Last Friday afternoon I took the train to New York for the sole purpose of seeing Christian De Gré Cardenas for dinner. The following morning I took the train back home to Baltimore. The only reason for that trip was because he is a friend I just had to see.
It was also a very personal post-Covid-lockdown tip of the hat to celebrate my belief that change is a gift from God.
After my first career as a business trial lawyer I decided I wanted to enter the professional world of theater in New York City, if I could in my late 60s and early 70s.
The only way to get across a chasm so deep was to jump.
Because I was old and no one would read my scripts, I decided I had to take an alternate approach. I decided to use my background as a lawyer so I read all the legal contracts required to be a producer and I took a class in producing theater.
All the young future producers started to ask each other what they wanted to produce. When it came to me I would say: “Nothing. I want you to produce me.”
After I had taken an introductory class at the Commercial Theater Institute in New York, I got a chance to go to the O’Neill Conference in Waterford, Connecticut for an advanced class so I could meet the future big shots.
That trip was a life changer. I hit a gold mine. I met three people within 24 hours who would change my life forever and are my friends to this day: Christian De Gré Cárdenas, Sue Marinello, and Aaron Sanko.
Today I want to talk about Christian and how he has changed my life for the better.
We both got off the northbound train from NYC in Connecticut in the early evening. We were picked up by a van driven by Aaron Sanko, who transferred us to a small motel where we would stay during the conference.
Aaron and Christian knew each other from the New York theater world. I was the old guy in the backseat who didn’t know anything or anybody who had instantly become a groupie.
The next day, Christian and I would be in the same class with Sue Marinello, and we have been bound together with Aaron Sanko ever since. I will talk more about these, my collaborators and friends, as we approach the opening of Mind The Art Entertainment’s (MTAE) upcoming performances, which will be premiering in April, July, and November in New York.
When Christian and I got off the train we looked like two Willy Lomans walking on stage in Death of a Salesman. After we were delivered to the motel and were waiting to register, I decided to talk to Christian and asked him if he would like to go get a drink after we checked in. He never got a chance to answer because the night clerk interrupted to tell us: “Forget about it. Everything is closed.”
Sue Marinello and I sat next to each other at the conference, and she committed to reading my play Onaje. Shortly thereafter, Christian suggested we apply to the upcoming New York Fringe Festival.
After the remarkable success of Onaje, Christian offered me a chance to write Vox Populi, his final operetta in a series based on the seven deadly sins. I immediately accepted and we agreed to meet at a restaurant in Spanish Harlem next to his apartment, where we would sketch out the plot and talk about the tone and temperature of this comedic operetta.
We had the restaurant to ourselves and the waiters brought us food and mescal throughout the afternoon, until the restaurant was set up for the dinner crowd to come in. It was magic.
I went back to Baltimore and went to work at a feverish pace and completed a rhyming rollicking first draft that Christian liked. He invited me to go to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to marry the music to the words.
Each morning we would get up and go to a little breakfast place that had a wide open garden with a little pond, a beautiful flowered fence, and a balcony with tables for breakfast. We were often alone as we started our day of work.
During breakfast we would go page by page editing the draft, and in the afternoon Christian went to work writing the music while I made changes to the script. Later in the afternoon, Christian would play back the music he had created. In the evening we went to magnificent restaurants in San Miguel and drank more mescal.
Around the plaza and the magnificent church, mariachi bands would sing for the locals, as well as the tourists, and we would walk the streets and listen for music coming from the rooftops. When Christian liked the sound overhead we would enter, go up the stairs, order another drink, and listen until we moved on to the next venue. It was magic.
When we got home at night Christian would go back to work, and in the morning, before we went to breakfast, he would play back what he had composed the night before.
This routine went on for well over a week and somewhere during that time we became brothers in creativity and laughter, and deep friends.
It is amazing how we all step in and out of unique worlds as we change careers or grow older. In my case, as my second career evolved and as I grew older, I stepped into an amazing world of people and experiences that have made me richer and more fortunate.
