Playwrite Frank Gagliano

MEMOIR

This link will sketch in my outer and inner artistic life in the fragmented style of Arthur Miller's TIMEBENDS-- including my years in the Barr-Wilder-Albee Playwright's Unit, the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, the 1960s Off-Broadway movement and as Artistic Director of the E.P. Conkle Workshop for Playwrights, the Carnegie Mellon Showcase for New Plays and the Festival of New Plays in Ann Arbor.

I will also use interviews and questionnaires (see below) that express my thinking about my life and my art.

And I begin this section with KNICKERS, a beginning few pages that may turn out to be a screenplay or a novel, based on autobiographical material, but with a goodly mix of fantasy.

 

NARRATOR
(Voice over)

In those days you wore knickers.

In those days you played marbles. . .

and a game called Skelly. . .

You’d kneel on the knees of your knickers and you’d shoot your marbles on the dirt lot or your bottle caps for Skelly on a playing field made of chalk on the street. . .

and when you got home you caught hell from mama (who always wore her pearl necklace and earrings with her house dress as she cleaned and dusted) and you caught hell because you were wearing out your knicker-knees
“—And do you think money grows on trees, figlio mio (my son)?” . . .

Knickers (Continued)


 

INTERVIEW #1:
FROM A RECENT ON-LINE INTERVIEW

(Download Interview #1.pdf)


1. Mr. Gagliano, What made you want to work in the professional writing field?


•As is usual with me, it’s never about planning. I tend to fall into things. I was always interested in the entertainment field, though; did some performing as a young, young man and suddenly started to write. I guess, in my DNA, lurked a theatre animal gene. What did I write first? Radio plays. There was a time, you may be shocked to learn, when American radio produced original drama for that medium. Then, in high school and later in college I started to write stage plays, probably because I joined a theatre club in high school and had actors available to me (playwrights need actors to tell their stories). Again, I kind of fell into it; also I found I had a talent for dramatic storytelling. Then I started to see professional plays on Broadway (I was born in Brooklyn), and I was hooked. The immediacy of theatre appealed to me, excited me. In any case, I seemed to have no option (I apparently had to be a playwright), and various theatrical doors started to open for me while I was getting an MFA at Columbia University. From then on it never occurred to me to “want” anything else.

2. Many successful writers have numerous outside influences. Can you name a few people who affected the way you write? How exactly did they affect your style?

•Georg Buchner, the writer of the very great and important play, WOYZECK, influenced me the most; his style, his imagery—above all, the extreme compression and extraordinary, intense and vivid language in his work—including the intense language in his letters.

•Musical influence: The operas of Giuseppe Verdi -- especially the way his operas usually end in a rush. My plays tend to end that way—in a rush.

•The great dramatic critic Eric Bentley was a teacher of mine at Columbia University and he introduced me (and much of America,) to writers like Buchner, Brecht and others. Also, Eric wrote about the playwright as being “an artist”—not just as a commercial craftsman writing by the numbers. I aimed to be a playwright-artist. I must have succeeded, because I never made much money in the commercial theatre.

•The popular songs of my day were also an influence—especially the words in the songs by the great lyricists who wrote the sung words: Johnny Mercer (Blues In The Night), Lorenze Hart (The Lady Is A Tramp), Ira Gershwin (The Man I Love), Cole Porter (Anything Goes), Yip Harberg (Over The Rainbow)—that crowd. They influenced the way I wrote the lyrics for my musicals. To this day, what is called “The Great American Songbook” is my passion.

•The Roman Catholic Church was also an influence — its rituals, specifically—the theatricality of the rituals (costumes—priests in drag, music, fire and brimstone sermons, etc.). The dogma eventually turned me off, but the theatrics left a lasting impression on my work and informed specific plays.

•The first Broadway Musical I ever saw on Broadway was Rogers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO. Not one of their major successes, but it used a Greek chorus, had little scenery and forced me to use my imagination to fill in all that was needed. That musical had the kind of theatricality that appealed to me. And when I was an undergraduate at Queens College, we had no formal theatre space and had to do our plays in an upper student lounge and had to make theatrical magic with little or nothing. Great training. Great influences.

•I’ve also been influenced by the films of Federico Fellini—especially the surreal aspects of his films, and of his Italian humor.

3. What were some of the environmental influences that took hold of you and your writing, your childhood, where you grew up, etc.

•Radio was ubiquitous, back in the day, and an influence, especially a weekly show called, The Make Believe Ballroom—and the original plays of a writer of original radio plays, Norman Corwin—and the Metropolitan Opera On The Air.

•Italian-American Street festivals in my section of Brooklyn had an influence—music, processions, food, contests, etc., and were great theatrical worlds to observe and be part of.

