Only Connect: A Young Playwright Finds His Audience

November 21, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 1 8 min read

stage

This is the second in a two-part series.

They were from Bronx vocational schools. All morning, as I milled around backstage at the Playwrights Horizons Theater in Manhattan, that was all anyone was talking about: our audience today would be students from vocational high schools in the Bronx. “FMA,” one older character actor muttered in the green room. When I asked what that meant, he flashed a dark smile. “Future Muggers of America,” he said.

Today, if I saw the kids who piled off the row of yellow school buses lined up along 42nd Street, I would think: ordinary school kids. They were mostly black, the guys wearing their trousers halfway down their backsides and lots of fake gold jewelry, the girls in colorful form-fitting dresses, their hair gelled into gravity-defying up-dos. If you have lived any part of your life in New York City you have seen plenty of busloads of these kids, and they are, at the end of the day, just kids.

But this was 1985, when the South Bronx was still a combat zone, and I was a nice white college kid from the California suburbs. Those kids scared the hell out of me. There were several hundred of them and they poured out of the school buses and into the theater, both deliriously happy to be in Midtown in the middle of the school day and somewhat perplexed at the prospect of entering an off-Broadway theater to see a series of one-act plays.

I was there that day because my one-act, The Irishman, had been one of nine plays selected for the Young Playwrights Festival, a national contest that each year produces the work of teenage playwrights at an off-Broadway theater. That year, one slate of plays, the top winners, received full productions at Playwrights Horizons. A second slate, of which mine was a part, were given “workshop” productions, meaning the plays were fully staged by professional actors, but props and sets were minimal and the actors held scripts in their hands all through the play.

covercoverThis was my second year at the Young Playwrights Festival and this particular performance came at the end of a heady two-week trip to New York that had begun with meeting Jon Cryer and D.B. Sweeney, the actors for my two-character play. Jon is now, after a long career in movies and TV, the star of the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, and D.B., a handsome dog with an easy smile and leading-man charm, had a run of starring roles in movies like Gardens of Stone and Eight Men Out and now works steadily on TV and doing voice-overs. But back then, they were just two young actors struggling to make a living.

I have written about the downside of my Young Playwrights Festival experience; this was the upside, the chance for a few golden days to work with top-flight New York theater talent. For a week, I got to watch Jon and D.B. crack my play open, examine it inside and out, not changing the words I’d written, but testing out new line readings, filling pauses in unexpected ways, creating character tics and gestures. The little 25-page play I’d written late at night in my dorm room exploded before my eyes, characters who had been figments of my imagination came alive in three dimensions, far more complex and multi-faceted than I’d imagined. Before long, I was riffing with the actors, adding lines to support their new characterizations, taking out things that didn’t work with what they were doing.

So by the time the yellow school buses pulled up from the Bronx, I thought I had gotten everything I was going to get out of that production. My extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody — had come to New York for opening night, and through the weeklong run I met actors and directors and agents and playwrights who graciously welcomed me into the New York theater family. This school matinee was late in the run, a seeming afterthought to a wild week, and my only thought as I watched those kids fill the auditorium from my seat in the back row of the theater was, “Man, is this ever going to be a train wreck.”

Audiences typically file quietly into a theater and speak in hushed tones or read the program until the lights go down, but these kids were nothing like a typical theater audience. The 200-odd Bronx high school students did not shut up for one single second once they entered the theater. Guys wolf-whistled at girls across the theater, and the girls hollered back, daring the boys to come down after them. Spitbombs flew. Paper airplanes sailed. One harried-looking teacher in a faded gray suit marched up and down the center aisle shushing everybody, to zero effect. Worst of all was when the director of the Young Playwrights Festival, a sweet young Brit named Gerald Chapman, who had the misfortune of possessing one of the world’s plummiest British accents, announced, “When the curtain rises, please remain quietly in your seats and enjoy the performance” — a request that was met with gales of laughter and 200 of the world’s worst fake plummy British accents.

My play, which was up first on the program that day, revolved around a drinking night shared by two teenage pals, Dave, who was essentially me, and his best friend, Kev, a tough, misogynist mess with a big secret. I had based Kev on a friend from home, whom I suspected — wrongly, as it turned out — of being secretly gay. This was, you will have to trust me, a more original theme in 1985 than it would be today. In 1985, AIDS remained cloaked in mystery and euphemism, and across America, the closet was still a densely populated place. The notion that an ordinary suburban teenager, particularly one who overcompensates by being loud and homophobic, could be secretly gay was still a provocative one for much of straight America.

It did not, however, seem a very promising theme for this audience. To make matters worse, the play opened with Dave and Kev playing an imaginary basketball game with a crumpled ball of paper and a trash basket. This was one of our more inspired improvisations in rehearsal, and with earlier audiences it had worked well to show the charged nature of the physicality between the two guys before the first line of dialogue was even spoken. With this audience, it was simply a joke. Catcalls rained down, criticizing the actors’ lame-ass moves, their scrawny-ass arms, to say nothing of their general and hilarious white-assedness.