Unlike any profession I know of, the theater welcomes humanity into an opportunity for friendship in a way somehow the world cannot achieve.
During our dinner in New York last Friday, we were talking about something but I can’t remember what. I just remember Christian looking up straight into my eyes in a moment of surprise and saying: “Do you realize I am exactly half your age?”
Spring is coming and we have a new lead producer and manager and a “new” play. Onaje is now The Grace of God & The Man Machine.
Mind the Art Entertainment is our new lead producer and manager, who will be working with Sue Conover Marinello.
This is a big deal for us. The money has been raised for two new “table reads” at the New York Opera Center in late February and in early March. The legal documents will be executed in mid-March and then we will start raising money for a production.
How did we get here?
After Onaje got the rave reviews at FringeNYC, Kevin R. Free and his agent John Essay took an interest and made suggestions to develop Onaje from a 93 minute one act to a full length two act. I went to work with Kevin.
Kevin and John have exposed me to a new and more polished professional performance, and Mind the Art has had numerous NYC productions, so both are big steps up. The performance dates will depend on fundraising and the acquiring of an off- or off-off Broadway theater, but we are focused and starting down this very challenging path.
All New York productions are expensive. This is a whole new world. It appears to be more about love and community than money. Most investors, large or small, love the theater and want to be part of the excitement. They are just plain “riverboat gamblers,” if they care about the investment at all. (The producers tell their investors that there is a high likelihood they will not get their money back because only a very small percentage of New York productions are successful investments.)
Over the last months, Kevin and I have met several times and I have been open to and impressed by his ability to X-ray the script and study its bone structure and life force.
We have become friends, and out of that friendship has come a much deeper and more powerful and relevant play because we were vulnerable and shared the differences of our lives.
As we worked on the play I have been surrounded by, and have commented on the politics of the present day.
Those of you who came and saw the production of Onaje remember that it derives from the civil rights riots in Cambridge Maryland in 1967 and its aftermath.
I have discovered that the wellspring of the play and the divisions within our country derive from our first beginnings as a nation. But also from that wellspring has come deep, loving, committed relationships and even great humor. That is what the new play is about.
The support and belief of Mind The Art Entertainment has also been born out of friendship. Christian and Patrick commissioned me to write the libretto for Vox Populi based on the success of Onaje at FringeNYC. The year before, Christian, Sue, and I met in Wallingford, Connecticut at a class for producers at the O’Neil.
The beauty of this creation is it comes from divergent backgrounds and is born from respect and friendship. It is in direct contrast with what this country is presently going through. The new play incorporates the present and our nation’s past.
Cross your fingers and wish us “break a leg!” It will be an interesting year ahead of us!
One year ago this past Sunday, our play Onaje had its opening night in NYC. We caught lightning in a bottle that night because of the exceptional talent of those people who came together to make that magic happen. Every performance was sold out and every reviewer gave us a rave.
Since that opening, Onaje has picked up steam, and is headed for a new production and a great future. We thought it might be interesting to ask: “Where are they now?”
Here is what we’ve learned:
Curtis Jackson, who played the titular Onaje, is currently assistant directing a new immersive performance Incomplete Conversations (produced by his company, Silent Theatre Company), a full-length play presented throughout multiple spaces and three floors. He also starred in Blacksite: The Musical! (produced by Soft Cage Films), and Eugenie, a short film with the Southside Filmmaking Youth Initiative.
Tim Rush, who played Henderson, was cast in the double role of Jackson/Kirk in Wendy Macleod’s Women in Jeopardy at The Shaker Bridge Theatre in New Hampshire last spring.
Bristol Pomeroy, who played Richard Middleman Sr, continues to be considered for TV and stage roles.
Prop Master Joey Paradise moved on to FRAGMENTS, a play about a woman with Alzheimer’s remembering being a girl in Austria during WWII. He also joined the New York company of Jersey Boys as a stage management sub and is working as a consultant and script doctor.
