Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Theater Company of Lafayette

Senior Moments, my latest full-length play, premiered the weekend of January 8th at the Theater Company of Lafayette, Colorado.   The theater was absolutely packed for all 3 performances, and we had to turn away quite a few people.  We’re considering putting on an additional run this summer, so watch this space.

Thank you to the Longmont Times-Call and the Boulder Camera for their great coverage.   Click here to read the Times-Call article.

Moments is made up of five funny, touching, slightly naughty short plays for and about people living in retirement homes.Moments consists of five funny, touching, slightly naughty short plays for and about people living in retirement homes.

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.

500-pound-gorilla3When I was a kid, I was so focused on what I was doing and what I wanted, that I tended to ignore everyone who I didn’t think would be of immediate use to me. All too frequently, that resulted in my footprints being on people’s foreheads. Yeah, I was a self-centered jerk!

Now I spend a lot more time trying to be nice – or at least helpful – to everyone. Mind you, I’m still not what most Boulderites would define as a nice (read “enlightened”) person. I’m not nearly enthusiastic enough holding hands and singing Kumbaya for that. It’s just that the older I get, the more evidence I see that “What goes around comes around.”

Don’t get the idea that I believe in divine justice, either. But if there are lots of people who “owe you one” then sooner or later, some of it is going to be repaid. And since it’s a mighty complex world out there, you never know who it is who can do something nice for you, so you’d better be nice to everyone.

And the converse is true. If you are an asshole to enough people, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. (See my gloating post, “May they all get halitosis . . .”)

What brings this to mind today is a column by John Moore, the theater columnist of the Denver Post. He came to see Friday night’s performance of “Separated at Birth: The Lincoln/Darwin Plays. (My play, “The Debate” is one of the works in “Separated at Birth” and I’m acting the part of Darwin in it.) I’d expected to see a review of the plays in the Sunday paper, but instead there was a piece about the fact that at the recent Colorado New Play Summit, a panel of theater leaders from throughout the U.S. had spoken with such delight about the impending fall from power of theater critics in traditional print news media. (“Death of Criticism: Careful What You Wish For”)  Moore calls it “grave-stomping,” and part of the piece details the many benefits that critics provide the theater community.

I tend do agree with him, but I can certainly understand the reaction of the panelists. Theater critics are renowned for being frequently brutal in their reviews of plays and the people who create them. Either they have had so little regard for those people that they just don’t care, or they thought that this is the way to sell more newspapers and magazines. Probably both.

Contrast this with a critic who has reviewed several of my plays (to avoid being accused of pandering, I won’t mention his name). That critic always manages to be gently even-handed in his reviews, pointing out the good along with the bad. The audience gets the idea, but even when a review of my play was less than glowing, I couldn’t help but feel fairly treated and supportive of the columnist.  That’s just to show that there is an alternative to brutality in theater criticism.

But that’s the exception, rather than the rule, and now that print media is in crisis, there are seems to be an inexhaustible supply of people lining up in gleeful anticipation of stomping on the graves of the theater critics.

So let that be a lesson to all you 500 pound gorillas, you muscle-bound beach bullies. All the rest of us may be 98 pound weaklings today. But you may not 500 pounds and muscle-bound forever.

the-debate-3The opening of my play, “The Debate,” about Charles Darwin was this past Saturday night.  I’m playing the role of Darwin in it.  That’s me, hamming it up in the picture.

When Madge Montgomery, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Lafayette, spoke to me about submitting a script for their Lincoln/Darwin play festival (Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th, 1809), I knew relatively little about either man.  Having lived 20 years in England, I was more intrigued with the idea of writing something about Darwin, and I had a feeling that more of the submissions were going to be about Lincoln.   So I went on-line and spent about 15 hours reading everything I could find on Darwin, his family, his colleagues, Victorian England, ….  Then I headed off to the University of Colorado library and got out Darwin’s autobiography, as well of that of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s protege and self-proclaimed “bulldog.”

When I started the research, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about.  One thing that I was certain of was that I didn’t want to write about the controversy over whether or not evolution is scientifically valid.  (Of course it is.  Sorry, Creationists.)

But since I’ve started as a playwright, I’ve found that when I immerse myself in a subject, something invariably presents itself that has to be written.

In this case, I soon became caught up in Darwin’s description of his relationship with Huxley.  Darwin had formulated the bases of the theories of evolution and natural selection by the time he was 29, but he realized what social, religious and political dynamite he was dealing with.  So he spent the next 20 years gathering more evidence and biding his time.  Then a colleague named Wallace sent him a letter with many of the same ideas, and Darwin rushed “Origin of Species” out in a few months.  A year later an impromptu debate occurred at the Oxford Museum of Natural History pitting the supporters of evolution against the Creationists.   Darwin, who was ill and house-bound most of his life, wasn’t at the debate, but Huxley was and defended Darwin’s theories.

In Darwin’s autobiography, he talks about how he would constantly chide Huxley for being so aggressive in attacking everyone who dared to question his (Darwin’s) theories.  In contrast, Darwin was deeply into being a gentleman scientist and believed in dealing civilly with everyone.

The action of my play occurs a few weeks after the Oxford Debate, when Huxley comes to Darwin’s house to tell him about what had transpired.  And the “Debate” of the title refers to both the Oxford Debate and the heated debate that Darwin and Huxley engage in on a scientist’s responsibility to take into account the potential impact of his discoveries before making them public.

Thoughtful stuff for a loose cannon like me, who has a habit of deciding what he thinks needs to be done and declares “Full speed ahead,” huh?

The next day, I did a gig as Darwin at a Unitarian Universalist service in the area.  The Unitarians, and the Universalists in particular, claim Darwin as one of their own.  After speaking with the Reverend, I made up an extract from the play that seemed relevant to the theme of their service.  In costume and with my phony British accent coming and going, I addressed the congregation.  They seemed to enjoy it, and it was a real kick for me.

I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, and I must say that it was a revelation for me.  Much of what I heard was what has been going through my head for the last 50 years.  It was a lot like coming home after a lifetime away.

After the service, a woman came up to me and said that she thought she’d worked with me many years earlier.  It turned out that we had trained together in Chicago in January, 1974 (!!!) before flying together to Iran and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Tehran for the Iranian army.  (See “Up close and personal — with your chicken thighs” and “Banging on doors, yelling ‘Those Bastards.’ “)

Small world, huh?  Amazing that she’d recognize me after all these years.  I guess it’s because I’m succeeding in my obligation to live forever and stay young and beautiful all that time.  On the other hand, I do have a painting in the attic that’s getting old and ugly!