Archive for the tag 'Donald Margulies'

4 December 2015: Sweet Smell of Success!

December 4th, 2015

Somewhat optimistically, we set up 50 seats for the December 3rd staged reading of Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris at the Lawrence Public Library.  To my astonishment, as the crowds poured in, we had to add another ten chairs to accommodate everyone.  I was thrilled, not for myself, but for the actors, whose wonderful work after only three short rehearsals truly deserved to be seen by as many people as possible.  Herewith, my personal note of thanks to each and every one of them:

Benjamin Good (Young Frank) is new to me.  I ran into Margaret Kramar, his mother, at the local farmer’s market a couple of months ago.  I had worked with Margaret before. When I asked if she would like to participate in the upcoming staged reading of my play, she not only said yes, but also introduced me to her son, saying he had done some acting as well.  After speaking to him briefly, I cast him on the spot.

Will Averill (Middle Frank) was one of my earliest playwriting students in the English Department at K.U.  He wrote a delightfully nightmarish play called The Sea, which English Alternative Theatre (EAT) produced in the early 1990s.  The play called for a grotesque 9-foot tall articulated female puppet, so we constructed one, and brought her with us to a fancy cocktail party Chancellor Robert Hemenway was giving at his residence on campus.  Since then, Will has also appeared as an actor in innumerable EAT shows, including his star turn as a nerdy young Hugh Hefner who accidentally hits on the idea of publishing a girlie magazine called Playboy.  Our production of Bunnies by Michael O’Brien was subsequently invited for performances at the national festival of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C.

Dean Bevan (Old Frank) is another one new to me.  I don’t know why we haven’t had the opportunity to work together before, but I am so glad he was available for this reading.  He commands attention on stage with his powerful voice and presence, and his line readings are absolutely spot-on.  He kept asking me for notes after each of our three rehearsals, but I really had no notes for him.  I hope to work with him again, and again.

Jeanne Averill (Nita Harris, Helen “Nellie” O’Hara) was in the original 1980 production of the play at the Lawrence Community Theatre when it was still in the old Carnegie Library building.  Back then, Jeanne played Frank’s timid illegitimate daughter Frances Congden.  For this production, she has graduated into the part of Frank’s shrewish second wife.  I first saw Jeanne in an experimental production of a play called Telemachus Clay sometime in the mid-1970s.  I remember very little about the play itself, except for one line Jeanne uttered:  “I’m not crying.  It’s the rain on my face.”  It was heart breaking and, to this day, I still hear echoes in my mind of how she uttered that line.

Kitty Steffens (Laura, Young Kate Stephens, Yolande) is someone whose work I had been impressed by, in various Card Table Theatre productions. I first worked with her earlier this year in the staged reading of Collected Stories, the prize-winning play by Donald Margulies, also at the Lawrence Public Library.  There is something luminescent and magical about Kitty on stage, and I am so happy we got to work together again on this one.

Cynthia Evans (Anne Harris, Mrs. Lorna Mayhew, Mr. Scully, Princess Alice) is another one who goes all the way back to early 1990s with EAT, sometimes as a scenic designer, more frequently as an actress.  Among her most memorable performances are Ruth, the enigmatic siren in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming; and the cranky old ax-wielding backwoods woman in Topple the World, an original script by Ken Willard.

John Younger (Thomas Harris, George Bernard Shaw) is a god-send, someone who can do no wrong in whatever role he undertakes on stage.  For me, he has been Creon in Antigone, and also the Older Tom Wingfield in my production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, in which I decided to split Tom into a younger and an older self, in much the same way I split Frank Harris into three different selves in Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris.  Besides being a Classics professor, John is also an archeologist who has been digging at sites in Crete for many years.  He plans to retire soon, to move to Crete to be among his beloved ruins. which will leave a big hole in the local theatre scene.

James Carothers (Mr. Kendrick, Oscar Wilde) is a distinguished professor in the English Department at KU, who has also distinguished himself as an actor in various EAT productions through the years, appearing in almost all our Labor Day staged readings, most memorably with colleagues James Hartman and the late Bernard “Bud” Hirsch in our presentation of Art by Yasmina Reza in the auditorium of Spencer Art Museum.

Shawn Trimble (Byron Caldwell Smith, Reporter, Masked Man), like Will Averill, was one of my earliest playwriting students.  He was a Religious Studies major when I first knew him, and he wrote a deeply philosophical Nietzschean play called The Abyss, which EAT produced.  Since then, Shawn has appeared as an actor, not just with EAT, but also with EMU and Lawrence Community Theatre in all its incarnations.

Stephen Moles (William Harris, Rev. Verschoyle, Priest, Policeman, Reporter, Servant) is another one of my playwriting students.  After graduating from K.U., he left for New York and attended Columbia University, where he discovered his true passion for creative non-fiction.  I’m delighted he hasn’t abandoned theatre altogether.

Margaret Kramar (Mrs. Emily Clayton, Old Kate Stephens, Baroness) is a lecturer in the English Department at K.U.  In 2010, when we lost an actor in EAT’s production of What Really Happened, an original script by Benjamin Smith, she gamely stepped in and learned the part just days before we opened.  She was a joy to work with then, and she’s a joy to work with now.

