My drama: Getting a new play staged is all comedy and tragedy

4_7 oscaropener

Illustrations by Michael Byers

About three years ago I did something that only a puffed-up fool would do: I wrote a play. For three weeks I was maniacal about it, and when I dropped the final curtain I nodded my head knowingly — this baby was a winner: All I had to do was get the script into the right hands, and before I could belt out, “There’s no business like show business,” audiences would be filling the seats, laughing and applauding riotously in the dark.

Thus began my tale of what Eugene O’Neill might call a lunatic’s pipe dream, a story of innocence, hope and crushing neglect. But it’s not my story alone. You need only read a day’s worth of the yearnings on LinkedIn’s playwriting group, scan the entry rules for hundreds of play competitions, or study the stiff-armed guidelines for submissions to regional theaters to realize that other pipe-dreaming playwrights-to-be are having their own egos stomped. Yet, we keep coming back for more, knowing full well that the odds of getting a play produced are about the same as getting killed by a falling coconut (that’s one in 250 million) — or at least it feels that way.

Writing a play, or many plays, was a dream I had secretly nurtured since childhood. As long as I can remember, I was drawn to the theater’s stock in trade: hotheaded confrontations involving complicated people. George and Martha hollering loose-lipped invective at each other in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was strangely comforting — it reminded me of home. By the end of high school I’d read most of Western drama since Aeschylus. Following my undergraduate years, I tried a doctoral program in dramatic literature at the University of California at Berkeley but dropped out. Theater people were, well, too dramatic for me.

So I went into journalism and happily skipped around the world, with stints in Beijing, Hong Kong, New York and Paris. When I landed in Washington, I volunteered as a Helen Hayes Award judge, which sent me to some 40 productions a year — the good, the bad and the fantastic — and the more I saw, the more I wanted to write a play.

But a beginner like me can’t just sit down and turn out a three-act gem peopled with a full cast of fascinating folk. I had to start small. My play, I decided, would have just one character. I had to get comfortable creating human life on the stage, moving my single figure around and putting words in his mouth. I figured that in the cash-strapped universe of the theater, a one-person cast upped my chances of a production. Of course, the one character then hogging the stage had to be someone recognizable and captivating. I knew just the person to carry my dreams.

***

Oscar Wilde was a 27-year-old whippersnapper in 1882: a bright, flamboyant intellectual, a graduate of Oxford, a published poet, but still far from the brilliant novelist and playwright he was to become. He’d written one play, which hadn’t found a stage, and spent a good deal of his time promoting his philosophy of aestheticism. On Jan. 2, the young Irish aesthete arrived in New York to travel coast to coast lecturing on art and beauty. He had a secondary reason for the trip: He was in America to serve as a living advertisement for a new Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera called “Patience,” a satire of the cult of aestheticism featuring a poetry-spouting character supposedly modeled after him. The opera was running in England to full houses, prompting the producer to mount a production in America and to pay Wilde to be the living embodiment of the ridiculous Reginald Bunthorne. Wherever Wilde went, reporters flocked to him for interviews, and his witty bons mots filled the pages.

In my play, we go with Oscar when he calls on Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. We see him lecture students at Harvard and Yale and speak to burly miners in Leadville, Colo., where he declares:

Here in the deep mine shafts of the Rocky Mountains
I have found my True American.

But his trip was not all lightness and laughs. Behaving in dandified ways offensive to rough-hewn Americans, Wilde was pilloried in the press. The Washington Post printed a caricature of him in an aesthetic pose, head slightly cocked to one side. Above this was the drawing of a Wild Man of Borneo, a monkey-like creature, in a similar pose. When Wilde’s business manager complained, the paper’s editor responded in print. In my play, Oscar recites the editor’s reply:

Mr. Wilde is the emasculator of ideas. His example would turn
our young men into drawling asses and our maidens into puling
idiots. For this we warn both classes to keep away from him
or, if impelled by curiosity to look upon him, first to submit
to something in the nature of an intellectual vaccination.

The young wit shrugged off the insults; he, in fact, enjoyed the attention, quipping: “Ridicule is reputation.” Meanwhile, he pursued a fervent, ulterior motive: getting his first play, “Vera; or, The Nihilists,” produced in America.

The moment I stepped on American soil, Wilde tells his audience,
I was brought before the customs inspector and told to open my
luggage, as it was widely believed that I slept in lace nightgowns.
Of course he found none, and then he inquired of me,
Had I anything to declare? No, nothing, sir, but my genius.