4. What were some of the obstacles and challenges that you faced in your career?

•Main obstacle: Having to make a living doing other things, while feeding my theatre habit.

•“The Theatre Establishment,” who could not quite make out my style of writing.

•Actors, who could not get behind my language.

•Lousy timing (long story): My plays seemed to have been written for today’s world. Perhaps they were ahead of their time. Or not.

5. If you had a single piece of advice for somebody who is interested in becoming a professional writer, what would that be?

•Be sure you have the “calling;" it’s too hard otherwise. Be sure you can stand being rejected over and over and over and over and over again.

•Also, if you’re a playwright, be prepared to write for live actors to tell your story, and be sure you work at knowing what actors are all about—how they work, what they do.

•Understand that you are creating a blueprint of sorts when you write a play. When that blueprint gets to production stage to build the solid piece, be prepared to be just another one of the ensemble that takes over your work. Ego deflating.

6. Briefly, what are some of the writing tactics you use when starting a new piece. (Example, Brainstorming, first draft...)

• I brainstorm with myself. I write down and number question and answers as the questions and images and ideas keep dropping in. And I always keep asking the same basic questions as I write and number: Why is this day different from any other day for the characters? And what does each character want? And what are the obstacles to that want? As the numbers (with answers) get into the 80 numbered range, the entries are usually quite long by then and I’m ready to move into the first scene and to start the first draft. From then on I forget about technique, let instinct take over, and just let ‘er rip.

7. What work are you most proud of and why?


•I really love them all, but FATHER UXBRIDGE WANTS TO MARRY was my breakthrough play (1967/The American Place Theatre) and strongly influenced my writing from then on—so I guess that’s my major love. On the other hand, I also love my children’s play, THE HIDE AND SEEK ODYSSEY OF MADELIENE GIMPLE. The simplicity and fantasy of that play then combined with the UXBRIDGE intensity and began to mold a special style that led to all of my future plays
especially THE PRINCE OF PEASANTMANIA.

8. What Genre are you most interested in writing and why?

•Musical theatre. I’ve had the most fun working in that genre. But lately—because of my new Web site (www.gaglianoriff.com)—I’m becoming more interested in blogging and writing essays and starting notes for a textbook on my text analysis techniques. I just published my first novel, ANTON’S LEAP (on Amazon.com), and I have another novel started. As for writing more plays, it seems to be, “been there, done that.” We’ll see.


9. If you didn't pursue writing, what would you pursue?


•It’s too late now, but I can’t imagine anything greater and more satisfying than to be a cabaret singer and to sing the Great American Songbook. Dream on! Right?

10. I had to throw the famous interview question in here. When you get to the pearly gates, what would you like God to say to you upon arrival?

“Playwright Gagliano, you’ve stayed married and loyal to the same woman for fifty years; you’ve got a terrific son who is doing world-class work on National Public Radios MARKETPLACE; you’ve nourished and mentored a lot of students who seem to feel that you’ve made a difference in their lives; you don’t pick your nose (much) — and you’ve pretty much lived by the golden rule (one of my better days of devising stuff to live by). Your plays are okay, though they have too much sex stuff for my taste, but they give me a couple of good laughs once in a while. And I must admit that you often render in dramatic terms the random absurdity of my grand design (it’s the mischief in me)—and I applaud you for that. So you can go through the gates
and, by the way, they’re not pearly, they’re diamond-y (diamonds came first) Yes playwright Gagliano, float on through to Cloud Cabaret and catch your favorite singer Frank Sinatra sing one of your favorite songs, HERE’S THAT RAINY DAY. There’s room at Cole Porter’s table. Johnny Mercer is seated there, too. Careful with John: He gets mean when he gets drunk. Ciao!” []

Frank Gagliano
April, 2009

 

INTERVIEW #2:
FROM A RECENT UKRAINIAN QUESTIONNAIRE

(Download SecondInterview.pdf)


On March 15, 2005—just three months after the Ukrainian Orange Revolution—I gave a reading/performance of my play, “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT,” in the Regional Art Museum in Kirovograd, Ukraine. In many ways, it changed my life.

Pavlò Bosyy, a native of Kirovograd, and a visiting professor of Design in the Division of Theatre, West Virginia U (WVU), had arranged a photo exhibit of stage designs in Kirovograd: “American Scenography Today in Works of West Virginia University Professors and Graduate Students.”

In Kirovograd, before coming to the US in 2000, Pavlò had been the Curator of the Kirovograd Museum of Regional Studies; he was also on the faculty of the Kirovograd Pedagogical Academy, and was a major stage designer for the Kropyvnytsky Ukrainian Regional Theatre of Drama and Music.

