I’m sitting here at Memphis International Airport waiting for my lunch. I’m still trying to process the reading last night.
There are many playwrights for whom this would be just another day. They have readings of their work, they’re regularly produced, and so on.
Well, I hope that’s me someday. But it’s not… yet.
My earlier play (in another round of rewrites) “It’s Not Love on My Part,” got a reading from my local theatre group, my kind friends giving up their afternoon to help me out. They won’t mind me saying that this is different.
This was a blind submission. My play was one of hundreds. They didn’t know me from Adam. They just read my play and said amongst themselves, “This is one of the best of the bunch. Let’s pick it.”
I got into Memphis Sunday afternoon. I checked in and, most importantly, found out where I had to go to experience the best of Memphis BBQ. I’m actually convinced that every person here is on the Memphis Welcoming Committee.
I had a little time to enjoy and found myself walking Beale Street and surrounding Downtown district. Apparently on a 40 degree Sunday afternoon, nobody feels much like coming out to hear some live music, so I had the whole street to myself. I enjoyed me some Central BBQ – a must according to literally everyone I talked to (and now I agree) and made my way to the Playhouse on the Square for that night’s reading, “Goodbye Levee” by Mike Solomonson. It’s a play from the point of view of a middle-aged woman suffering from Lewy Body Dementia. The playwright uses a lifesize doll of the protagonist and the actress as a window into her deterioriating mind. There is some audience interaction and a host of confusing devices that he cleverly brings around to a resolution and an understanding of the reality she was struggling to process. I got to chat with Mike and we’ve exchanged emails and offers to read each others’ work and potentially collaborate.
That might actually the most unexpectedly cool outcome of the trip.
Monday I dilly-dallied, did some real work (*sigh*), and made my way to the BBQ Shop for lunch. Jesus pleezus, there is so much good BBQ around here. By the time I got to the airport this morning, I had learned of 5 other places I needed to try. I’m going to have to move here just to finish the list.
After lunch I went to the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s a lovely facility built out of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. I will write a separate post on this, because it was sobering, overwhelming, stunning, and, in its way, beautiful. If you are ever near here, you need to go. And if you come out unchanged, you are damaged beyond repair.
After a small salad, because, holy shit, I was going to dissolve into a puddle of grease if I had one more rib, I went to the reading.
Playhouse on the Square is a revelation of a theatre company. They have three main performance spaces (with a fourth apparently available at need.) They program about 17 or 18 shows every season, and their newest performance space is a “to-die-for” two level, state of the art theatre. Sunday’s reading was in that space, because one of their other shows had a performance that evening. They have run the New Works Festival for 4 or 5 years now, and they’re very proud of it. One of last year’s winners has just begun rehearsals for their full production and the playwright is due out next week to participate in some of the rehearsals. When I was still in King City, I tried to get a New Play Festival off the ground, just because I believe there is a metric ton of voices just waiting to be heard. I still believe that, and I applaud PotS and other companies that make room for these new works, and for people like me.
My reading was in their usual location, the Central Playhouse (just across the street from the new facility.) It’s the perfect mix of roomy and intimate – you could put on a pretty big musical, or a tough, intimate play, like mine or Mike’s, with equal success.
My play was directed by Jaclyn Suffel. She was kind enough to message ahead about a little bit that needed fixing: I had moved a brief conversation from the beginning of the play to early in the second act, but had neglected to remove it from its original place. It’s actually something I’d noticed after acceptance, but the competition has strict rules about revisions (as in DON’T!) so I let it be. But she wanted to make the cut, as did I, so I sent her the specifics and she got approval. She gave me some additional feedback that I think will be invaluable in revisions, and was backed up later by the actors in our talkback.
For those unfamiliar with “Stacks,” it’s a show about a daughter who discovers her mother’s a chronic hoarder and tries (poorly, yet humanly) to intervene. It turns out that Jaclyn’s mother is a chronic hoarder, and she lived this in the recent past. That’s actually why the Artistic Director asked her to direct my play.
The actors they selected were eerie, in that they, especially, Meghan Lisi, the young woman playing “Allie,” were quite similar to the people I saw in my mind when I was writing. Seth was played by Gabe Beutel-Gunn, who played it with a very nice vulnerability, and Mona was played by Karin Barile, who brought an unexpected desperation and brokenness to the part that really touched me.
I found myself really emotionally carried by their performances. There were many choices made that I hadn’t considered, and not one of them off-note. They improved my play, front to back, which I think is everything you can ask of a director and a cast.
There was one moment, in the very raw sequence leading up to the climax of the play, where I had a stage direction that said that Allie would kiss her mother on the forehead. I had written the estrangement in, and they had really leaned on it, rightly so, and there was no way she should be kissing her. I was thinking, “Oh, no, they’re going to follow my directions and it’s going to fuck it up.” And Meghan goes over to Karin and… pats her on the shoulder, trying to comfort her, awkwardly. It was so good, so right, and it will be rewritten when I return home.
During the talkback, we got to explore some tweaks that were needed to make the narrative make sense (some timeline and minor relationship aspects.) But Jaclyn, who had recently lived this sort of script in her own life, said, “There is no way he researched this. He’s lived this. There is someone in his life, close by,” which is some of the highest praise I can imagine. And one of the attendees, a clinical psychologist, deals with hoarding situations on a somewhat regular basis, and she told me straight up that it was absolutely on point, and that she believed every moment of it.
I’m still overwhelmed hearing that kind of validation.
So we hugged and shook hands and called it a night, and I’m still trying to bleed off the excess adrenaline.
All that remains is to learn whether it’s chosen for production next season. I hope it is. But if it is not, I will not be disappointed. I will feel validated, energized, and ready for the next step for this play, and for all the others I’m working on.
Thank you to Playhouse on the Square, to Jordan, to Jaclyn, and to everyone involved. And thank you to my primary supporter, my wife, Theresa, who for over thirty years has believed that I was good enough. I hope this is the first of many.
I know that this is the first of many.