***

4_7 spot1finalTo assess what I had wrought, I began asking the few people I knew in the theater for their opinion. Ann Gilbert served on boards of the redoubtable Theatre J in the District and Round House Theatre in Bethesda, and she kindly agreed to read the script and put me in touch with longtime Washington actor John Lescault.

Gilbert’s critique was succinct: “Extremely well written, but there are too many references to characters who people don’t know,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I enjoyed the second half more.”

Lescault gave me a thorough analysis both in an e-mail and over breakfast. “You have taken a huge subject, a larger-than-life subject, no easy task, that … and shaped it into an engaging performance piece. Well done,” he wrote.

But were these bighearted people accentuating the positive, ignoring the fatal faults of the work? I celebrated my first reviews but knew I needed an array of opinions. I had to find readers with serious clout in the business. I sent Oscar in all directions. Even a partial list of recipients is long and varied: a lecturer in theater at Georgetown University, the dramaturge at Studio Theatre, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Centre Stage New Play Festival (S.C.), the Shaw Festival (Ontario) and the Gersh Agency, a talent and literary agency in New York and Beverly Hills. Searching out my targets took more time than writing the play ever did.

I also tried people I thought I had a special connection to, for example, the wildly successful Ken Ludwig, author of “Crazy for You,” “Lend Me a Tenor” and other award-winning Broadway shows. He had written a piece for my section of The Washington Post, Book World, that discussed his golden rules of playwrighting, and soon afterward we had a friendly e-mail exchange about the best theater memoirs. I later wrote to him: “I’m at a loss as to what to do with Oscar at this point and would welcome any thoughts.” I sent my plea in December 2010 and am still waiting for a reply.

On a fool’s whim, I sent a note to the Capital Talent Agency, though its Web site clearly warned it handled only actors and designers, not writers. But I liked the work of Jeremy Skidmore, a much-honored director and the agency’s president at the time. What’s more, Skidmore had directed “Gross Indecency,” a play about the legal trials that Oscar Wilde endured for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Skidmore surprised me by agreeing to meet for coffee. When he appeared in his office lobby, he looked more like a student than a talent agency president; in fact, I learned he was studying for his MBA at American University. Skidmore and I talked theater, plays and Oscar for an hour; he was gracious and engaged, and I left Oscar in his loving care. He promised to let me know what he thought. I’m waiting to hear from my pal Jeremy, too.

Ditto for other people on my list. Some sent perfunctory acknowledgment notes, then went dark on me forever. I had a lot of theories about why the world was ignoring Oscar: that the play is historical; if it’s not current, it’s not cool. That it is a one-person play, which is not a “real play.” That it isn’t shocking enough: no incest, pedophilia, rape or torture. Or maybe the play just stinks.

How easy it was to spiral down into the dungeon of despair. But I had a secret weapon, a woman of power and prestige on the Washington theater scene. I had met Beth Newburger Schwartz through her daughter, a close friend, and had spent time at her remarkable spread on the Potomac and talked theater and politics into the night. She was so astute and kind and encouraging that my wife and I began calling her our “mother by choice.” Newburger Schwartz was an accomplished businesswoman and former adviser on women’s issues in the Clinton White House; now, among her many undertakings, she was vice chair of the board at Arena Stage.

When I sought her out on Oscar, she answered with a warm, open-winged embrace. She read the play quickly and loved it and put it in the hands of the Arena’s then-associate artistic director and new-play guru, David Dower. My thoughts were swirling: Let’s round up a director. A stage designer. The ideal actor. By God, it was time for a casting call.

Of course, the glory of theater is that it never delivers what you expect, onstage or off. First, Beth relayed to me that the play was under consideration for Arena’s new play series. Then it was supposedly on Dower’s desk. Then, at an Arena open house, I nervously introduced myself to Dower. As I described the play, I was staggered by the blank look in his eye, his urge to step away. Months later Beth conceded she was as baffled as I was by the Arena’s intricate dance of play development. She could inquire, suggest, even offer a script, but in truth it was all just an act of blind faith.

***

4_7 spot2finalAmid all this rejection, the theater heavens opened, and a goddess — by the name Venus — smiled upon me. A little background: In 2008, just before America hit its financial iceberg, I sold a nonfiction book to a small publisher who soon afterward panicked and tossed my manuscript overboard with several others in the hope of staying afloat. The book told the tale of a young woman in Paris in 1889 who killed a man, then claimed in her defense that she was hypnotized by her con-man lover to undertake the crime. I was never entirely happy with my first draft, so now I had time to rethink the story. My pondering took the shape of a one-woman play, “Hypnotic Murderess,” which I sent to the Venus Theatre in Laurel, because its declared mission is to set “flight to the voices of women.”