Ralph Meizler, our amazing Stage Manager, is currently in rehearsals for the touring company of Broadway hit Frozen.
Mary Hodges, who played Sarah, has been Assistant Director on Slave Play as it has made its way to Broadway! She can also be seen playing Judge Anita Wright on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
I also asked some members of my production team to send in their reflections.
Sue Conover Marinello, Producer
In the year since producing Onaje at FringeNYC in 2018, I have marveled at the amazing bonds this project formed. This story, the poetry of this writer, the vision of this production united us. The cast, the crew, the writer, the audience — so many wonderful people who make theatre possible — are joined in the shared experience that is Onaje. While this play highlights specific events that take place on the backdrop of an actual historical riot, Onaje joins us all in a shared history and quest to create a better America and world. It strives to imagine a reality where people respect one another.
To produce Onaje at FringeNYC was intense and wonderful. To continue to move this project forward to its next production is inspiring. The magic of theatre is borne out of hard work, focus, play, experimentation, and precision. Through 2019, Onaje has grown. I am grateful for those strong 2018 bonds, and look forward to 2020 as producers, cast, crew, writer and audience will once again unite to make theatre possible.
Katie Marinello, Social Media Manager
Onaje was a life-changing experience for me. Bob and Sue took a chance, letting me be their social media manager while balancing a full-time job. I learned so much in such a short time as we sold out tickets, grew our following, and increased engagement. I felt energized in a way I hadn’t in forever. Not only did I get to work with a fabulous group of people and see six dynamic and varied plays in six days, my next client was sitting in the audience at Bob’s play! Since then, I’ve been able to quit my full-time job and launch KT World Communications, LLC, a social and digital communications company. Bob has become a mentor as well as a friend and client and I couldn’t be more grateful. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Jim Marinello, Assistant and fan
A year ago, I was lucky enough to see Onaje awe audiences night after night. Some of them remember 1967; many didn’t. Audiences came with high expectations, and they were not disappointed. Expectations have only grown since then. I have been a super fan of this piece since I first saw it in a staged reading well before the Fringe, and I am pulling for it to find the right forum and production to present its powerful message to a wider audience.
Informally, we have heard that everyone is doing well. More specifics to come but one year later it is pretty clear that good things come from collaborations with good people.
We thank each and every one of you who made this magic happen. If you have any reflections or updates to share with me, please send them along!
In the West Village of New York City, on October 13th at 7:00 in the evening, ONAJE opened as my first professionally produced play. I sat in the back, in a balcony with lights and sound equipment around me and watched the audience file in and take their seats. I gave the appearance of being calm but I was terrified.
I have been to opening nights for nine of my prior plays in the little theaters of Baltimore and I have learned there is an immediate courtship: the call offered by the actors at the beginning of the play and the audience’s response. You can feel it. It is confirmed with the first laugh but the commitment can also be felt in the early silence.
As the play unfolds, from the back of the theater, you can watch for physical movement, restless disengagement as evidence of the loss of commitment to a play. It can become contagious in the dead silence and then nothing can resurrect the play. Once you lose them, there is no getting them back.
My friends, the composer Christian De Gré and our producer Susan Conover Marinello, and I had been fortunate to have Tom Viertel as our dinner guest three weeks before we opened. Based on years of experience as a renowned Broadway producer, the founder of the Commercial Theater Institute, and director of the O’Neill, he told us a “no-intermission play cannot run more than 93 minutes” without the high risk it will lose its audience. There was no doubt in his voice. We took his advice. We knew he was right. I went to work cutting lines and shaping the script with four script reductions.
Opening night at FringeNYC was to be judged by a sold-out crowd as they rendered their verdict first in the dance of commitment as the play got underway and then after 90 minutes by the way they moved in their seats.
