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Brand New Plays – Traditional New Season

Realized something the other day, and it instilled in me a whole new level of fatigue. In the past calendar year, I’ve been involved in the creation and/or production of six new pieces of theatre. Six world premieres! Now some were (and in some I was) less involved than others, but they were, in order of appearance:

- Midnight’s double bill of SOLDIER BOY and THE LITTLE FRENCHY FILES, which I produced, wrote and directed.

- Upstream’s THE RETURN OF THE BEDBUG ( nominated, like SOLDIER and FRENCHY, for outstanding new production from the Kevin Klines), in which I played two roles.

- Tin Ceiling and Non-Prophets’ seven/24 event (seven plays written and produced in 24 hours) where I acted in Jamie Kurth and Robert A. Mitchell’s LUCKY BREAK.

- And in the just-wrapped site-specific productions of THE SHOOT by Lauren Dusek and DODGING AND BURNING by Dan Rubin fron Onsite Theatre. I had roles in both plays.

The Upstream full-length presentation of Philip Boehm’s adaptation of a classic Russian play wasn’t an easy process. Led by Boehm, the entire cast pitched in to create characters, even some scenes and dialogue, to bring this 1930’s Russian satire into the 21st Century and into St. Louis.

Of course, writing and getting SOLDIER and FRENCHY up on their feet was no walk in the park.

With Onsite, director Justin Rincker worked us hard. He had to, in order to give some order to two brand new scripts in site-specific space.

And even though LUCKY BREAK was only ten minutes, we did do it in only one long day.

I think I must have had some kind of drive or obsession, almost like a vitamin deficiency or something, that made me continue to gravitate towards this new work. Not that that was all I was looking for. I auditioned for Upstream’s season, and was cast in BEDBUG, and I did produce and perform THE GOOD THIEF in the midst of this.

But there’s an undeniable thrill, almost an extra high of the high you get working and presenting theatre, that comes from the work being new and presented for the first time. Of course, there’s also a tremendous challenge, to bring the work to life. I guess it could be compared, in a sacrilegious manner, to giving birth, with all the pain, anxiety, exhaustion, and pride that entails.

One who understands that is my recent frequent partner, Sarah Whitney (director of Midnight’s ST. NICHOLAS, CUL-DE-SAC, THE GOOD THIEF and the upcoming Harry Truman show.) Over the past few years, Sarah has focused on working with new plays both in her native Chicago and here at Wash U.

That being said, I think I’ve got my fix, and am ready to move into the 2008/2009 season with Midnight presenting two plays that have been seen before.

Indeed, I did one of them before. On the heels of James Whitmore’s iconic and near never-ending tour as Truman in “GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY,” I performed the play during the Fall, 1992, at Orthwein Theatre Company, directed by Milt Zoth. I wanted to perform it as my political statement for Bill Clinton and the Democrats (and also because I’d always had a fleeting hometown boy flirtation for Truman, which turned into an awed respect and passion for the man and his story.)

That production, in a roundabout way, helped spark of the idea of Midnight’s eventual production of THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES. Attending Orthwein’s “GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY” show was John Sant’Ambrogio, principal cellist for the St. Louis Symphony at the time (and father of Sara Sant’Ambrogio, cellist for the acclaimed Eroica Trio.) For several previous summers, he had produced a successful chamber music series in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Now he was thinking of including theatre in the mix, but small, specifically one-person, shows. He liked my performance, and I was ready to sign up, but he eventually brought in the veteran film character actor Kevin McCarthy, who had been touring with the show, to do Truman. He figured, no doubt correctly, that the movie actor name would bring in bigger audiences. He got back to me after that first summer season, and after saying very nicely that my Truman was better than McCarthy’s (McCarthy, still performing into his 90’s, is a good actor, but looks nothing like Truman), Sant’Ambrogio said he wanted to work with me, and asked if I had any other one-man shows up my sleeve, maybe something with a Midwestern or even Missouri twist. Out of the blue, not knowing where it came from, I said, “How ‘bout Jesse James?” (I hadn’t really thought much about Jesse at that time, but immediately flashed on a two-person show, with me as Jesse and Larry Dell as Frank, doubling as a guitar-playing narrator.) John said, “Great, can I read the script?” And, with show biz instincts kicking in, I said, “Sign me up, show me a contract, and I’ll write the script.” It was a Mexican standoff and while that gig never resulted, THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES did. Several years later, the idea floated back, and I wrote the script (with then Midnight partner Dave Wassilak as Jesse, Larry Dell shifting to Cole Younger, but keeping guitar and narrative duties, and me taking on the Frank role.)

But in the last several months, with the 2008 campaign underway, I thought about the timely possibility of doing Truman again. Now I’m closer to Truman’s age in this script, and, working with Sarah Whitney on several productions, I’ve learned a whole lot about doing one-man shows.

And Truman continues to fascinate me. His journey from 19th Century Missouri farmland to pressing the button as the only man who’s ever dropped nuclear weapons on other people staggers me. As does his personal growth from a rural upbringing to national and world leadership. The challenges he faced, both in his formation as a politician, and in the turmoil of Post WWII-American (economic chaos, the Cold War, Korea, McArthur, McCarthy, etc) as President, and the wisdom, grace and humanity he brought to each challenge are lessons to be learned.

When I received the Request for Proposal from The Missouri History Museum about their upcoming Performing Arts Series, it seemed a natural. They thought the same, and I’m already at work on the show. And happy and looking forward to be directed in it by Sarah Whitney.

At the same time this Truman show was gestating, I was looking for another project to work with my son, Travis, again. I came across a show I remembered from the movie version with Jack Lemmon, MASS APPEAL. The 1980-era script had been updated, and I thought the role of the fiery, young, “What would Jesus do?” seminarian was a natural for Trav.

Recent productions of the show have been somewhat dismissed as fairly light entertainment, and while I think the play is entertaining, I believe its examination of faith and how it’s professed and practiced will resonate a little stronger right today. The rise of religious fervor and its relation to social issues and politics in this era make the issues explored in MASS APPEAL important to all thinking people, especially in relation to our selves and our own moral and social stands.

I was lucky to interest Steve Springmeyer in the show, and he’ll be taking on the role of the older Parish priest, who is changed by the passionately spiritual seminarian. And very lucky to secure Christ Church Cathedral as a performance space. I’m hoping just the chance to see (or see again) this magnificent structure will draw people, with the play as a bonus. Built in 1867, the Gothic revival church is a National Historic Landmark, and a truly awesome, truly spiritual place. It will be as good a set as I could ever hope for.

So from the scrambling, how-do-we-do-this, what-does-this-mean, often bare bones process of putting up brand new plays, I (as Midnight) am moving into two classic spaces with two truly mainstream shows. I’m hoping for a soft landing and two more unique theatre experiences.

 

 


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