If Oscar, which I believed was a far better play, was as exciting to directors as an open grave, what were the chances for this one? But the Venus’s artistic director, Deb Randall, swiftly wrote me back, swiftly read my play and, to my breathless shock, swiftly scheduled it for a slot in a 2011 three-play series focused on historical women.

Someone had told me the Venus was housed in what was once a small Chinese restaurant; the theater sat about 40 people, mostly on benches, looking at each other across an open space that served as the stage. Everything about the production of “Hypnotic Murderess” was low-budget, but the young lead, Kelsey Painter, played the part magnificently.

To reach the Venus Theater you travel north on Interstate 95 beneath signs pointing toward New York; on our drives to the theater, my wife and I liked to laugh: Yes, my play was on the way to Broadway. “Hypnotic Murderess” ran four nights, no reviews, no buzz, nothing. But I was produced; I was a playwright. This had to help sell my first love, Oscar.

***

Newly inspired by my fantastically minor success at the Venus Theatre, I shot Oscar off to a play contest for which he was perfectly cast: Spotlight On: A One Person Playwriting Competition. There were 325 competitors from 32 states and 14 countries, from which 20 semifinalists were selected. I wasn’t one, but I comforted myself with Oscar Wilde’s witty disdain for those who shoot to the top:

I do not doubt there is something vulgar in all success, Oscar says in
the play. To be a great literary figure, to be a true genius, one must fail
… or seem to have failed.

Eager to learn something from the competition, I wrote to the organizers begging for insight into what could make the play better. Their reply is coming, I’m sure — it’s in Godot’s knapsack.

***

As all playwrights know, silence onstage is powerful. But in one’s personal life, it can be deadly. Frustrated and impatient, I decided to trade on my relationship with my surrogate mother, Beth Newburger Schwartz, the Arena board’s vice chair, and send a note directly to Molly Smith, the Arena’s artistic director. Less than a week later, she wrote me a genial note saying she’d be happy to have Amrita, the Arena’s literary manager, take a look — Amrita, no last name, as if I were already a member of the family. And off Oscar went to sit on another desk, at another theater, with fresh hopes. Now, at least, I wasn’t waiting on Godot. I was waiting on Amrita.

***

I was learning a lot about the mysteries of the theater, but I needed to know more. So I signed up for a seminar called “So You Wrote a Play, Now What?” offered at the New York offices of the Samuel French company, the venerable play publisher. Here was my chance to hear the scuttlebutt on breaking in as a playwright from Abigail Katz, the literary manager of the Atlantic Theater Company, an off-Broadway theater co-founded by actor William H. Macy and the king of cursing, playwright David Mamet.

Katz was the closest I had ever gotten to a working New York theater professional, so I ambushed her before the seminar with my 30-second elevator pitch on Oscar and asked for her gut reaction. Oscar, I quickly discovered, was of little interest to her because, as an ensemble company, the Atlantic has little room for one-person plays in its programming. She pointed out the structural challenges of the form — one person engaging an audience for 90 minutes — and thumped the table. Tell a story, she said. Make it visceral. Make it dramatic. “It’s theater, you know,” she reminded me.

The seminar was held in an unglamorous library at Samuel French. Hundreds of the company’s slender paperback plays lined the wall, which I took as both inspiration and mockery. The dozen participants were young and old; one was a high school girl who was getting an avid, early start in a world she loved. Others had had full productions and festival readings.

“There is no secret formula,” Katz told the class about getting produced. She encouraged us to make noise, get exposure, become a DIY playwright — mount our own readings and productions. This was a revelation to me: Using crowd-sourced funds, a playwright can play producer to bring to life a full performance or, on a lesser scale, pay a director and actors to do a reading. By the end of the three-hour session, my original view of the road to Broadway had crumbled.

***

4_7 spot3finalBack in Washington, I remembered an article I’d read about “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” The playwrights, twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, had both been journalists. “Red Hot Patriot” was their first play, and, like Oscar, it was a one-person show. Their story was my story, except for one small difference: their turbo-powered blast to success.

