The Story Behind the Theatre; No. 1: The Playwright and His Play
New York City the theater capital of the world. Riverside brings you the story behind the theater. Backstage at the Masters Institute in New York City. David Lyle Di Jr. the managing director of Equity Library theater an organization that has been going in New York for 18 years it produces from 11 to 15 productions each season and serves primarily as a showcase for professional actors thing to begin with a generality drama is as we know of a vital part of
what might be called the total picture of artistic expression in the next 12 weeks. This series The story behind the theatre will explore and attempt to explain the many factors that must necessarily combine to make a dramatic presentation coherent and meaningful. Many of the factors are hidden ones. Many of the things that happen are not necessarily known to the general audience. Our purpose in this will be to try to explain some of these hidden factors try to make available to you some of the great knowledge and the great experience that our various guests at have had. The structure of the professional theater today of course is a complex in many facets and one no longer simply three planks in a passion so that long before the playwright and the producer present their offering to the public they must face the problems of theatre Randel casting rehearsals union requirements dozens of details of which
audiences are generally unaware and then in the midst of scurrying stagehands and I sure as costume fitters carpenters press agents then the creative work of the actors the designers the directors must of course still be brought to fruition. During the next 12 weeks. We will talk with the various artists and artists and those that work together combine their talents to make our theatre possible hoping to hit generally every facet of the theatre. We hope that within the next 12 weeks we and you the audience will learn a bit more and become a bit more excited about what makes our theatre today possible. That was loyal guy junior managing director of the Equity Library theater. He'll be taking us on a visit each week backstage to meet the people who create theater productions. Each year you and millions of other theater goers across the country see the curtain rise on countless new
plays and stage productions. Broadway alone 75 major theatrical events every season. Each of these productions has a beginning Genesis about which you played or seldom hears that beginning is the subject of this first story behind the theater. As Mark Conley author of the famous green pastors and Janet Cohen employee of a well-known literary agency in New York City discussed the playwright and his play. Here is our backstage host. Any kind of a chronological picture of the theater one talent is always of course the very first one in demand. This naturally is the playwright. It seems to stand to reason that the director can direct and the producer can produce and the actor can't act without first having a script so enter the playwright. And of course at about the same time usually the playwrights agent. But for an author or especially a new author he usually needs the concrete help and the tangible advice
of an established agent not only to open doors but more especially to open just the right door for a specific script. I think without delving back into the 1800s when Clyde Fitch was proudly producing his own plays and William Gillette was starring in his it's easy to see that the role of the playwright has changed tremendously during the past 50 years or so especially in the commercial theater here in New York. But nevertheless one tangible fact still remains and that is that the play's the thing. So to begin a beginning Mark do you usually start writing a script with just one idea or with a series of ideas you've long been thinking about or do you just sort of magically sit down and write. It really didn't go to recall any play I ever had I actually began what the germ was. Plays I don't think one can really make a
generality that would stick. Except that it is one idea that of naturally generates and stimulates and gives the genetics to what finally results from. Sometimes one starts with the concept of a character a man or a woman who is striking is rather insistent on the imagination. You can't forget because he or she seems to be potentially a dynamic creature that ought to be up on the stage ought to be in play. Sometimes it might be a vague idea an abstraction that somehow or other suddenly becomes objective and an almost tangible in its reality. It was the most popular play that I ever wrote was green pastures and I remember how that began because I was struck by the idea implicit in a series of sketches that their own work
Brantford be humorous to written. How about the negroes of the Deep South with whom he was familiar since childhood and he had written a series of very moving very compassionate very poignant as well as very funny sketches in which he had revealed negroes thinking of the Old Testament in terms of their immediate surroundings. One day rolling Kirby is a great cartoonist of the New York World. When more Pulitzer Prizes and all the playwrights put together his drawings over the years stopped me one day said I just read a book which you must read. And he told me about his book The sketches and I read it and immediately thought I saw a device for expressing the well with a rather
vague scepticism on Orthodoxy. And here they were being told in terms of the daily lives of negroes ancient Egypt had cotton fields and sharecroppers and probably the grocers who gave credits on the strength of the potential earnings of the sharecropper. What the play suggests to me and I guess this would be the truly genetic idea was that it would be a wonderful device for showing man hunt for God and gods for man through the world of the Old Testament. And that struck me as being a wonderful thing to work with and then all I did was to just organize more or less a chronological sequence and then lead it into into the concept of the New Testament. And of course I have an inspiration to write a play comes as you say it's hard to pin down how.
