As I mentioned before, I was a viewer of the TV show SMASH. It stopped being any good a few episodes in, but I had to keep watching so I could enjoy the hilarious recaps written by Rachel Shukert for Vulture. They were genius. One of the recaps, from late in season two, had the most amazing paragraph in it, talking about what makes theatre great. At that point I was already planning my story about the stage manager of a troubled production in a struggling community theatre, and this quote absolutely nailed one of things I was trying to say. That all of the hard work and frustration, and sometimes pain and tears, are worth it in the end, because the collective is greater than the one. Because you end up belonging to something larger than yourself. Everyone, including the crew, is in it together, and it’s better than anything you could ever do on your own. When “A Real Part of the Show” was almost done, I wasn’t sure I’d really pulled that idea off. A few early readers said, why doesn’t this woman just walk away when things get so hard? She doesn’t actually owe these people anything. I made a few edits to try to shore up the point, but I also decided to put that quote I loved on the first page, hoping Rachel’s words could help make it clearer.
Most of my theatre stories in the book and on this blog are about things that went wrong or people who were difficult, because stories where everything goes great aren’t that interesting. But I don’t want you to think that stage managing is always a pain in the ass, because it’s not. I wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t bring me joy. So for that reason, and because it’s Christmas, I’m going to give a shout-out to the wonderful cast and crew of Leading Ladies in January 2010, and again in August of 2010. The show wasn’t without its problems, because none of them are, but this particular group clicked in a special way. We all just really enjoyed each other, and worked well together, and had a great time. I think the audience felt it, too, because ticket sales were amazing. When the Rep asked us to get back together that summer for a special fundraising revival, everyone said an immediate yes. One of the actors even threw a party at his house for us to brush up on lines. After we finished the final performance and struck the set, the sweetest thing happened. Everyone gathered on the empty stage to ask if anything else needed to be done, and I told them no, you can all go home now. Then no one left. We just stood around, chatting, not wanting the experience to end. No one said it out loud, we all just felt it, together. Eventually we had to break it up and go home, but I think we all look back on it as one of our favorite shows.
I had asked my friend, the wonderful Dennis Bova, to help me put up flyers for my upcoming Author Reading in book stores libraries around town. When we met about it, he asked if he should also try and get me on WTOL Your Day, the local morning news show. He’s a retired newspaperman, and knows the right people to contact. I said that would great, thinking, yeah right. Next you can ask the New York Times Book Review to do a spread. Two days later I woke up to an email, saying I was booked for Monday, December 16. Unbelievable. I arrived at the studio and was ushered over to a waiting area with couches. A woman came over, set me up with a body mic, then left again. I waited, expecting some kind of pre-interview from a producer, until it slowly dawned on me that wasn’t happening. They just came up to me at one point and said, okay we’re ready for you now. I was led into the studio and introduced to Amanda, the host. I sat down, and she started telling me about how she did theatre in high school. Good, I thought, she’ll get it. Then the guy behind the camera said, 15. Is that what I think it is? Amanda kept talking as he said 10, then 5, 4, 3, and then she was on camera. I had no idea what she was going to ask, but I felt like I did a pretty good job of thinking on my feet and saying the right things. A third of the way in, I remembered to focus on not slouching. I kept waiting for her to ask about the reading, which was supposed to be the reason I was there, but she kept talking about the book and then it felt like we were wrapping up. I quickly got in a plug, and just like that it was over. They all said I did well. Then I went in to work. Everyone at WTOL was super nice, and it was so amazing to have that experience.
In 2012 we did “Bordertown Cafe,” about a family-owned restaurant in a small town near the Canada-US border. Act 1 was set in the kitchen, and act 2 was in the dining area. Someone, I don’t know who, but someone thought it would be a great idea to do it as a revolve. To put two different heavy counters, various other furniture and set pieces, and actual freaking refrigerator on a 20-foot diameter turntable, and make me and my crew push it around at intermission, then push it back to reset. We are not the crew of “Hamilton,” or the original “Les Mis.” This was a lot to ask. I tried to get some big strong men on the team, but ended up with three other women. Tough women who weren’t afraid of hard work, but still rather lacking in the necessary upper body strength. Luckily, we were able to draft the understudy to the male lead, to give us hand. Still, it was really heavy, and really hard to move. It was also super-depressing to have to move it right back an hour later. The worst part was, at intermission I had to yell ONE-TWO-THREE GO to get us all pushing at the same time, then at one point yell STOP so we could re-position, then ONE-TWO-THREE GO again. With no grand curtain, so the audience members in the house could stand there and watch. This is exactly what you don’t want as a crew member — people paying attention to you. One of the major points I tried to make in the novel. Most nights, they even applauded, which was very sweet but also humiliating. The set did look cool, though. With the big pass-through window upstage, it really felt like two different sides of the same cafe. It was just another example of some people not fully thinking about the crew.
