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Spring 1995

Table Talk

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Irene Oppenheim
In Los Angeles, on an otherwise dreary late summer afternoon in 1993, I received a call from the Artistic Director of the Wings Theatre Com-pany in New York City. He had a play of mine, he told me, that the company would like to produce in their upcoming winter season. Now, this in itself was pretty amazing. But what gave the announcement its true éclat was the fact that, through a combination of discouragement and distraction, I hadn’t sent any dramatic work out for a number of years. I asked exactly what play of mine he was talking about. He named it. The theater’s response time was, he acknowledged, a bit slow. The manuscript had been received by Wings four years earlier (in 1989), but what with one thing or another—the theater had moved, scripts had been misplaced, readers were hard to come by—they’d just gotten to it.

The piece in question was Funeral of the Green Clown, a dark parable set in pre-Nazi Germany with music by the Berkeley-based composer Jim Hale. Though I admired Jim’s score and was moderately pleased with some of my own song lyrics, I had abandoned the play because I felt the work as a whole had irreparable problems. But now, astoundingly confronted by a potential producer, it seemed politic to keep any artistic doubts to myself. A February 1994 production date was set, and my onstage-in-New York adventure began.

The contract I received from Wings gave Jim and me a collective $100, with more forthcoming if the play were profitable. I figured (correctly, as it turned out) that $100 would be the last money we would see. Even getting that much was something of a coup. Many small theaters give authors nothing at all.

The money had not arrived with the contract. So, having previously planned an October trip to New York, I decided to pick up my pay in person. The theater was on Christopher Street. Not in Greenwich Village, but west of the Village near the Hudson River. I was looking for a modest Wings marquee and walked past the theater twice before noticing that the only indication of its presence was a dusty, framed, church-style bulletin board fastened to the building’s wall. I later learned that an additional exterior sandwich board was hauled out before performances, but it wasn’t there on my first approach. The door was kept locked and an intercom system had to be used to gain entry. Signs then guided me downstairs to a steam-piped hall that led to the doorway of the basement-cum-theater the Wings Company called home. The ceiling was low, but otherwise it wasn’t a bad space. The performance area had a raised stage, about sixty real theater seats, and a light booth. By contrast, the lobby was a bit crusty. Decor there included a painted concrete floor, worn couches, a coffee bar, a glass-doored cabinet that contained a not-quite-camp collection of “For Sale” ceramics, and a large fish tank in which an assortment of tropical fish disconcertingly swam around a “Sushi Bar” sign stuck in their sand.

When I made my October visit, there was as yet no Green Clown director. Given the company’s economic situation, this wasn’t too alarming. Like many non-Equity theaters, Wings did not pay either actors or directors. Actors who were willing to work for nothing could generally be ferreted out, but sacrificial directors tended to be a scarcer commodity. I was, however, assured that there existed a cadre of Wings directing regulars who could be called on. This was comforting, but another month passed and no director had yet been found. The script, I was told, was making the rounds, but those approached either had schedule conflicts or “did not respond to the material.” I was just about ready to suggest postponing or abandoning the project, when the phone rang and a very young voice on the other end introduced himself as my director. He liked the play, he told me, but then acknowledged its complexities. It would be difficult, he admitted, to pull things together in the six weeks remaining till opening. Green Clown was, moreover, to be his New York City directing debut. Indeed, he hadn’t done much directing anywhere beyond college and a few upstate children’s productions. Still, he was eager, willing, and the only volunteer in sight.

My relief didn’t last long. Although appropriate calls were made and notices posted, casting did not go well. This wasn’t too surprising. Even before the addition of a novice director, there were likely to be limits to the career-advancing appeal of an odd, mordant script by unknown authors going up for an unpaid, dead-of-winter six-week run in a basement theater. The play, moreover, called for a large cast (eight) of actors not only able to act, but able to sing their way through a fairly sophisticated score. For our director, locating artists with that particular combination of talents proved impossible. A division of labor was finally decided upon: the actors would simply speak, their songs divided up among three professional vocalists.

Jim and I arrived in New York a few days before opening night. We were both apprehensive. Jim already felt bruised. He’d been asked to create a performance tape for the show and, pushing himself hard, he completed a recording of the entire score, only to be told the musical director had decided to produce a tape of her own. Things were hardly better on my end. Every phone call from my director included a litany of disasters: grim and drafty rehearsal halls sought out because the Wings theater space was over-committed; defecting actors who were arduously replaced; a singer who neglected to mention that he was deaf in one ear and required staging that allowed his good ear to face a loudspeaker at all times; and understaffed costume and tech crews that were both running precariously behind schedule.

The play did open. One night later than scheduled, but it did open. I had to return to Los Angeles, and missed the actual debut, but Jim stayed on and reported no big surprises or improvements. Our nascent director had obviously been overwhelmed. Technically it all looked amateurish. Some of the performers were fine, some were not. The division of singing and acting made the text seem inexplicably fragmented, with the speaking actors left awkwardly filling space while their singing counterparts performed. As the run progressed and the brutality of the winter weather increased, I heard that there were nights when the cast outnumbered the audience. I also heard an unconfirmed report that the cast had rebelled, and that among the concessions won was a reduction of performances from three a week to two.
Those of the actors who had taken on Green Clown to gain exposure were to be sadly disappointed. The show received only one review, and that review appeared in Estonian. One of the play’s actresses, Reet Roos Värnik, was from Estonia, and Vaba Eesti Sonã, New York’s Estonian language newspaper, printed a sizable evaluation of the production. The piece ends by stating:

Reet Roos Värniku asjalikkus trupijuhi Esseina seevastuoli igati omai kohai ning ilmutas kogenud näitleja õiget lavanarvi.

The copy of the review I received was untranslated, so I trundled it over to my local library, where I found a small Estonian dictionary. From what I was able to decipher, the sentence either means that Reet Roos Värniku triumphed in the play or over it. Given the circumstances, I’d say the latter version is the likely one.

Irene Oppenheim lives in Los Angeles, where she writes plays, essays, and theater criticism, teaches humanities part-time at the junior-college level, and works at odd jobs.

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