Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Des Moines

Last night we had the 6th of 8 performances of Taste of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  (I’m in a Renaissance quintet that we formed to sing before and during the play.)

Merchant of Venice has sometimes been tough to swallow.  It’s a great play, but it’s deeply anti-Semitic.  While it’s probable that Shakespeare didn’t have anything personal against Jews — they were expelled from England in 1290 and weren’t officially allowed back in until 1655 — anti-Semitism remained widespread in Britain.  As well read as Shakespeare was, he would have been exposed to it in literature and come to regard it as accepted wisdom.  The play reflects that fact.

Nonetheless, we’ve gotten through 6 performances of Merchant of Venice so far without any picketing.  It is Shakespeare, after all, so people make allowances.

Jump forward 400 years to the readings of my play, Postville, (The Plays, They’re Hijacking My Play) this past week.Postville Reading

When I started talking about writing a play about the events in Postville, my family and friends pleaded with me not to.

“There’s no way you’re going to be able to write this play without it being anti-Semitic,” they told me.

“Sure there is,” I responded, although I have to admit that at the time I wasn’t quite convinced.  Unless the play was going to be too sticky-sweet to say anything, it was going to have to tread through a host of “ism” minefields — anti-Semitism, anti-immigrantism, anti-Midwest farmerism, …

I’m convinced that I’ve achieved the objective of writing a play that deals sensitively and appropriately with a number of difficult issues.  But each time there’s a public reading — this past week were the second and third — I’m concerned that I’m going to get the crap kicked out of me by people who hear individual sentences but miss the point.

“You said that Jews are cheap!”  Kaboom!

“You showed a Hispanic immigrant who couldn’t speak English well!”  Crash!

Some of that happened in Des Moines in March, but I knew it would.  (See Write Your Own Damn Play.)

There was only one instance of it this week.  And that was a woman who beat me up for not following up in the play on the otherwise un-referred-to occupants of a bus that gets clobbered by a train.  Anti-innocent-bystanderism?  (Come on, Lady, even Tolstoy when he was writing War and Peace had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out!)

I’m hugely relieved, but I’ll continue to worry about people who are so burned by their hot buttons that they can’t or won’t see things in context.

So here’s my plea. Just treat me with the same consideration you’d give Shakespeare.  That wouldn’t be so hard, would it?

I heard yesterday that my “Postville” play was selected as one of the winners in the 2009 Playwrights Showcase of the Western Region playwrighting competition.  The competition was open to writers from the 23 states west of the Mississippi River.  During the Showcase (some time from August 5th – 8th), “Postville” will have a staged reading at the Curious Theatre in Denver.

The award is certainly comforting after the flagellation I got from the activists and superannuated playwriting professors at the reading at StageWest in Des Moines.  From the audience reaction I knew the play was better than that, but it’s still nice to get some recognition like this.

The other good news is that “Shakespeare Incorporated” is going to be produced in London, either this Autumn or early next Spring.

Last summer, when “(Not) At Home” was being produced at the Boulder International Fringe Festival, the Fringe folks contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to house some out-of-town artists.  I looked at the list and noticed that some of them were from the U.K.  Maybe I’ll make a contact that will help in marketing my work in the U.K, I thought.  So I agreed to house a Brit.

Sure enough, I made contact with Andy McQuade, a wonderful actor and the Artistic Director of the Second Skin Theatre Company in London.  I gave him a copy of “Shakespeare Incorporated,” and he loved it.  About 6 weeks ago he contacted me, and we’ve signed a deal for him to produce “SI” in London.  He’s looking for a suitable theater venue now.  I’ll post more when things are finalized.

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

In case you didn’t recognize it, this is my happy face.smileyface

hasidic-jewsIt’s been a mighty busy week in the great scheme of play marketing.

Last Monday I flew to Omaha and then rented a car and drove to Des Moines for a public reading of “Postville” at StageWest.  (“Postville” is my play about the group of Hasidic Jews who bought a defunct meatpacking plant in a struggling, northeast Iowa town and reopened it as a kosher facility.  Click here for the synopsis.)   There was a rehearsal on Monday night and then the reading was Tuesday night.  There were over 100 people at the reading, which is about three times the turnout that they normally get for this kind of thing.  Given the media attention the play has gotten, that wasn’t surprising.

The reading went better than I had hoped for — people laughed at the right times, they oohed and aahed at the right times, they even wiped their eyes and sniffled at the right times.  Wait!  Maybe that was me wiping and sniffling.  But the laughing and oohing and aahing is the gospel truth.

Everybody seemed engrossed in the play from the first page through the end, an hour and forty intermission-free minutes later.  No shuffling in seats, no checking of watches or talking among themselves, and only two people running out to the rest room.  And when it was over, there was sustained, enthusiastic applause.  I’ve been around theater enough to know the difference between polite, “Let’s get out of here, but not embarrass the cast” applause, and “This was really pretty good” applause.  This was the latter.