How can. I don't know how. How does a poet see. How did Shelley. See a bird in flight. Doesn't he find himself possessed of something that had to be expressed in terms of a very a very delicate very gossamer but a very real beauty. How did the concepts of paintings come usually. The dramatist I suppose thinks of it in terms of drama grammar After all means the thing done. And he sees it as being revealed up on a stage with people who are going to bring about a need to you and make a small world that you and I can surrender to. Once it begins to pass through it for us. Well Janet is as Mark has been describing the ordeals that a playwright goes through. Does an author frequently or ever as a matter of fact come to you with just an idea or an outline wanting your initial reaction before he goes ahead with initial
script or does he usually present you with a first draft or just with an idea sometimes but very few people have the ideas because if they believe in the idea they go ahead with it. And when an idea is only is presented it's usually not too successful. I find as this is more of a really a movie technique isn't an outline kind of thing and develop your own or you surely have had many occasions in which there's a client discussing a play with you has asked for your advice and your help on the possible development of it. Let's hear your true engines of your caliber really are editorial contributions at the playwright is very good. That's very true but it's always farther along than just the idea that well does it is generally a first draft of the script let's say submitted to you as an agent or do authors try to find a producer themselves or do they generally always work through an agent. Well most authors work through an agent because they know how difficult it is to do it
alone. Yes exactly. Well is or Marc or Janet have in your varied experiences. Do you find that there's virtually ever an immediate acceptance of a script or does a series of rewrites at the beginning almost inevitable. Well Janet disposed didn't do so in the least more plays and to me that she might be able to answer that but I never called Jonathan's ever any play that's 100 percent perfect man to man and yes once in a great while perhaps we're in a sarong ended once and I think that that is one of the reasons why I saw royals later players of all being have all being deficient in one way or another not of ideas or dynamics certainly but of actual technical completion because when he wrote My heart's in the Highlands as I understand it he just sort of pulled out right out of his typewriter and there it was a lovely Cher for him thinking. And Bill felt that from then on that's where we
play right. Well I think the difficulty but a great many good playwrights is that they're never satisfied with what they read. They they want to be told or they must be told probably has a certain point well this is ready that yes you know but even then they don't read. No that's true of the business of wanting to polish and yet one flecked off or had another brush stroke that I suppose is there. But if playwrights are directors I think their their editorial ability is frequently sharper. I don't mean that line is unusually sharp but I have directed practically all my old players and I know that when I think of Jack I have a bit of a I have a dichotomy I'm no longer a playwright I'm somebody. Oh definitely trying to see the scene articulated up on the stage you know Mark For instance if you get let's say suggestions from from rewrites. And can you look at them completely objectively or do you usually
feel let's say that that if it's a producer he's looking at the commercial value of a script and has a vested interest in the commercial value aside from what you might think a first class producer is as concerned about. The integrity of the script the playwright or anyone else can possibly be because they are that producer who is out to get the fast buck is usually a man who doesn't last very long in the theatre and certainly doesn't attract any plays from playwrights who have any respect at all for the for the art of sales or the craft of the show. I've been I've been happily left my own devices and most of the places I've ever been associated with. But anyone who comes along with a good suggestion the emotional reaction usually for a responsible playwright is to get right down to his knees and thank him. Somebody has come along to help him right. Well Mark was talking about the integrity of the script. Janet
and I mentioned the word commercial potential in the script. Is that this important today the commercial potential and if it does if it is what does commercial potential mean I think a lot of people think of the commercial potential of a Broadway script as louder faster and funnier are just sex or what have you or do you really think as Mark mentioned that integrity will out if it's a good script it will be Don conversation limply. Indeed yes because it can. When you come to a commercial play it means usually means an inferior play that and then Ferrier manager will produce. But the commercial places do get on. They do and they're successful quite often well frequently. Oh it was entirely successful because of the fact that they do have one merit which is part of any any work of any artistic work and that is there is a minimum of the necessary. Writing a play is better editing as much as it is creating an it.