I watched Jon and D.B. freeze in panic. There was a solid wall of sound coming from the audience, just a madhouse din, and there was laughter in it, but it was angry laughter, mean laughter. This bullshit show, the crowd seemed to be saying, is a joke and an insult, and we want it out of our sight, now. I could see the actors consider giving them what they wanted, just saying the hell with it and walking off the stage. But then — it was one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen on any stage — the two of them mutually decided to roll with it. Instead of performing the scene in the conventional way, with an invisible fourth wall separating audience and actors, they opened up the stage and made the audience a part of the play.

It was such a subtle, brilliant bit of acting. It wasn’t as if they looked out at the crowd and invited them in. Just somehow, while they were playing this imaginary game of basketball, the real sound of the crowd became the imaginary sound of the crowd roaring in approval of Kev’s drive to the basket, to the point that when he finally scored, twirling in the air and shame-dunking it over Dave’s head, a few kids in the crowd actually cheered.

I had never given much thought to the role an audience plays in the theater, for the simple reason that most theater audiences, especially at dramatic plays, work so hard to keep quiet during performances. But this audience wanted to talk about absolutely everything that was happening onstage, and once the actors opened up to that, the performance became a raucous, freeform conversation across the footlights. And the subject of this conversation, what it’s like to be a horny teenage guy with nothing better to do on a Saturday night than sit around drinking and talking smack about women, turned out to have surprisingly universal appeal.

The plot of the play, to the degree that there was one, was that Dave had a new girlfriend whom he was desperate to see, and Kev was doing his level best to keep his buddy from leaving. Dave’s solution to this problem was to suggest Kev find a girl of his own to go out with, which brought on a hailstorm of misogynistic comments from Kev about what a waste of space girls are. All this had played well with other audiences, but with this one, each new line sailed out over the footlights like a verbal beach ball, which then got batted around the auditorium, the guys tossing in their line-topping agreement, the girls laughing and arguing back. I remember a couple a row or two in front of me, who had been sitting close at the top of the show, arm in arm, like a couple in the back row at the movies. At one point, after one of Kevin’s most sexist remarks, the guy piped up, “Yo, that’s right,” and his girlfriend turned and boxed his ear. It was a playful swat, but still it rang his bell a little and it cracked me up.

When an audience is with you, it’s like running a rapids, that same raw power and unpredictability, and even the best actors can do little but hold on for dear life and hope the boat doesn’t capsize. Jon and D.B. were riding that river now, up and down, over and under, hitting an unexpected splash of laughter here, then a whoosh of current followed by a great whack of incoherent noise that drowned out everything onstage — all of which carried us pell-mell toward the climax of the play, which was a fight between Dave and Kev. The crowd cheered on the fight like a playground brawl, rooting for either Kev or Dave and calling out punches each of the guys should throw, so it came as a complete shock when Kev tackled his friend and smothered him in a desperate, slobbery kiss.

Total silence in the theater. Not a sound. Onstage, Jon wriggled out from under D.B. and stood up, backing away slowly stuttering Kev’s name. From one side of the audience, a loud male voice shouted: “What the fuck?”

Another pause, even longer, and then somebody else, also male, shouted back: “He’s a fag.”

We all sat considering this fact, for it was now undeniably so: Kev was gay. As the actors gingerly led us through the denouement in which Dave and Kev agree to pretend as if what had so obviously happened did not happen, the audience sat in silence, outraged that this guy who they had come to like, and even identify with, was gay. And yet it all made a terrible kind of sense: the fighting and the horseplay such an obvious plea for masculine contact, the rants against girls and “fags” such an obvious attempt to hide the obvious. In that silence, I felt as I never had at any time in the theater before or since: that I had broken through. I had spoken and been heard. What I’d said touched only tangentially on issues of sexuality. I’m not gay, nor were, I suspect, all that many of the guys in the audience. I was talking about male friendship and how hard it is to be vulnerable in those relationships. I was wrong about my friend back home, but I was right about the unspoken concerns of teenage guys everywhere, and I had told these guys, and the girls who were with them, something about themselves — and something about myself as well — that they might not have been able to hear in any other way.

The previous two weeks had been all about me. What a talented young fellow I was. What a promising career I had ahead of me. Blah, blah, blah. But, until that moment, I hadn’t really understood what I was doing there, why I had written my play in the first place. Now I knew. I had loved my friend back home, and we had drifted apart, as friends do, and I was trying to work all that out, what it meant to love somebody and have that end. Here I thought I’d written a topical one-act with a trick ending, and really I had written a love story. I never could have seen that if that audience hadn’t reacted to the play in the way they had, seen past the clumsy plotting and dime-store psychology to the core truth I hadn’t even realized I’d spoken.

That remains, to this day, my greatest moment as a writer. I will never forget it.

Image Credit: Flickr/Gamma-Ray Productions

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. www.michaelbournewriter.com

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