Saturday, November 5, 2016

The 2nd Annual Cleveland Playwrights Festival

I got mine.
For nearly a quarter century I have been presenting or attending original work in rough, urban, Cleveland settings.

Recently, we attended Twelfth Night at the Hanna Theatre, and it was truly remarkable, perhaps my favorite production of that play, and produced in the most beautiful theater space in the city. Sitting in a plush, comfortable seat, the carpeted stairs and chandeliers, the molded plaster and paint, a classic home for the living arts, warm, soft and inviting.

Last night I was present for the opening evening of the Playwrights Local 2nd Annual Cleveland Playwrights Festival held at Waterloo Arts in a vast storefront; concrete floor, plastic chairs, the back row a former church pew. A simple platform stage. The pressed tin ceiling is a telling vestige of the room’s history; perhaps a hardware store, or maybe a bar, some time eighty years ago.

Earlier that night my colleagues and I had walked the length of Waterloo to get coffee, and I felt that I was had been transported to the Tremont of my twenties, as though all of that neighborhood had been confined to one side of one street. A working class neighborhood, down on its heels, where hipsters and artists had taken root and created a funky vibe and have attracted the strangest crowd of people.

Derf had an opening last night for his The Baron of Prospect Avenue, featuring all the original panels of the soon-to-be-released novel, I popped in and got a signed copy of Trashed. There are other galleries, and boutiques, not one but two vinyl record stores, and of course the storied Beachland Ballroom, where I have attended concerts, a film festival, and most recently School of Rock performances featuring my son on the drums.

With our coffee we dipped back into Waterloo Arts for a staged reading of that script I have been working on, The Way I Danced With You, and later an absurd, hilarious and profane audience interactive piece of work by three playwrights entitled Marry, Fuck, Kill.

Melissa took special care with my script, and I am grateful for all of the time and attention. We had a read-through last weekend, and then then she spent nearly ten hours over two nights working with Kim and Ryan in that space, blocking a script-in-hand performance.

I was grateful for the special attention. This piece has been read aloud in rehearsal rooms for small, invited audiences, received a standing read at Last Frontier, and now this, and at each stage the work has been expanded and focused. I have been listening and revising, listening and revising, and I have not had the freedom to do that with many of my recent works. There have been deadlines, and I have had to make and meet them.

The rehearsals, while not cold, were cool. The cement floor and dim light, before the space was made bright and clear and warm for an audience. When we rehearsed Hamlet in the Brick Alley space in the early months of 1999 we had two choices, heat or quiet. The Brick Alley was literally an alley between two brick buildings which had at some point had a metal roof installed and the heating unit was LOUD. We’d run it for every available moment during breaks, and then shut it off so we could hear the Shakespeare, the heat swiftly dissipating into nothing.

My first production at Cleveland Public Theater (Junk Bonds by Lucy Wang) we rehearsed in what had recently been an appliance store on street level. It was spring, 1995 but a Cleveland spring, again, there was cement and it was cold. Reznor heating units are a potent symbol of the creative process.

My reading was well-attended, there were well over thirty people, pretty much every seat taken. A lot of familiar faces but also many that were not. The leap that had taken by both performers from the previous night to this was remarkable. Kim particularly ramped up both her charm and intensity right where it was needed the most, and I don’t know whether it’s in the writing or some innate talent with mimicry but after meeting only a week ago, Ryan was suddenly doing an uncanny impression of me.

This is a music stand.
My takeaway from Alaska was that the two characters had to equally share the story, which is hard because she is hiding so much. My recent attention has been to throw focus on her (and take some away from him) and from last night’s reaction I believe I have found that medium. The piece runs at a neat hour twenty, and I did not feel a moment when the audience checked out, no coughing, no fidgeting, everyone sat stock still when they were silent but there was a lot of laughter, and an awful lot of laughter -- including during the third scene, which is when the room in Valdez fell silent.

Melissa ran the talkback, which I have to say was entirely satisfying, as the audience was focused on all of the issues I have hoped to address in the work. The term quarterlife came up, and indeed, that is the central focus of the final act, that sense of regret you feel before you’ve even really started.

Also noted was what I call Thelma & Louise syndrome. One out of one hundred audience members want to know what happened to Thelma and Louise after they made it to the other side of the canyon. Some people are so entirely optimistic that if you do not show them the smoking wreck, they have to imagine for themselves a happy ending. My piece has an open ending, but most in the room were realistic about the outcome.

The big, scary thing about this play (one said) is that everything you know can be wrong. Yes, that was my intention, and I was so relieved to hear that. What's next?

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019.

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