And unless a character or sane or a passage of dialogue is inevitable to the moment you need to to the oneness of the final structure than it sticks out like a wart or some other blemish. And while an audience may be ready to go along with you have the ride's been comfortable in the mind a few bumps but certainly it's a hazardous thing not to have a play as close to its natural form and running on its own on its own track. If it isn't smooth it hasn't been if it hasn't been pruned to the point of being fact free. So who's big here. You're going to have some tough sledding and the commercial play while they idea might be tricky and cheap and particularly stimulating or elevating that doesn't mean that there isn't merit there and it doesn't have a reason for being.
Well before we have to play on the stage you had Janet let's take God and completely unknown playwright what is our normal procedure for him with an agent in other words when you agreed to any unsolicited script. Well this society of agents in order to prevent some horrible monstrosities being perpetrated charge a fee a reading fee of $10. This is a general thing and that discourages quite a few people I don't think it discourages anybody with any real talent because the letter in which the person asks you to read his play gives you a pretty good idea of what kind of writer he is. Well you working as closely as you do with the number of prominent playwrights you do You couldn't of course yourself personally read everything that comes across your desk so you naturally use play readers. But how far can do you find you can rely upon the advice of say a play reader as to what might be worth considering or what you would just
not even look at yourself to find you must rely heavily on. I kind of plan because I think there is such a y range there of writing that there's so many things that are so bad that could be detected by any reader in the good reader certainly can save you a lot of worry in that respect. Janet how does a new playwright script. Get to a producer in other words if it's through you. Do you just send it period or do you would you call the producer and try to give him a hard sell on it or Oh I think the producer always likes to be told about a script before he reads it if you send it in and desultory fashion like that he'll think perhaps it isn't very good you know. Well this is what you do as an agent then a scene you want to see the playwrights new script gets to the right absolutely the producer. Well and the specific producers don't necessarily work with just one literary agent they're happy to get scripts from all of the producers want plays very badly and they're delighted the more they get the better they like it.
How many and how many agents professional agents are active today. Jenna do you know playing agent yes for a while I would say about a half a dozen times more than that. Now that's about how far the proficient ones indeed. Well Mark do you have bar have you ever have written a script let's say with a personality in mind a star in my. Well the first play The George go you know I ever did was done for a young woman who had shown a great deal of promise she was let you know being in the red Taylor's company two or three plays and George Tyler Our producer. You know the two of us suggested that George George and I do something for this young woman and should be a common issues young English when her name was Lynn phone time. And so we wrote a play called don't see her which was very lucky for us and for
everyone and then the next following air was young actress by the name of Helen Hayes. And just being you know a flop comedy. I remember it had a young man who didn't come along with any real growth for two or three years later his name was Leslie Howard and we went down to Helen still outlined the plot to her and never will forget this. George and I went on to tell her what the play was going to be about and we said you play the piano. I say she said oh yes that's because you're going to be to spirituals it had to be sung by the heroine during which I said fine and we walked out the door. We hadn't closed the door when Helen and her mother were on the phone ordering a piano and a teacher and she played and then told him Sure Ben did it very well at the table. Mark you're in an unusual situation as you say having usually directed most of your plays but
let's say that if you wouldn't direct one you do you have the absolute final say if you were just the playwright as to casting choosing the director or the playwright has the has the approval of final approval and I don't mean that his if he is inexperienced and unfamiliar with some players he can't be very easily persuaded to accept the judgment of the director because he's also has approved of the director. And after all nobody's these days nobody is so silly as to try to put aunts and uncles in and as we are innocent in a play that's going to entail a risk of hundred $200000. Well they haven't found either of you that casting. Let's say you had written the play thing ately with a petite little blonde in mind in this talk of Nat who stunning comes in that casting can completely change an original concept of the characters and usually somebody comes along and will let you say that the character that you thought should have this
externality should obviously have that externality which has just come into your can and you have to be mobile. You have to be you have to recognize mutations the chances and opportunities and involvements that are pretty difficult to see when you you can't really say to a 5 year old boy you are going to be a doctor wearing it with a little bit you know here's the potentially electrical engineer you know or like you know it's just you you have to see how a thing develops you know it's really what you want you do a good deal as an agent I'm suggesting actors we have tonight Yesterday I spoke to a manager might given a place to my given a plane so he liked it very much indeed the author have any ideas about a director or cast. Oh you wouldn't do that but you know I mean you wouldn't turn your back to the author and ask him to come along with all the suggestions would you.
