For most of my (so-called) theatre career, working with other, established companies and choosing much of my own work, it seems I’ve most often worked with established, even classic scripts. You know the kind - the scripts that everyone knows or seems to know, with regular expected beats and stories with beginnings-middles-etc. And I love that stuff. At the Orthwein, I pushed for several truly classic scripts to direct myself - DETECTIVE STORY, HARVEY, OUR TOWN.
Now even then I did my share of new scripts, even experimental. One of my first ventures in St. Louis were two totally unauthorized stage adaptations - my take on R.D. Laing’s (the Scottish psychiatrist famed for working with schizophrenics and LSD) BIRD OF PARADISE, and Salinger’s FRANNY. While FRANNY was a more conventional brother-sister dialogue, BIRD OF PARADISE, as I remember, was totally nutzoid.
It was at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, where Dave Wassilak and I took our HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS script in 2003, where I drew a sharp distinction between new, experimental theatre and the traditional stage. And inspired by what I saw there, I told myself, “I want to do Fringe.” That attitude was reflected in some of what Midnight tackled - scripts mostly new to St. Louis, several I wrote myself. And it was evident in the several years of shows I presented at the St. Louis Fringe - definitely Fringe-worthy scripts.
But just recently I’ve been drawn to or happened upon scripts that are “right down the middle” - shows about middle, middle-class Americans - particularly POPCORN FALLS and CHARLIE JOHNSON READS ALL OF PROUST. And it’s made me think about this mixed-up crazy theatre scene and community I’m part of. I’ve found myself, somewhat inexplicably, frustrated and irritated by some of the new, progressive(?) theatre happening in town. Full of energy and ideas, but often challenging to put together or understand in any fashion, I’ve come to think of it as “kids” theatre - not childrens’ theatre per se, but the type of theatre you come across in universities - the rehearsal rooms where students come in tap-dancing.
And so I found myself this Spring producing a show - POPCORN FALLS - about a typical Americana midwest small town, with all the eccentric, recognizable citizen types you can imagine. Nothing tricky or very new about it - just the fast moving, comic sensibility that made the show so likable.
I do think we tricked the St. Louis critics with this one, though. Even with all the critics praising the performances, they seemed lackluster or even critical of the script. I thought the script was a comedy gem, with enough innovation to make it stand out among typical fare.
And then CHARLIE JOHNSON READS ALL OF PROUST happened. Never was there a more standard, Indiana-set, good old story, featuring a similar lead character/narrator. The show terrified me at first. I wondered if anyone would stay with it, this almost by-the-numbers life of a regular guy. But audiences were right with us. They ate up the story, and the related characters. I think everyone in the audience knew people like CHARLIE, and his family and acquaintances, and everyone related to the challenges his life presented. Critics, too, went big in their praise of the show, finding more in it than I had foreseen.
These shows proved to me that there is a place in today’s theatre for good stories, for traditional themes that we’ve seen and lived. There’s value in going right down the middle.