Dallas — Today I answered a nice note from playwright Jack Heifner who performed for Theatre Three back in the '60s. It reminded me how I'm lucky I've been to have met (and mostly kept friends with) dozens of playwrights. Every one of them has a great alertness to them that I always envy. I just had a quick visit from Patricia Griffith (we've produced three of her shows) as she passed through Dallas on the way to a high school reunion in East Texas. That event may well show up in some subsequent play, I'm thinking.
They will blush at this extravagant comparison, but many playwrights I know are like Shakespeare or Molière—that is, they have all had at least a fling at acting so they are particularly good at writing parts for actors because they've been actors themselves.
In this blog I'll mention a few of these playwrights who've been lately on my mind or that I've seen or talked to recently.
Doug Wright grew up in Dallas, and part of his teen years growing up took place at Theatre Three where he acted in the imaginative children's shows Larry O'Dwyer was putting up. Then one season he performed in a "major" show": The Shadow Box with a stellar line-up of grownups. We're button-bustin' proud of Doug: he won the Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife. We're all excited that he's coming to celebrate our opening of his latest Broadway show, the musical Hands on a Hardbody. The cast may be excused for being nervous about performing for the playwright; it would be understandable for the playwrights to be loyal to the original production. But in my experience even with bigtime Broadway playwrights (like, for example John Weidmann, author of the book for Assassins) playwrights are open and curious to see how the play "works" with different people. Provided, of course, you are faithful to their script. They do care about that—a lot!
Beth Henley got her Equity card here acting in The Irregular Heart of Monsieur Ornifle before she took to writing with Crimes of the Heart, which won Beth her Pulitzer. Neither Beth nor Doug seem inclined to go back to acting after the heady heights of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Not so with Theatre Three's third Pulitzer Prize winning actor-turned-playwright. Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) worked ever so briefly for Theatre Three in a Readings Festival of New Plays we did years ago at the downtown Library. All who saw his performance as George in the recent New York revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (for which he won a Best Actor in a Play Tony) admire how he's kept his acting "chops" and kept writing.
Camilla Carr is a strong musical theater actress (she blew people away in the '60s playing in Stop the World I Want to Get Off) and continued to act in Los Angeles while she kept her writing (for theater, film and TV) going. Meanwhile, she wrote for the theater: Theatre Three premiered All About Bette which, strong rumor has it, is slated for a New York opening this winter.
The very first original, "world premiere" author Theatre Three produced was written by Carolyn Echols, who was not an actress. She was a University Park housewife who wrote a compelling critique of upper class values after the experience of losing her teenage son. Cat's Eye was the name of the piece and it was good. Best of all, writing the play gave meaning to the playwright's dreadful suffering of that terrible loss.
Betsy Forsythe Hailey is perhaps best known for her Woman of Independent Means, which was a terrific novel, then TV mini-series with Sally Field and then adapted into a one-woman show that we produced. She also brought us her play Joanna's Husband, David's Wife, which Charles Nelson Riley directed for us here. I met Betsy through Carolyn Echols, the aforementioned playwright. Carolyn knew her because Betsy was a from a prominent Highland Park family. Dallas seems good at spawning playwrights, particularly women!
We've just closed Candy Barr's Last Dance by Ronnie Claire Edwards, actress extraordinaire and author of a half dozen comedies and a couple of memoires her fans adore. We're both Oklahomans, and I've known Ronnie Claire since college. Ronnie Claire's dialogue is so colorful and so entertaining because Ronnie Claire knows exactly how those lines should be read for maximum dramatic (and comic effect). In her acting career, where she played Broadway (including in a Pinter play, if you don't mind) to series television (she was Cora Beth in The Waltons) she knows how to make every line count because she is so very in command of acting. It's so terrific that my friend has resumed living in Dallas so we can see each other often.
I know this isn't an advice column. Nonetheless, I offer this advice: get to know a playwright. Their friendships are something really special. How I wish I could have personally known many, many more!
» Jac Alder is the Executive Director-Producer of Theatre Three in Dallas. Look for his monthly musings in Bit by Bit, which run on the second Sunday of the month. Here is a list of previous columns:
- September 2013: Theater's unsung philantrophists
- October 2013: Theater artists and their critics
- November 2013: Ch-Ch-Changes
- December 2013: What the Audience Knows
- January 2014: What's New?
- February 2014: Upgrading to the Modern World
- March 2014: Not to Worry
- April 2014: If Not for Shaw
- May 2014: Back to the Future
- June 2014: 500 Ways to Remember
- July 2014: They're Alive. ALIVE!
- August 2014: Raise Your Voice