Well if the officer were an experienced person here and I think it would be to the manager's interest producer's interest to see what the officer did have in mind. Well don't you think the producer should have something going for sure it was a unifier nosers should not be a person who simply organizes capital for the production of a play and goes out and gets a general manager who's going to do it actually all the technical work of the production the producer ought to be here. Well he would say I want to be an Arthur Hopkins at least the winter Boehm was a kind of a person who was an amateur of this theater in the best sense of the word amateur who life was the love of theater and who had it who had standards of taste and had a reasonably high plateau of general activity in the theater and he should contribute he should help the author you know to be your minatory of advice never the author needed it.
Well Mark have you ever had to go through the descent Franek out of town rewrites that seem to be so popular in talking with me and I've done it. On any occasion I can remember the rewriting on beggar on horseback we thought we had a success there but a scene was missing and I remember I putting that scene in about four nights before we opened down in Washington. I said we don't need this kind of scenery and Mr. Ames by some miracle had the same rate built and painted and shipped and in the theater in Washington about three nights before we moved into New York and from then on there wasn't a chain. It's mostly a matter of hunting I find if if if if your play is reasonably articulated if the if the joints in the wheels and the cogs and everything mesh then it's a matter of trimming a scene where the implication can be employed instead of the statement. And when you can do that of course you are
going to you're performing a very nice little bit of plastic surgery. Well before we end this all too brief conversation out how about how else aside from New York can new scripts be seen. Well I want to do. I mean I'm very concerned about seeing a greater good collaboration between a professional theatre and a university center because. With the growth of the drama schools and in our universities and colleges there's going to be a growing isolation in the work worlds of the students in those schools and unless the professional theatre makes a gesture of collaboration with them it's going to have a much harder time and I think they should have been on not only that but I think we've got to help awaken the country to a recognition that the theatre is much more than entertainment to the theatre. It's food it's the best cultural
instrument Mann's ever invented for himself and that that kind of an idea is going to grow out of the better productions certainly in the you know the microcosms of the university communities. And Janet aside from the well-known places like West Point in Bucks County and the like to do new plays in the summer aren't you also working with ice companies a down south that does nothing but new plays in the summer where is it. It's in Danville Kentucky is on the Pioneer playhouse. They do have 10 new plays in 10 weeks. And they. I had three down there last year and the authors who went down said that they all felt that the cast was not quite adequate and their production was very rough. Having had only one week's rehearsal but that it was well worth seeing the play acted without the kind of commercial pressures they were very hard for. Very very well Mark if you will just keep writing plays and Janet if you'll just keep getting to the right producers we can look forward to many wonderful theatre seasons and thank you both so much for being with us
tonight. The story behind the theater today the playwright and his play. Lyle guy Jr. Our host for these backstage visits has been talking with playwright Mark Connelly and Janet Cohen employee of a well-known New York City literary agency. How the play becomes a production how backing is obtained and how the omnipresent producer shapes the play toward its final form. These are some of the pre-performance steps to be discussed next time when we meet the producer. Nor is hope an offer director and co-founder of the Phoenix Theatre and Laurie Noto. Producer of the off-Broadway success the Fantastics. This is next week when from New York City the theater capital of the world of Riverside radio again brings you the story behind the theater.
Reduce down recorded by Riverside radio in cooperation with the Equity Library theater under a grant in aid from the National Association of educational broadcasters. It is the Metropolitan FM station of the Riverside Church in the city of New York.
- The Story Behind the Theatre
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- The Story Behind the Theatre is a twelve part program produced by WRVR Riverside Radio. Each week, Lyle Die Jr. of the Equity Library Theater addresses a specific aspect of theater production and interviews two people working in the New York City theater industry. The series seeks to explain the many factors involved in producing a piece of theater by talking with playwrights, producers, directors, and other industry professionals.
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Identifier: 63-15-1 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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- MLA: “The Story Behind the Theatre; No. 1: The Playwright and His Play.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 9, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-f766807f>.
- APA: The Story Behind the Theatre; No. 1: The Playwright and His Play. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-f766807f