After giving up on the dream of writing a TV show about a theatre crew, I thought turning the idea into a book would be no big deal. Convert the pilot script into prose, and finish the story from there. Shouldn’t be that much work. It took me five years. I quickly found out that working from my dining room table came with too many distractions, so I started carting my laptop down to the library on weekends. I’d set myself up in a private study room, all ready to work, but first I’d need to check Facebook. Also Twitter. Then I had to find just the right music to put myself in the right frame of mind to concentrate. I’d finally settle in and get a little work done, but before long I’d need to go to the bathroom. I certainly wasn’t leaving my computer unattended in a public place, and by the time I’d packed everything up to take it with me, it was just easier to go home for the day. Next I tried taking my own little writing retreats, where I rented a hotel room and worked late into the night, but that got expensive real fast and also my husband wasn’t thrilled. Finally I figured out how to create a quiet writing space in our sun room. It’s an uninsulated addition on the back of our house, so most of the year it’s either freezing cold or boiling hot, but I made it work. Then came the real challenge — actually making myself go out there most weekends and some evenings, on a regular basis, and keep at it until the thing was done. If I didn’t set a routine and stick to it, nothing happened. I took some breaks, especially when I was working on a play, but I always went back to it, and after eight drafts I was ready to publish.
Photo: Toledo Blade The novel was inspired by my first real show as a stage manager, but before that, I co-stage-managed Driving Miss Daisy in 2004, with my sister, Cheri. I refer to it as “Rescuing Miss Daisy,” because we had to come in at the last minute, on tech day, after the original stage manager flaked. When she finally showed up, hours after call, we watched the director fire her on the spot. They asked Cheri to step in because her husband was in the cast. She didn’t want to do it but she couldn’t say no, so I offered to help. I’d taken a Rep-Ed class in stage managing the previous year, and was ready to do more. This seemed like a good chance. Cheri sprang into action the second we arrived and pulled everything together in the course of an afternoon. She brought in a crew, wrote up a prompt book, and ran a tech rehearsal for a show she’d just learned. By opening night, we were a well-oiled machine. It was all her — I just followed her lead and did what she told me to do. I don’t even count it as really stage managing. Still, when I did my own show later that season, it was more experience than I let poor Emma have in the book.
After the fifth draft, I asked for outside opinions, and two of my three readers said the same thing — drop the first 10,000 words of setup and start right in with Emma’s first Earnest rehearsal. I decided they were right, but I really miss the original opening, so here it is now: Chapter 1 David Davison commanded the center of the crowded basement lobby. It gave him no satisfaction at all to be the most important person in this tiny hellhole of a theater. He was the kind of man who would have infinitely preferred a bigger pond. Tall and lean, with just the right amount of distinguished grey at his temples, he both literally and figuratively looked down on the older couple whom he was gracing with his presence. “Well you see, it’s a very dense play.” He took a sip of wine, ignoring their tight-lipped smiles. “Which is why, as director, I included a glossary of terms in the program, to help those audience members who aren’t familiar with the more advanced concepts in the text.” He was holding the same kind of cheap plastic cup they were, but his had been filled from the special bottle stashed in his desk. Working here was bad enough. He certainly wasn’t drinking the donated swill they thought passed for wine. It was about forty minutes to curtain, and the patrons were milling around here until the house was open upstairs. The lobby was one of the nicest parts of the hundred-year-old converted church that housed the Northwest Ohio Community Theatre, but that wasn’t saying much. Nothing could change the fact that it was a cramped basement, but the board members had made an effort to keep it attractive for the audience. The paint was reasonably fresh and the business manager had brought in small vases of silk flowers to place in strategic locations near the box office and the concessions window. David continued with his academic analysis of the evening’s production. If he didn’t notice the boredom of the poor couple who had only come out to see their nephew on stage, he certainly didn’t notice the young woman in black darting behind him and heading for the door marked “Cast and Crew only.” She was equally unremarkable to the rest of the crowd, average of height and build with straight brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She carried a Styrofoam cup of tea as if she were on a sacred mission, and was trying as hard as possible to make herself invisible. Crew members were not supposed to be seen. They weren’t supposed to exist at all.
We had a great turnout Saturday at The Old House vintage shop in Waterville, Ohio, for the book signing. The other two authors and I were thrilled. Some of my friends came down specifically to support me, and I made new friends while I was there. I even sold some books to total strangers, which feels amazing. It was also nice to help our friend Aggie Alt promote her local business at the same time. It’s been hard work looking for readers, and I have a lot more to do, but the success of this event really encouraged me to keep going.
I’ll be at The Old House vintage store, 26 N. 3rd. St., Waterville on Saturday, November 9, from 11am to 2pm, signing copies of my book. Bring your copy, or get one there, and I’ll give you an autograph. My fellow local author, Kathie Foreman, will also be on hand, signing her children’s book “One Way Only: The Narrow Hard Road.” Hope to see you there!
Why did I choose The Importance of Being Earnest for the play that they’re doing in my novel? Um, because it’s awesome. Fight me. Honestly, the thinking was that I needed something: a) real, so I wouldn’t have to come up with a whole new story for a fake play, b) old enough to be in the public domain, so I could quote large sections of dialogue and describe the plot in detail without running afoul of copyright, and c) not Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, but it’s been done to death, and I wanted something lighter. And then Earnest was the very first thing that popped to mind, and it was perfect. I already had the characters of Andy, Clark, Julia, and Megan planned, and they fit right in. It’s fun, it’s the kind of thing this theatre would do, and a lot of people like it. It wasn’t until later that I realized it doesn’t have a lot of tech to it, which made it harder to give lots of tech challenges to Emma and her crew, but I figured it out.