to see it because even then I knew there was something illicit about writing. Not to mention “the theatre”.
My next play was titled Little Jack and borrowed heavily from Tom Thumb. I remember little about it except that one of the props was a hula hoop meant to stand in for a giant’s wedding ring.
In my third play I made three important advances in the art of playwriting: 1) I learned that it helped if I wrote things down (I have the opening page of it hanging in my office; its first lines were in verse and the whole play – called The Witch of Mollakazoo – was a rip-off of The Winter’s Tale, though the source was more Charles Lamb than William Shakespeare); 2) I used three actors instead of two (due not so much to a Euripidean break-through in theatrical ingenuity as to the fact that a girl named Jill had moved in across the street and she was a lot more fun to kiss than was my sister); 3) for the first time I played the villain (the Witch ) and I learned that the villain is usually a lot more fun to play than the hero. (The play opened with a monologue a la Richard III – in fact the entire play revolved around the villain, Jill and my sister being reduced to the merest of supporting roles.)
What I find most remarkable about these first plays is that I had never seen a play in my young life.
I saw my first play when I was in ninth grade or so – a production of Richard III presented by Catholic University’s touring Players – and a few years later went to Catholic University as a Speech and Drama major. There I was fortunate enough to be cast in a lot of plays (rare for an undergraduate) even though film was still my Ultima Thule. During my junior year, sitting backstage waiting to make an entrance, it suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning – I loved the theatre. Loved. “Loved” like in “I don’t want to do anything else.” Shortly after that I wrote my first play (as a young adult) and with great encouragement from Professor Leo Brady, who had had some success as a playwright when he was a young man, I wrote a second play. After that it became a habit.
I went to grad school at Penn State where – as the sole playwriting major – I participated in something called Five O’Clock Theatre, a gem of an idea that presented student one-acts directed and acted by students, admission free, to SRO audiences of fellow-students. The first play I wrote for Five O-Clock, an adaptation of George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, was reviewed very favorably by (can you believe it?) The New York Times. (It was pure coincidence that a Times writer happened to be visiting campus that weekend. She was also, by extraordinary coincidence, best friends with Jackson’s literary agent – so the play almost had a future until Jackson’s murder a few months later was followed by his family’s withdrawal of support for what they saw as “entertainment.”)
I wrote several other Five O’Clocks – the best hands-on experience I’ve ever had – and began work on a thesis play that I kept re-writing and re-writing ad nauseum. I left Penn State without a degree to pursue my acting career (which was going very well) until I finally had an opportunity to produce (and direct and star in) that adnauseum play of mine (it was called A Chosen Room and is now in a drawer somewhere) and moved to New York and discovered the O’Neill Playwriting Conference (as an actor) and wrote Agnes of God. The day I received the telegram inviting me to bring it to the O’Neill I knew my life was changed forever!