Tuesday, March 13, 2012

W4G peeks into the Apple

Playwright Doric Wilson was born in Washington State and grew up amid the opulent greenery of the Pacific Northwest. His move to the grittiness of New York City in 1958 might have been a disaster…but it wasn’t. That was also the same year that James Baldwin was becoming the toast of the town even though his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, had had such a difficult time finding an US publisher. It was also the period in which the West Village was bursting with an interracial art scene that was sparking all kinds of creativity.

Baldwin, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and others mingled with the newly hip generation of artists listening to bebop and solving the problems of the world over bottles of Chianti. Doric Wilson landed in NYC and helped turn Café Cino, a small, somewhat shabby space into a theatre venue known around the world. His plays (And He Made Her, Now She Dances) entered the lexicon of downtown theatre. He was also a social activist and a member of the Gay Activist Alliance, the precursor to the current LGBT movement organizations today.

I’ve no idea if Wilson and Baldwin ever met in those fertile years of the Villages, both East and West. The differing focuses of their activism probably would not have landed them at the same cocktail parties. But they met this past January in mid-town Manhattan when the gay theatre organization Doric Wilson co-founded, produced a reading of Waiting for Giovanni.

TOSOS, which stands for The Other Side of Silence, is part of Doric Wilson’s legacy. When Mark Finley and Kathleen Warnock of TOSOS invited me to have W4G read in January to kick off their 2012 reading season my answer was an enthusiastic yes!  New York is the natural home for W4G since Baldwin was a ‘native son’ and that had been my theatre home for so many years.

But it is a weird thing to see a reading of your play that’s already had a full production. I almost felt like I was cheating on a lover. Or I could say a full cast and crew of lovers!  I had done some rewrites…nothing to totally remake the piece…but I was eager to hear if they worked. During the reading Diane, my spouse, nudged me through out the reading if she heard a new line…or sometimes it felt like a new line because of the different delivery.

Having seen the play so many times it was difficult not to think of the lines in my head exactly as the New Conservatory cast had said them. Wm Hunter, Liam Hughes, Will Giammona, Chris Nelson, Desiree Rogers, Fred Pitts, and Lonnie Haley took the lines and shaped them to their tongues, histories, bodies; at the end of the run word and actor became one. And that was comforting; the play was wearing a suit and it looked good. This new experience was like stripping the play bare so it was standing on stage in its boxers, shivering.

But that’s what’s needed sometimes, especially when you know you don’t have it all exactly as it should be. The shape is still off kilter, some lines (even when the SF cast made them sound good) are not quite right. I know as a writer of other genres that there’s a period in the process when my own ear is not to be trusted. I need another shirt thrown over the form to see if what fits.

So the intrepid actors walked into a small rehearsal room at ART/NY on 9th Avenue and waded through the dense imagery and vast vocabulary I’ve put down on the pages of two dramatic acts to simulate the styles of some of the greatest writers of the 20th century. With less than three hours of rehearsal one can not expect a full on performance with nuance and familiarity. Only hope there’s not too much stumbling and dead air.

Nothing is like the TV show “Smash!” The cast doesn’t come together and burst into song, know all the lyrics and dance routines after one day of rehearsal. And certainly not after only a three hour read through.

However the TOSOS cast were like the burst of sun in the morning illuminating all around them. K. Todd Freeman, Russell Jordan, Nicholas Wuehrmann, Dudley F. Findlay, Jr., Desiree Burch, Anthony Johnston and Lee Kaplan each tasted the words like a new flavor of ice cream and sang them into the air delivering a new interpretation. Their work was both weighty and playful, just what I needed to hear. I tried to take notes on what I wanted to rewrite but it is difficult to stop watching actors work. It’s a magical thing. No wonder  ‘The Dramatist,’ the periodical of the Dramatists Guild, just devoted a full issue to actors!

Doric Wilson had a wonderful idea when he started TOSOS…theatre is a collaborative art and we need ways to find each other.  I am pursuing ways to have structured time and attention on the script which can bring it to the next level. Then I’ll be looking forward to seeing who we get to come on board again to collaborate in the next phase as magicians…I mean actors.