Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Is The Times!

The improv comedy troupe "The Times" circa 1955.
Clockwise from left: Barney Silver, Danny Michaels, Desmond Brown, Julia Baker.*

In January of this year I presented what was then the one act play Centennial! to the Playwrights' Unit. It is now the first act of a play tentatively called Cleveland Centennial which includes a revised and expanded version of This Is The Times as the second act.

Times began as a potential outreach tour script, one which dealt with the effect of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on ordinary citizens, with an emphasis on those in "show biz." A very early version was presented as a staged reading in late 2008. It included a great deal of verbatim text from HUAC testimony celebrities such as Peter Seeger, Judy Holliday, Paul Robeson and Arthur Miller, but what tied it together was this troupe of Cleveland-area performers.

Dropping the House Committee testimony brought the bare-boned story of The Times down to about forty minutes. Fleshing out that tale has represented my work of late, and tying the two pieces together. Begging the Unit's patience, we read the first act, which they had already heard in a similar version, and the new second act.

It came as a great relief to me that this earlier piece, The Times, was received more or less with satisfaction. GH stated flatly that he felt Times was its own complete play, which did not require the "backstory" of Centennial. That's good, and directs me to concentrate now on Centennial, to make it its own play, worthy of standing alone.

Two stand alone plays, different styles of performance, with a common thread.

I was asked the big questions, the basic questions. What is the question asked at the beginning of Centennial that must be answered? Where is the seed that is planted in the first act that grows to fruition in the second? To put it another way, where is Chekhov's gun and when does it go off? I can answer these questions. Oh yes, I can. And I will finish it before 2012.
"Whatever the idea behind the Living Newspaper in the beginning, circumstance and influence of one kind or another have modified it. A literally rough estimate of it at the moment would be: 'Combine the newspaper and the theatre and to hell with both traditions.' In the beginning we thought we would dramatize current news, it never occurring to us at the moment that the current news at hand was likely to be very weak stuff." - Morris Watson, 1936
TKT pointed out the difference in tone reader LJH took in performing the character of The Voice of the Living Newspaper. She was, as I had requested, like a big, bold, sassy headline with most of her delivery, but then there are places where she interacts with "citizens" and there is much more interesting, with character. LHJ herself suggested that the Voice might take a more active role in showing people (the audience) around, if the point is to showcase Cleveland. I feel at this point this piece is too stagey where it should have more attitude, just as it strives to be too deep where it should be handled with a lighter touch.

Who is the main character? If it is Cleveland itself, who will care? MO said the history stuff was just boring ("I don't care about the shit I can Google.") that he sat through waiting for the stuff that's about people. With the Voice as a real person, history could become character stuff.

I need to revisit the character of Avery Brundage. He's such an ass.

It came as a relief to hear BP point up that the political business does have contemporary resonance. What was surprising to me, before the reading, was how much was biting in 2010 which seems dated only one year later.

There's a lot of work, but it's not the 'drop everything and start again' kind of work. I've got it. I can see it. I will get it there.

*Actually Mark Cipra, Daniel McElhnaney, Darius Stubbs and Elizabeth Wood, in December 2008.

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