Amy Devitt (Frances Congden, May Congden, Erika Lorenz) is another distinguished professor in the English Department at K.U.  Like Jim Carothers, she has participated in a long list of staged readings for EAT, and was Amanda Wingfield in our full production of The Glass Menagerie.  I’ve always thought she would make a terrific Mary Tyrone in Eugene Oneill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I retired before we could do that one.  Maybe I can talk Card Table Theatre into mounting a full production of this one with her in it.

Karl Ramberg (Mr. Sumner, Prince of Wales, Judge) was in the very first EAT production back in 1990, a double-bill of Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now and Terence McNally’s Andre’s Mother.  Karl reprised the part he played in a staged reading of the same double-bill when I retired in 2010.  In between, Karl has appeared in at least half a dozen other EAT productions, most notably as a homeless man in Upright, an original script by James Hilburn.  He also frequently composed original music which he performed live for many of our productions—cello music for Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, and piano music for Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now, as well as Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

I’ve been blest, to have been served by such fine actors.  I am so glad there was an enthusiastic audience to see their marvelous work in our staged reading of Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris on December 3rd at the Lawrence Public Library.  Thank God for family and relatives, for Facebook friends, and for social media.  In the waning days of fading print, it is social media that’s helping us to get the word out to potential audiences for theatre.

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My Life As A Publicist (?!?!!)

December 3rd, 2015

Back in 1959, when my all-male Catholic high school in Manila staged The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by Herman Wouk, the Christian Brother (F.S.C.) in charge of the drama club arbitrarily assigned me to take care of publicity.  I was all of fifteen years old.  What did I know about writing press releases, or how to go about getting the newspapers to publish them?

There were five metropolitan newspapers in Manila at that time, so I bought and studied them all, analyzing the many news and photo releases, little realizing this would lead to my life as a publicist.  Back then, not only did I write the press releases, I also hand-delivered them lovingly to the offices of all five metropolitan newspapers, even managing to befriend some of the editors at each paper.  I think they were amused by how determined I was to get my drivel published.  Thus, I became the go-to guy whenever any of the campus organizations at La Salle needed publicity for whatever events they were sponsoring.

Some years later, when I was a very bored and disaffected freshman at Ateneo University in the outskirts of Manila, two of my newspaper contacts started their own public relations agencies, and they both asked me to help on a part-time basis as their Man Friday.

Monching Lopez handled all the publicity for an upscale theater which showed M-G-M movies exclusively.  Through him, I got to meet some movie stars who came to the Philippines to promote the films they were in—e.g., Alain Delon for Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win (he was rakishly charming), and Sue Lyon for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (she was surprisingly shy).

Borromeo Rausa handled all the publicity for the new Araneta Coliseum, reputed to be the world’s largest domed coliseum at that time, modeled after Madison Square Garden in New York.  Besides huge sporting events, the Araneta Coliseum also brought in a wide array of popular American entertainers, among them Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Johnny Mathis, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Neil Sedaka.  I hope to write about my close encounters with the starry kind sometime in the near future.

And then I dropped out of college altogether in 1962, going to work as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson for four years, and then for Philippine Advertising Counselors for two years, the exact same period covered by the hit television series Mad Men.  Like Don Draper, I sold my soul to the devil, and when I could no longer stomach the trivia that ruled my daily existence, I quit and left for the United States in June of 1968.  Sometime in the near future, I hope also to write about my life as Don Draper.

In the United States, I went back to school at the University of Kansas, where I took writing classes from Ed Wolfe in the English Department, and Ron Willis in the Theatre Department.  Thanks to these two inspiring and encouraging professors, for the next twenty years, I wrote short stories and plays, things of more substance and permanence than press releases and advertising copy.

And then it began all over again.

When I was hired by the English Department at K.U. to teach playwriting in 1989, it became evident very quickly that the only way my playwriting students can grow as playwrights, is for them to be able to see and hear their words performed by actors who can act, in front of audiences who can react, in order to get valuable feedback for their visions and revisions.  And so I founded English Alternative Theatre (EAT), a one-man band in which I had to do practically everything—from booking rehearsal spaces, to directing, to helping with scenic and lighting designs, to gathering props and costumes, to keeping tab on all receipts and accounting for all expenditures and, last but not least, to writing press releases!

Of all these tasks, the last one now proved to be the most difficult.  What’s the point of mounting a production, rehearsing every night for four or five weeks, if you can’t get the word out to audiences?  How do you write press releases referring to yourself in the third person without seeming self-serving, full of hubris?  Ultimately, this was the last straw.  When I retired from teaching in 2010, and English Alternative Theatre was finally laid to rest, the biggest relief was that I did not have to write any more press releases, no longer had to beat my own drum.

But not for long.

After a hiatus of five years, I’ve decided to direct a couple of staged readings of plays for Card Table Theatre at the Lawrence Public Library.  Last summer, we had only 16 people in the audience for one performance of Collected Stories, a prize-winning play by Donald Margulies.  And  tonight (December 3, 2015 at 7 PM), we will have one performance of my play Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris.  There are fourteen actors playing over forty parts in this play.  Their wondrous work deserves to be seen.  What if we get less people in the audience than there are actors on stage?  And so, two weeks ago, I began to write press releases again.  To quote T.S. Eliot:  “In my end is my beginning.”

I sent the items to the only newspaper in Lawrence, but as of today, no ink has been wasted on us.  Print has not been helpful this time, but will social media come to the rescue?  Will the family and relatives of the actors, and all our Facebook friends in the area, help save the day?  Will enthusiastic hordes beat down the auditorium doors at 7 tonight at the Lawrence Public Library?

Watch this space.

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