Last weekend, I shared a story and wrote a blog post about Dylan Lawrence, a 13-year-old in Lincoln, Nebraska who staged what appeared to be a fairly impressive production of Shrek The Musical in a neighbor’s backyard. The story seemed to touch an awful lot of people, perhaps because they responded as I had, when introducing the article on Facebook.
Sometimes, those of us who work in the theatre need a quick reminder of the impulse that got us started, which can get lost amid the realities of having made the thing we love into our job. That’s why I think this story is so terrific, because, in one way or another, wherever we grew up or however we got started, to paraphrase Lin-Manuel’s Tony acceptance rap, we were that kid. Let’s share this – let’s make Dylan Lawrence a star, for every kid out there making theatre in a backyard, a basement, or on Broadway.
Frankly, I found myself jealous of Dylan’s energy and initiative, wishing I had been that creative and entrepreneurial at his age, to the degree one can be jealous of someone today over one’s own perceived deficiencies 40 years in the past.
A few days later, I happened on a news story from the UK, announcing that a small London pub theatre would be producing the world premiere of a play by Arthur Miller. Impressed by such a discovery, I read on, only to learn that the unstaged play in question had been written by Miller as a 20-year-old college sophomore. Frankly, while Miller’s reputation is secure, I had to wonder whether the play in question would add to the Miller canon, if it would contradict some aspect of it (a la Go Tell A Watchman), or would it simply be a novelty that goes back into the Miller archives after this run.
These two incidents began to work on me, as did a flip comment I made, entirely in jest, to a Twitter commenter about the Miller story. I said something to the effect that I doubted if anyone wanted to read my unproduced plays.
Shortly thereafter, it hit me. I actually have some unproduced plays. Or at least I had them. I’m not digging through old files and boxes for them, for me or anyone else, and I’m really hoping that no one else has copies. But I am willing to share with you what I recall of my efforts, which I haven’t thought about in quite some time.
It’s worth noting that I saw very little theatre as a child. I attended a children’s theatre show at Long Wharf Theatre in 1967 for the fifth birthday of a kindergarten classmate, of which I remember nothing but the seeming vast darkness of that actually intimate space. In second grade, my parents took my brother and me to see the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, and what I remember most is “Tevye’s Dream.” It stands out not because I liked the number, but because as a child I was very skittish about anything supernatural, and so my parents had spent a lot of time preparing me for the appearance of Frumah Sarah. The anticipation was so significant, and the event so anticlimactic, that it was my greatest takeaway. My first Broadway show, circa 1975, was Stephen Schwartz’s The Magic Show. My second was Beatlemania.
Despite a paucity of real world examples, I conceived of a passion for theatre, and my parents enrolled me in a Saturday morning drama program at the New Haven YMCA. I believe I was in fourth grade. I dimly recall the space in which we worked, that there were only a few other kids involved, perhaps three or four, and I have no memory of the class leader. But I do remember that the program concluded with some manner of performance – I don’t even recall any audience – of the play I wrote for the group, Love and Hate. The plot? No idea. But remarkably, I do think that even then I was aware of a book called War and Peace, and that it sounded pretty good, so I mimicked the wide scope of its title. I suspect I performed in Love and Hate as well, but that aspect is too indistinct. My older brother wouldn’t have attended out of disinterest, so I can’t ask him about it, and my sister would have been to young to sit through it. With my parents gone, these threads are all that is left of Love and Hate.
My next writing efforts, some time during fifth and sixth grade, were both done under the tutelage of my synagogue’s cantor, one Solomon Epstein, who was a young Jewish man from the south whose lasting gifts to me included several of my formative cultural experiences, notably my first art museum visits, as well as my lingering tendency, despite my New England upbringing, to say “y’all.”
It was Cantor Epstein who had our second grade Hebrew school class sing a short pop cantata called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, years before it was expanded into a stage show (I managed to tell Lord Lloyd Webber this story years later). He staged several similar, but longer, works as multimedia events on the synagogue’s stage – after all, this was the early 70s. I remember learning how to synchronize three sets of dual slide projectors with a big electrical box called a crossfader, and asking him whether the rabbi would permit him to have an attractive young woman of 17 or 18 years of age dance in the synagogue in a body suit (it was fine, apparently).
But he also encouraged me to write, going so far as to loan me a portable Smith Corona electric typewriter, which was so much easier than the vintage manual typewriter that dated from my parents’ school days, and probably before; they later bought me my own electric, the same model as the one I’d borrowed. First, I undertook to do my own adaptation of the Peanuts comics for the stage (an avowed fan of the strip and quite aware of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown). I did little more than transcribe the various cartoons from the comics, which I had been cutting from the newspaper and pasting into scrapbooks for years, and arrange them in short scenes. My only innovation, not entirely surprising given my guide, was to invent a new character, a Jewish “Peanut” named “Tsvi,” which not so coincidentally is my Hebrew name. The title of this opus: Happiness is a Jewish Peanut. Clearly at that time I was seeking my cultural identity by placing myself among characters I loved.
Subsequently, I tackled a more significant project, adapting a novel, the name of which escapes me now. It was a wry Jewish fantasy about the lives of babies in heaven before they’re born and sent to earth, but it actually had a narrative, which ended with its main character being launched to meet its parents. I recall that in the book’s mythology, the philtrum, or “drip canal,” under our nose is where God snapped his fingers against us to bring us to mortal life send us to earth. Funny what stays with us, no? Again, I was probably transcribing more than writing, but as this was a several hundred page novel, I did have to assert some basic editing skills, if nothing else.
My last writing attempt never got beyond the outline phase, but it was a special high school project that proved too overwhelming. Looking back, it was utterly self-indulgent and also self-revelatory, a play in which I imagined a version of myself, to be played by me. This main character, a high school student in a school much like mine, was to look at the talents of other students I –I mean he – admired and then, in turn, he/I would demonstrate those very same talents, at least on a par with, if not better than, those I envied. It would have been great fodder for a therapist, but as drama, no doubt quite inert, albeit a showcase for whatever talents I actually had.
To be honest, I still have ideas for plays, and screenplays, from time to time, some of which have been turned over and over in my head for many years as the circumstances of the world, or of my life, have changed. I honestly believe one or two of them are pretty good, but I have found that my impulse to write is best served by the essay form, the blog form, because it allows me to pursue a single idea in a single writing session. It is the commitment of returning to the same story, over and over, day after day, tweaking, adjusting, and fixing endlessly that has staved off any real creative efforts. It is why I admire playwrights (and screenwriters, and novelists) so very much.
I unearth all of this now because of young Arthur Miller decades ago, because of young Dylan Lawrence today, and because of the countless youthful creative artists who may not yet realize that’s where they’re headed, who may not have the support and access that Dylan Lawrence, Arthur Miller and I all had. We know what happened with Miller, and I plan to follow and support Dylan in any way I can – as I will do as much as I’m able for any young person inspired by the arts, especially theatre, and I hope that holds true for those who read my blog.
As for me, I came to understand that I am not a dramatic storyteller, but an avid consumer of stories, who wants nothing more than to play some role in their getting told, and in supporting and knowing those who tell them. Just as there are undoubtedly countless young artists and administrators – and audiences – to be nurtured, I hope there are at least as many parents, mentors and teachers to pave the way, declining budgets and skittish authority figures be damned.
And check back with me in about 20 years. Maybe by then I’ll have enough material for a marginally entertaining one-man show. You never know.