I’m trying to teach an old dog a new trick: “patience.” But “impatience” has been one of that old dog’s primary character traits. I am that old dog.
After my play Onaje received its wonderful reviews in New York last October, I was impatient to immediately take it “off-Broadway,” but I was advised because New York is so expensive (The New York Times reported last Sunday that the brilliant and very controversial new Slave Play has spent $3.4 million to get to previews on Broadway) to be patient and watch “good things happen” before the next step.
I was patient and great things happened. Kevin R. Free, the gifted New York director, read the script and was interested but he told me, ”You missed an opportunity.” Dan, Onaje’s father, is African American, and his counterpart, Richard Middleman, Jr.’s father, is white. Both were fellow crabbers and friends down at the docks. Both have been missing their sons because of what happened “that night” so many years ago. What did that do to their friendship? Isn’t that question at the heart of this play?
It was as if Kevin had X-rayed the play and found the missing piece that lifted the play from specific to universal, and I had found a friend and hopefully the dream director who knew the script at least as well as I did and perhaps better. It was the same play but, looked at from a different angle, it was no longer just about Onaje— it had become about “American Terrorists,” the Klan as a destroyer of families.
I immediately started to rewrite so that I could send the new draft to Kevin. He like the rewrite and agreed to direct it in the future, but he wanted to have a table reading of the new script. I, of course, became impatient but I am learning ever so slowly that collaboration offers a kind of maturation and focus.
The play is getting stronger. Kevin’s agent, John Essay, and our producer, Sue Conover Marinello are working together and looking at budgets, venues, and theater opportunities.
The table reading has been set for October. We are off to the birth of a new and much more powerful play that will hit the stage soon but, of course, never soon enough for me. The actors will assemble at the Opera Center on Seventh Avenue in the next few weeks and we will hear a deeper and richer story come to life and I will grow wiser and benefit from learning to become more mature and, patient… Maybe.
Onaje is moving up the ladder in New York.
It is funny how you take a new path and learn the same lesson. Trusted friends, credibility, and hard work were everything in creating my law firm almost 30 years ago and now I learn the same is true in the world of New York theater.
When I sold my controlling interest in my law firm I had decided that I wanted to be equally as successful as a playwright. The problem was I had to make up for 40 years of lost time. I decided I would become the oldest playwright ever to apply to Yale Drama school. I succeeded in being the oldest playwright ever to be rejected by Yale Drama school.
So with my objective still firmly in mind, I decided I would have to change my approach. I took a class at the Commercial Theater Institute in New York, not in playwriting, but in producing. After the first morning, the students gathered outside and shared conversation during a brown bag lunch. As they went around the circle, they all talked about plays they were hoping to produce. When it came to me, I confessed I did not want to be a producer. I wanted them to produce me. I got a laugh and two offers which led to staged readings in San Francisco, NYC, and Los Angeles and I made new friends.
One, Parker Bennett of Aligned Online, signed on to teach me how to create and manage my new website. Following the precedent set with Yale, I proved myself to be an unworthy student, but Parker became a trusted friend, took over the website, and became my guru on all things pertaining to script writing and the business generally, since he is an accomplished writer in his own right.
The following summer I continued on my path and was admitted into the Producers’ Class at the O’Neill Festival in Connecticut and there I met Sue Conover Marinello, the future producer of Onaje at FringeNYC and Christian De Gré Cardenas, who would become an indispensable ally at FringeNYC and ultimately the composer for “The Voice of the People,“ after I was asked to write the libretto by Mind the Art Entertainment.
Sue, Christian, Parker, and now Katie Marinello — who is handling our presence on Instagram and Twitter — have all become indispensable trusted friends.
When Onaje was chosen to be performed at FringeNYC, Sue Conover Marinello asked Kevin R Free, the highly respected NYC director, to direct. He read the script, but had a scheduling conflict and was unable to join us at FringeNYC.
During the pre-rehearsal and rehearsal stages leading up to the performances, Onaje was lovingly shaped and focused with the ideas of additional friends: the actors, director, stage manager, and others. It opened to sold-out performances and rave reviews, largely due to the tireless work of Sue Conover Marinello as its producer.
Sue decided that she wanted to take Onaje up the ladder in New York and elsewhere. She wanted Kevin R Free.
She took me to see several 10-minute plays directed by Kevin for Kelly Girod, the Obie winner and manager of The Fire This Time Theatre Festival. Based on the successes in New York, Sue took the script to Kevin’s agent, John Essay, again. By coincidence, John had seen the reviews of Onaje and asked that Kevin revisit the play.
The path is always different but the results are always the same. When we all met each other for the first time during a Zoom conference call about a month and a half later, Kevin had fresh ideas that highlighted missed opportunities in the script. He had X-rayed it and knew the bone structure perfectly. I joked with him that it was almost as if he had a lawnchair in my brain.
The same lesson is re-learned: trusted friends, credibility, and hard work make the apparently impossible dream happen. I’m so excited to be reaching for the next rung of the ladder.
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!
On May 24, 2018, at 3:25 pm I received an email from the New York Fringe Festival (FringeNYC.org) telling me that my play, Onaje, was accepted for production in New York in October.
At the heart of the play is the Civil Rights riots and burning of Cambridge, Maryland in 1967 —still sadly relevant 50 years later with civil disobedience in Charlottesville Virginia, but this time the President says “there are good people on both sides.” We are still “a house divided.”
I lived on the Eastern shore of Maryland as a boy that summer. I had grown up in liberal Massachusetts and had never experienced firsthand racism or the terror of being an outsider and the range of psychological damage which occurs from it.
My first day visiting the Eastern shore I was invited to go to a country club to go swimming in the club pool. I was not a hippie. My hair was long enough to go over the top of my ears but not over the back of my collar. As I approached the gate to the fence that ran around the edge of the swimming pool I saw the lifeguard looking at me as he descended from his tower to confront me before I entered.
When he stopped me at the gate he told me because of my hair I would have to wear a woman’s bathing cap. Swimming stopped and parents and children looked at me. All the men had short crew cuts and all the women had long hair but were not wearing bathing caps. That was in early June the riots occurred in late July.
I will continue writing in this blog about the production of the play up until I’m through its final performance in October in New York. I don’t know how it will land. This is the story of the first production of my play. Come and share with me the ride.
(We need help to keep the wheels on. If you can manage it, please donate.)