Next there was a 5 minute potty break.  Most of the audience then left, but about 30 people returned for a talk-back session.

The events in Postville (see the article on the play in the Iowa Independent or the Des Moines Register for some of the background) have been in the news in Iowa on a daily basis for the past year, and it has all been incredibly traumatic and emotional for the people of Iowa.  Was the owner of the plant  guilty of immigration and human-rights violations?  Or was the whole thing being blown out of proportion by the media because he is a member of a Jewish religious sect?  Did the immigration agents abuse the rights of the illegal immigrants?  There are dozens of issues here.

Given the level of attention and emotion, I knew that many Iowans were going to have very strong prejudices about what should be the focus of the play, what should be included and excluded, and even whether it should have been written at all.  So I was expecting to get beaten up by at least some of the people who remained for the talk-back session.  And I was.

Three groups emerged from those who stayed.  Five or six people were what I’ll call activists.  They came with an axe to grind, and they were going to grind it.  How dare I write a fictional play (the play has been marketed as a fictional account, inspired by the events in Postville) and use the name of the town?  I should either write a documentary, 100% factual, or else I should move the setting of the play somewhere else, change the Hasidim to some other group (Amish?), and make it otherwise unrecognizable.  Some people insisted I should make it more clear that the owner of the plant was criminally guilty.  Others insisted that I should make him completely innocent.

You get the idea.  Nobody likes to talk more or louder than a social activist with an audience.  These 5 or 6 people each had vastly differing opinions, each insisted that I  HAD TO change the play as he or her wanted it changed.  Between them they monopolized most of the conversation.

The second group was made up of three older college playwriting professors.  Someone who has taught playwriting for 40 years gets used to looking for problems and telling their students how to fix them.  And the students have to listen to them.  So off we went to the races with the professors being professorial, recommending changes that ranged from throwing out 80% of the play to throwing out 120% of the play and starting over.  My favorite suggestion from this group was that the play shouldn’t have 11 characters and take place in and around the main street of the town of Postville, it should have 2 characters and all take place in the living room of one of the Hasidic Jews.  In Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  Thanks a lot.  Very helpful.

The third group was made up of normal theater-goers, a few of whom said nice things about the play, but most of whom sat in shocked silence while the activists eviscerated me and the playwriting professors eviscerated my play.

Later, the people from StageWest and several of the readers told me that they couldn’t believe with how much aplomb I had sat and absorbed the abuse.  One of them said to me, “But I guess you’ve been to this sort of rodeo before.”  Amen to that, sister.  It takes a thick skin to be a playwright!

By the way, the feedback from the cast and the artistic management of StageWest is that “Postville” is a good play, which may need some tweaking but certainly doesn’t need to be gutted before moving on to production.  (Thank you to Ron, Ron, Todd, and the cast for your hard work.  You did a great job.)

The next day I drove to Postville and met with several people, including the rabbi of the town’s Hasidic community and the man who had been the mayor during and after the raids.   Overall, I felt I got a mandate to go ahead with the play basically as is, and to leave it referring to Postville.  Several of the people I talked to said that it may even do the town some good.  And the ex-mayor suggested that I submit “Postville” to nearby Luther College to see if they would be interested in producing it.

The next step is a reading of “Postville” at the Theater Company of Lafayette (Colorado) in September, and a production at their Mary Miller Theater next February.

Take that, bleeding heart activists!  And for everyone who told me what I HAVE TO DO to rewrite most or all of the script, write your own damn play.

des-moines-register-logoAn article on my Postville play was published this morning in the Des Moines Register.  Click HERE to read the article.  And In case you haven’t taken a look at my blog about the play, see “They’re Hijacking My Play.”

Some people have objected in online comments to the Register article that all the press coverage of the Postville raids mentions the fact that the owners and managers of the plant are Jewish.  The comments point out that when other companies have problems, the religion of their managers is not mentioned.

That was a big concern of mine when I decided to write the play.  Friends and family all warned me that I wasn’t going to be able to write  a play about the events in Postville without it appearing to be anti-Semitic.  I assured them that as a playwright writing a fictionalized account, I’d have the freedom to write the play to make exactly the opposite point.  In catastrophic situations there will often be people looking for villains, but in many cases the accusations are unfounded.

The issues I deal with in the play revolve around the groups being different and how they deal with that.  The conflict and action of the play would be similar whether the groups were Jewish, Christian, Latino, or Martian.  The fact that one of the groups was Hasidic Jews simply provided an opportunity to examine the issues in extreme and often humorous situations.

Whether I succeed in the task I’ve set out for myself remains to be seen.

iowa_independent_logoLast week’s The Iowa Independent and The Colorado Independent each published feature articles on my Postville play.  See my post on “They’re Hijacking My Play,” and click on the newspaper names above to see the articles.

Grant Schulte, a reporter from The Des Moines Register saw The Iowa Independent article and interviewed me over the phone today for an hour.  His article will be published in this Saturday’s Register.