Auntie Mame

cheersauntiemameI’ve got a reunion coming up in a few weeks at Harvard, where I spent my undergraduate years, and I’m looking forward with some curiosity to seeing what my classmates from that long-ago time are up to these days. I’m not aware of others who’ve undergone quite the same transition as my own from physics to play writing, but I am nonetheless astonished at the breadth of accomplishment that I read about in the class notes.

One of the more interesting elements of the reunion that the organizers have planned is a “literary coffeehouse” featuring readings from some of the work our class has produced – fiction, non-fiction and poetry, as well as some play excerpts. As I have a handy 10-minute play available from last year’s Extremely Short Play Festival, my contribution to the event will be Late. With its characters’ focus on middle age and their reminiscences – albeit unhappy ones – about younger days, it seems a fitting choice for the occasion. Two classmates, working actors both, will be doing the piece and I’m very excited to see what they and the director come up with.

I don’t know much about the rest of the program, but I was quite tickled to discover that one of the other participating writers, the talented novelist Lewis DeSimone, wrote a lovely essay a few years back about Auntie Mame – both the 1958 film with Rosalind Russell and the character herself. What it would have been like, he wonders, to have been raised by her as young Patrick is in the story. In many ways it’s a very corny story, but I was happy to discover a comrade in Lewis who shared the fascination of my younger self for a character who dared to live unconventionally and damn the consequences. I’m secretly hoping he and I might find some time at the reunion to sneak off and watch the DVD together.

There’s one line of Mame’s that struck a chord with Lewis and the funny thing is that it clearly struck a chord with me back when I first saw the movie as well, because I quote it in Galatea: “Your Auntie Mame is going to open doors for you, Patrick — doors you never even dreamed existed!”

Opening doors, of course, is a powerful motif. It’s really why writers do what they do, whatever their medium or genre. Show the reader (or the audience) something new, move them, inspire them. I can’t wait to see what doors Lewis and my other classmates will open for me at the coffeehouse later this month.

Really Running Late

A friend pointed out to me that I had written about the rehearsals of my play Late but that I had unaccountably neglected to say anything about the production itself during the run of the Extremely Short Play Festival of which it was a part.

Well, the festival has come and gone, but … better late than never, right?

The main reason I didn’t write about it was that I didn’t actually get to go as I was in Germany at the time at the Theatertreffen Festival in Berlin. Missing the short festival was a disappointment, not only because I didn’t get to see the performances of Kristina Watt and Kate Hurman in my piece but because I missed all the other fine plays as well. I’m told that the event was quite the success, and that John Koensgen, who thought up the idea, has plans to make the festival an annual event – which I think is a wonderful idea!

Careful readers who did see the show will note that there were two significant changes introduced to the play between its initial conception and its presentation at the festival.

The first was a function of casting. As written, the play is about a man and a woman meeting for lunch as they energetically avoid talking about their shared past. To hammer the point home, the characters are identified in the script only as HE and SHE. But John called me up one day to say that he had some casting issues as he distributed his four actors across the dozen or so plays he was presenting. Would it be possible, he asked, to give the parts to the two women in his cast, namely Kate and Kristina. As I revisited the script I realized that except for the HE and SHE there was really nothing whatsoever in the text that required either character to be a particular gender.

In fact, we realized quickly, having both characters be women could well add a nice extra “oomph” to the story as it became clear to the audience that these weren’t just two old friends meeting for lunch; these were ex-lovers, and their former relationship was clearly an unhappy one. Once rehearsals started, it was clear that both Kate and Kristina saw the dramatic possibilities in this and they ran with it brilliantly. Since the play is really all about the subtext, I think they both had a lot of fun with finding ways to say “The salad looks good” while conveying “Why were you so awful to me when we were together?”

The second change was a smaller and subtler one. The title of the play that I came up with was “Running Late,” borrowing from Kristina’s character’s apology that opens the play when she arrives late for the lunch date. At one point in rehearsals, we decided to call the play “Late,” which managed to be both a simpler title and a more profound one, with its rather unhappy suggestion that it really may be too late to salvage this particular relationship. (And so with the title change I’ve retroactively tidied up my references to the play here and elsewhere.)

These two changes illustrate something I love about the theatre: it is truly a collaborative art, and I take delight in seeing what the other artists involved come up with – for whatever reason – in suggesting changes to what I’ve originally put on the page. In this instance, I think the suggestions enhanced the production and my only regret is in not having seen a performance.

Two nice things about ten-minute plays is that they are relatively easy to produce and there are plenty of short-play festivals all over the world that need material. So if perchance Late gets produced elsewhere – and I think the play will indeed retain the new title – I’ll be curious to see whether future directors will care to follow John’s lead in casting. I’m of two minds on the question, in part because I didn’t actually see John’s production: casting two women certainly works. so I’d like to see that version of the play, but I’m still curious to see what the story would be like if it were presented as originally conceived. And to see a performance of the play too, of course.

The first rehearsal…

Yesterday was the first rehearsal for my play, Late, which will be part of New Theatre of Ottawa’s Extremely Short Play Festival next month.

The first rehearsal is always exciting for me – the first chance to hear the actors take the characters’ dialogue from the page and bring it to life. In this case, director John Koensgen has asked Kristina Watt and Kate Hurman to play the parts and their work yesterday has made me all the more excited to see what happens next.

In this instance, the play is a simple conversation between two old friends meeting for lunch. Two chairs, a table, and a roller-coaster ride down memory lane… What was so interesting at the rehearsal was to watch two fine actors dissect their characters and peel away countless layers of meaning from the things said (and not said!) in that conversation. This is the essence of theatre as an interpretive art: their discoveries were fascinating, and I learned volumes about the characters, their relationship and their pasts. Were these facts already there, dormant in the dialogue I’d crafted months earlier? Or was their discovery dependent on the insights and skills of these particular actors? I’m not sure that these are significant questions; what matters is that their performances next month will be immeasurably enriched by the work they have now begun putting into sculpting their characters.

The Festival includes 11 “extremely short” plays (10 minutes and under) and runs May 3-12, 8 pm, at Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly Avenue. (There are also previews on May 1 and 2). Tickets are $30 (adults) / $25 (students and seniors).

 

Extremely Short Play Festival

Extremely Short Play Festival - New Theatre of OttawaI’m excited that New Theatre of Ottawa has selected my short play Late to be included in its Extremely Short Play Festival in early May at the Arts Court Theatre here in Ottawa. Director John Koensgen and actors Catriona Leger, Kate Hurman. Adam Pierre, and Brian Stewart will be getting to work on the plays that have been gathered – none longer than ten minutes – and I’m hoping to get a peek at the odd rehearsal, so more to come.

In the meantime, mark your calendars: May 3 through May 12, with previews on May 1 and 2.