For me, knowing every line and the slightest modulations in an actor’s voice, the experience was, of course, different than an audience seeing it for the first time. The audience will be engaged until they’re not. The only measurement that is credible is how the theater feels and how the shadows in the seats sit engaged or start to move. That is the only language.
I could feel this audience’s early engagement and commitment to the play and surprisingly when I did, I started to daydream about the genesis of this project:
I am the oldest son. The oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son, all of whom have been well-respected and distinguished lawyers, professors, and public servants. Although my father supported my love of storytelling, bringing me hand puppets from his travels and building me a little puppet theater so I could perform for my seventh- and eighth-grade classmates, there was no doubt my next step was to carry on the family profession of law.
While I dreamed of writing plays, I grew to love being a business trial lawyer. Before my father died several years ago, while I took care of him during his final years, he quite casually one afternoon looked at me and said, “I am very proud of what you have accomplished. I could never have started a law firm and succeeded in the way you have.”
Almost accidentally, he had released me to change my avocation to my profession. I soon retired and made a full commitment to become a professional playwright.
Opening night at FringeNYC was for me, unconsciously, like a flock of carrier pigeons released well over fifty years ago coming in to roost.
The last seven pages of the play runs 12 minutes to conclusion. I leaned over the rail and listened for the quality of the silence and looked down on an audience that did not move. They were engaged after 96 minutes, three minutes longer than Tom’s ultimatum. We had pushed the envelope but still survived.
The lights came down and there was a moment of silence, and as the actors came to their curtain call they were met by increasing and sustained applause. As the theater emptied out I saw many of my friends, some of whom had traveled from as far as California and Canada, as they walked to the stairs to exit past my door from the balcony.
I was not conscious at the time, even after I was welcomed by the audience and my friends, that like the characters I had written in ONAJE, after a long journey, I had finally come home.
The beauty of FringeNYC is that it demands creativity from the start at every level.
By way of example, I want to introduce you to the creativity and resourcefulness of our director, Pat Golden, and producer, Sue Conover Marinello.
ONAJE has set directions that specify a convertible with working lights, horn, and doors, a picnic table that might weigh several hundred pounds, and a working kitchen in a waterman’s house next to the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
FringeNYC is similar to a film festival in that a new performance goes up in the same space with only half an hour in between. Each play is given 15 minutes to set up and 15 minutes to break down the set. Obviously, we cannot assemble and deconstruct and store a set that contains a car, a big picnic table, and a kitchen in 15 minutes!
Nonetheless, ONAJE’s creative team is embracing the challenges as an opportunity to increase the impact of an already dramatic play — using light and sound and imaginative props to create a set that will be constructed in the minds of the audience.
Their ideas are already better than what was originally called for in the script.
Come see for yourself this October! We should know our venue and performance dates soon. If you’d like to secure advance tickets you can do so by helping us with a contribution: http://theplayonaje.com/contribute.
I am continually humbled by the amazing talents of the people who have come together to help bring ONAJE to life at FringeNYC. Two standouts are our tenacious, indispensable producer, Sue Conover Marinello, and our inspired, insightful director, Pat Golden. I am thrilled to have Pat’s creative guidance and casting acumen.
A little about Pat:
Pat Golden is an award-winning director and casting director for stage and film, and has had an extensive career that includes Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional and International credits. She was Assistant Director to Emily Mann on the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and has been affiliated with The Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST), Cherry Lane, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Mostly Mozart Festival and many other venues.
Pat is also a filmmaker and Casting Director, known for discovering new talent. She won the Artios Award for Best Casting in a Feature Film (Drama) for Platoon, and was nominated for Blue Velvet. Other feature credits include Gimme Shelter, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Killing Fields. She’s worked with Lee Daniels Entertainment, New Line, Warner Bros and PBS as Associate Producer.
We are truly fortunate to have Pat’s incredible talent, experience, and dedication for ONAJE. Come to FringeNYC in New York this October and see for yourself!