At an advanced age I decided to start writing plays, or at least try one play. The initial inspiration took place while I was actually standing in a theatre, the Studio Theatre at St. Denis Building, where I host my monthly poetry series. I had done poems, nonfiction, and fiction, so why not plays? I started attending the theatre regularly and rereading some of the classics. After six months, I began writing a play about a homeowners’ association, basing it on meetings I’d participated in and characters and conflicts I knew about. It didn’t go well. Then nearly a year later, I started on a new project, Revocable Trust, based on a chapter in my memoir. This time I managed to finish the project: two acts, ninety pages, an old house in the fog, people fighting over an inheritance. . .
I’d been going to writing workshops for twenty years, but where was I going to take my play to be workshopped? I brought bits and pieces to my Saturday poetry group, and they were very well received. My workshop co-facilitator, Bob Foster (who used to act with Katharine Hepburn), was initially skeptical when he just heard one scene, but when I showed him the full manuscript he was won over. Where, though, was I going to take the manuscript to be read and performed and, ultimately, staged?
I heard about a theatre company, Fierce Backbone, that meets every week at The Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard. Their format works like this: every Monday, from 7 to 10 pm, playwrights bring in scenes from new or revised work, and it’s then read by actors in the company and critiqued by everyone.
I was getting a bit fed up with the written word, the word that sits squarely on the page and never rises from it. On the one hand, I have come to see poetry as mostly FOR THE PAGE. Many poets (especially in Los Angeles) get too excited about the performative aspects of their art. I’ve become disenchanted with the limitations of performance-oriented poems, and excited by the quiet subtleties available on the page. On the other hand, there’s something creepy about living only on the page or computer screen. The written word has been exalted to the point where the human voice is on the verge of going quiet, or not mattering. So, outside poetry, I was pining for the naked voice with all its splendor and imperfections.
Another thing I was looking for was actual warm human contact. When I recently won a prize for a memoir excerpt, I never heard any of the voices awarding me this prize. I simply received an email and, later, a check in the mail. I was dissatisfied with the coldness of the purely literary world. Too many people were hiding behind the written word!
When I started going to the weekly sessions at Fierce Backbone, I discovered that human warmth was not on offer. Even if you just glance at the picture I’ve posted, you get an idea what the people are like. I realize they are in the middle of a scene, but even when they were not acting, the were acting: it was like being in high school again and unable to get into the long-established cliques. The actress in red, second from left—De Ann M. Odom—was one of the most cliquish people in the clique. In four months we never exchanged one word. I tried, but she, and most of the others, were unapproachable. I think she is a fine actress, but I never felt that she—or any of the others—wanted me there.
And who were some of the others? Bob Telford, veteran actor and now on the board of directors, always sat haggard and downtrodden against a wall, and never opened his mouth to opine on anything. If I wanted to cast someone in the role of a depressed sex offender at the end of his rope, it would be him. Then there was Clifford S. Blackburn, another person on the board: an imposing nonentity currently working on a two-hour monologue about the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant. If you ever want help getting to sleep, find a recording of someone reading from this monologue. And finally, there was Paul Messinger, a roly-poly, sheep-clad wolf of a man who relished his power and authority as a board member in the little world of Fierce, and someone thoroughly accomplished in the art of the pointed baritone question and the slap-in-the-face rebuke.
So why did I stay? 1) I didn’t know where else to go. 2) I thought I’d give them a chance. 3) They are all serious and committed to their art. I tried to disregard the clubbiness and the weekly snubs, hoping that better things would follow.
It was clash of personalities from the start. They probably sensed right away (and correctly) that I’m more a literary than a theatre person. And this brings me to maybe the heart of the conflict: poetry is an extreme example of a purely literary enterprise; theatre, on the other hand, straddles the world of serious art and show business. What most actors end up doing is not Shakespeare or Sophocles or Ibsen or even Neil Simon: it’s commercials, it’s TV, it’s Netflix, etc. etc., though SOME of the time what they do is in the service of “serious art” and “literature.” Way back in college I read an essay by Arthur C. Danto on the question of whether philosophy was literature. His conclusion was that while there were many overlapping areas, philosophy was certainly not literature. The same with theatre. This explains why, to an extent, I was such a fish out of water. Theatre’s another discipline. When Fierce actors raised their hands to announce that they had just landed a part in a commercial, or in a new Netflix series, I had to ask myself, “What am I doing here?”
Here’s the good news: One of the actors from Fierce, Anne Ryerson Hall, came to my monthly poetry group and read a scene from my play with actor Beverly Swanson. This went extremely well and, as the Brits would say, I was chuffed. A few weeks later, at Fierce, the first three scenes from my play got a solid reading. Again, it went well—the actors there are so talented. But the comments, when they came, were not always useful. I knew that I was expected to make revisions and bring the piece back in a few weeks. In theatre you’re always revising, and I understood this. And revise I did—but I didn’t rewrite. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, during the last phase of my “audition period,” after which I was to receive a verdict about being accepted into the Company.
November 21 was a busy night (four different plays were to be done, I mean scenes from four different works-in-progress). My scenes from Revocable Trust came first. The actors read very, very fast and quietly. I was cupping my ears to understand them. The audience was losing patience. If these actors had been trying to sabotage me, they would have done exactly what they were doing: reading so fast and with no expressiveness or interest or care for what they were doing. Even before they were done, I was almost in tears. Playwright Tom Cavanaugh, sitting right in front of me, was taking copious notes and vigorously shaking his head. The scene ended and the applause was scattered and weak and deadly. I went up on stage, alone, to hear comments. The knives were out, and the assembled clique was gonna be Fierce. (I do not doubt this manuscript needed work.)
And when I say the knives were out, I need to stress that most of the comments were not that negative. It was the atmosphere in the room, after the miserable “performance,” that was so discouraging. But three of the room’s heavyweights—Paul Messinger, Clifford S. Blackburn, and Tom Cavanaugh—came at me hard. “Did you even try to rewrite after we saw this last time?” said Paul. Clifford said, “I don’t like any of it, not the characters, not anything.” Tom Cavanaugh (who’d been shaking his head so vigorously) now gave a deep critique that I couldn’t take it in because I was too upset. I then said to him, “So, I have too many words, I’m too verbose.” He got angry: “What kind of word is “verbose”? That’s a poetry word! This is theatre!”
After the night was over, I sometimes thought of the play scene and critiquing scene as my Fierce Baptism of Fire. Perhaps they all had a plan for me? Perhaps this was a ritual? To be taken apart by them and put back together in their image. Like fraternity hazing. “Yes, I’ll probably go back,” I said. “They have a plan for me, yes.” And I told myself, “Maybe they can see things I can’t.” But that wouldn’t account for the very poor reading. That wouldn’t account for the weekly awkwardness and snubs.
A few more days and nights went by and I knew my sixteen weeks at Fierce were at an end.
But it won’t be the end—trust me—of Revocable Trust.