The Engel sisters piloted “Red Hot Patriot” onto the stage in 10 months, “a land-speed record,” as Margaret has described it. Instead of throwing their play onto the heap atop the desk of an unknown artistic director or submitting to contests and festivals, the sisters began talking about their play to everyone they knew, hoping someone could interest a theater and get the script to Kathleen Turner, their dream actress for the role. The play quickly was blessed by a series of “happy accidents,” as Margaret told me on the phone. Margaret, who is executive director of Washington’s Alicia Patterson Foundation for journalists, had also been managing editor of the Newseum. A colleague had put the script into the hands of his father, who was on the Arena board, and the father put the script into the hands of Molly Smith.

“We had breakfast,” Margaret remembered, “and she said, ‘I read your script and want to do it.’ ”

Two weeks later, Allison, who is director of communications at the University of Southern California, had lunch with a friend who serves on the board of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. When the friend asked who Allison was hoping for in the lead, Allison mentioned Kathleen Turner, who also happened to be on the group’s board. It didn’t hurt that Turner was a longtime admirer of Ivins’s.

“Two weeks after Molly Smith said she was interested, Kathleen Turner said she was interested,” Margaret recalled, still seeming stunned. “I know what happened to us is not normal.” The play got a further boost when esteemed director David Esbjornson took it on and vastly enhanced the original script. “Red Hot Patriot” opened in Philadelphia before heading to Arena last year for a successful run.

“Theater,” Margaret told me, “really is pushed by stars, so if you have anyone who has a connection to an actor who you think would be right for your play, definitely use it. That makes shortcuts happen.”

And if you don’t have connections, as I do not, what then? Margaret had more wise counsel: Seek unorthodox ways to get your script to an actor — don’t use their agents, who more often than not are dead ends. Discover the actors’ interests, what committees they’re on, who associates with them, and go through them.

I began thinking of who could play Oscar, and before anyone came to mind, Margaret had an idea: Why not put a woman in the lead? A woman playing Oscar Wilde! Suddenly my play blossomed in my mind into something wonderfully avant-garde: With a woman in the lead, Oscar would now be edgy and contemporary. Portrayed by a woman, he could emerge as fashionably new wave. And now I am fixated on the perfect woman for the role: Anne Hathaway, clever, radical and mesmerizing, she could be the embodiment of a modern Oscar Wilde! Now my forefinger taps my temple with an urgency: Who knows Anne Hathaway? Who can put the script in her hands?

***

A few months ago, my mother became seriously ill. My wife and I rushed out to Los Angeles and were shocked when doctors informed us that there was no hope. With my sister, we began an end-of-life vigil by her bedside.

Almost a week in, my wife and I took a break and went for lunch at Jerry’s Deli, an old-fashioned place across from the hospital. We had a grim meal in a fog of impending death. I was so heavy-headed I at first didn’t comprehend the e-mail that hit my BlackBerry under the subject line: “your plays (Baltimore Playwrights Festival).” Inattentively, I opened the e-mail and read: “Hi all, I am pleased to advise you that your plays have qualified for a reading for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.”

In my daze, and unaware anymore where I had sent Oscar, I had no idea what this note meant. As I read on, I realized that the festival was informing a handful of lucky playwrights that their work had been chosen for a reading in 2013.

I found it impossible to enjoy the moment, a moment I’d dreamed of for years.

Then the playwright in me, the silly survivor, poked through the darkness, and I began imagining the Broadway version of this moment. I saw it as a musical, a tear-jerker with a smile. …

I take my news across the street to my mother’s bedside. I look down at her almost comatose face, her arm bruised from the Dilaudid drip, her lungs sipping the smallest of breaths.

I lean over her: “Ma! Guess what?! It’s my play! They love my play!”

For the longest time, she lies motionless. I lean closer, watching, hoping for some reaction — a tiny nod, perhaps. And just as I’m about to give up, sadness slumping my shoulders, the Broadway finale comes.

My mother pops her eyes open and whips her head toward me. I stumble backward in surprise: She’s all made up, lips painted, hair done. Music sweeps over us and crescendos in a merry tune of fantasy. She leaps off the bed, her sheet slipping away to reveal a sequined evening gown. She grabs me, and we go dancing through the hospital corridors and out into the happy California sunshine, fancy-stepping and singing at the top of our voices.

Alas, that show has not hit the boards. My mother died an hour after the news came from Baltimore, and I set about getting the rabbi, calling the mortuary, wondering when the shock would wear off.

Now I know where Broadway endings come from.

Steven Levingston is a Washington Post editor.

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