Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘play reading

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.

don-in-the-mountains1As an apparently single, eligible (read breathing) male in my late 50s, I seem to be flavor of the month for persons of the female persuasion in their mid 60s.  The thing is, I’m not single; it just looks that way.

Rhonda and I have been married for 37 years, and there’s no end to that status looming on the near horizon.  When we decided to return to the U.S. after living all over Europe for 30 years, she participated in the exercise to list what we wanted in a place to retire to and which places matched the requirements.  Boulder, Colorado won, and we moved there June, 2004.

In the next couple of years, however, a steady stream of grandchildren were being born in Austin, Texas, and Rhonda’s father became seriously ill in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  30 years of pent-up familial devotion quickly overwhelmed her, and she decided that she had never been all that crazy about Boulder in the first place.  So she started spending more and more time at an apartment that we rented for her in Austin and at her parents’ house in Gaithersburg.  Now that her father has passed away, she spends about 80% of her time in Austin, participating enthusiastically in the care of a horde of grandchildren, and about 20% of her time visiting her family in Maryland.

rhondaThat’s right, 80 plus 20 equals 100.  She’s not interested in being in Colorado and, while I adore my grandchildren, I’ve developed a life that I love here and I’m not interested in participating in full-contact child care.  We’re both too stubborn to budge, so when I want to see her, I get on a plane and go wherever she is for a week or two.  That usually turns out being 3 or 4 times a year.

When Rhonda tells women her age about our arrangement, they are horrified at first.  But then they quickly come to the conclusion that a distance of a thousand miles and visits of 3 or 4 weeks a year is just about the perfect situation.

In Colorado I spend my time writing plays and books and being involved in productions and publishing, working with several local theater and playwrights’ organizations, taking classes at CU, singing and being on the board of the Rocky Mountain Chorale, being on the board of the Boulder County Arts Alliance, and hiking when I can with the Boulder Outdoor Group.  The approximate female to male ratio in all of those activities is about 80-20, so a lot of my social life revolves around women. I always make it a point to explain my domestic situation to new acquaintances, but occasionally there is some confusion, and that’s when the fun starts.

For example, about a year ago I met a charming lady on a hike with the local Sierra Club.  To save her any embarrassment, we’ll call her Mary.  Mary and I hit it off immediately, and I invited her to have dinner at my house before going together to a public reading of one of my plays.  I had explained my marital situation to lots of people on the hike, but I guess Mary wasn’t one of them.   Because as the appointed day approached, I got stronger and stronger signals that she was interested in something more serious than occasionally going out together to dinner and the theater.  So as soon as she arrived at my house I took her on the “Rhonda” tour, which was my way of making my status clear without greeting her at the door with “By the way, I’m married.”

I guess all those years of living outside of the U.S. has given Rhonda and me some un-American ideas, but I really am capable of having platonic friendships with women and Rhonda is OK (I think) with it.  However, most people don’t seem to understand (believe?) that, and Mary was clearly one of those.  A couple of weeks after our get-together, I received an email from her thanking me for being so honest and saying that she was uncomfortable going out on “dates” together.  What would Rhonda think?  I replied that I wasn’t interested in “dating,” just having someone to socialize with, and that I had told Rhonda all about Mary and our evening both before and afterwards (on our nightly phone call, as we talk about most things going on in our lives).  I concluded, a bit facetiously I’m afraid, by offering to get Rhonda to send her a signed permission slip authorizing me to go out with her.

In the end, the permission slip was not required.  Mary and I are still friends — she came to my choir concert last weekend — and she has met Rhonda several times at productions of my plays.

So that’s the story of how I got to be an eligible-looking part-time husband, living alone in a great big house with a fantastic view of snow-covered mountains.