Pavlò—who, to me, resembles, in aspect and energy, the young Mickey Rooney playing Puck, in the MGM movie version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—was a voracious reader and had read my play, "MY CHEKHOV LIGHT." He had heard about a recent reading/performance I had done at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, and invited me to perform the piece as part of the WVU exhibit in Kirovograd, Ukraine. I quickly accepted.

For two reasons:

The Ukrainian Orange Revolution had moved and
inspired me and I wanted to meet the people who had achieved what seemed like a political miracle; and because I wanted to continue to keep “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT” alive, this time in a (for me) brand new culture.

In the essays and articles link on this Web site
(UKRAINE ) I posted 2 parts of that journey.

In fact, I never did get to complete Part2 Of
“MY CHEKHOV LIGHT”/UKRAINIAN ODYSSEY;
but recently, Pavlò asked me to contribute some remarks on my Ukrainian experiences for a new magazine, “HOBBY,”to be published in Ukraine. Inna Derkach’s translation of “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT” would be published, along with a questionnaire that I would complete. The magazine deals with the subject of “HOBBY” in a broader context than, say, whittling.

I submitted the following answers as Part 2 of my Ukrainian odyssey--and consider these responses as part of my memoirs]


1) Frank, can we say that stage reading/performing is your hobby? Or teaching? Do you have any other hobbies? Or your profession- and calling, creative writing, is actually your hobby?


My dictionary defines “Hobby” as —
“an activity engaged in for pleasure and relaxation during spare time.”


Everything I do —(all my creative work, certainly)— I do for emotional and intellectual pleasure. Once I get through the natural angst of creating something, I find that what I do is relaxing; and, since I make my living primarily from teaching, my spare time from teaching is when I invest all my energies in creative work.


In this sense, then, my creative work does touch on all aspects of the definition of Hobby: My writing certainly does. I never write on demand or to formula. I write for the pleasure of organizing the chaos of my life into a structure that (I’m arrogant to believe) an audience will be interested in, and that actors will want to act in.

The work must give me pleasure, and when it does, I relax. Of course, I teach theatre (Playwriting and Text Analysis) for my primary living (my job), so I guess teaching is not a Hobby; still, I do find the results from teaching relaxing, and I get great pleasure from teaching—especially through the give and take of ideas with students. So, even teaching has a Hobby aspect.


I thought, at one time, that my reading/performances, because they were done in my spare time, were, therefore, a pure hobby; but through reading/performances of my own plays, I have discovered all sorts of insights into text analysis and performance that have begun to inform my
work in its totality and in my constantly-developing view of theatre art.


Reading/performance, therefore, is now part of my professional arsenal. So—yes—in the spare times of my life, I take pleasure in, and relaxation from, all the work I do in my profession of theatre making; therefore—it is
all my life’s Hobby.


2) How did you find Ukraine and Kirovograd? What are your strongest recollections of our country? Of our people? of our art?

I loved my stay in Ukraine. Kiev is a beautiful city and the Bulgakov house was an eye-opener for me and, as a result of visiting it, I began to read everything I could by that great writer, when I returned home. Most of my time was spent in Kirovograd, which I especially loved. The people I met there were extraordinary; kind, generous, intelligent and outgoing. The English-speaking students I lectured to were also!intelligent and inquisitive.

My reading performance of my play, MY CHEKHOV LIGHT, was well attended and well received. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the reaction to my work, which included a glowing review from one of the leading and revered actors of the Kirovograd National Theatre, Mr. Ivan Kravtsov. My translator, Inna Derkach was a delight and a joy to work with; she was charming, a terrific actress. Her English was impeccable. Every night I was invited to dinner at a different apartment, in which therewere food, drink, and laughter, singing; very much like the Italian- American family life I came from. I felt right at home in Kirovograd. In terms of art: I had never really thought much about the art of Ukrainian Iconography, but I saw much of it and I began to see the extraordinary and individual beauty of each piece. At one point in my visit, Tatiana Tkachenco, the curator of the Kirovograd Museum of Fine Arts, gave me a private tour of the Museum (which was where I also gave my
reading/performance of my play, MY CHEKHOV LIGHT), and, with the help of a young, beautiful student of English, who translated (and whose name also was Tatiana) pointed out all the subtleties of each artist and the symbolism of many of the paintings. At one point, the student, Tatiana, was describing to me the symbolism in a very-large painting that featured what seemed like a possessed Mystic walking (with bleeding feet?) barefoot in the snow. Somehow, that led to the student Tatiana talking about my reading/performance of my play, MY CHEKHOV LIGHT, and I asked her how it was that many in the audience seemed to become so involved in my character’s agony without
knowing the English language. True, translations were handed out to the large audience, but many did not follow the translated text; and not everyone in the audience understood English the way the student Tatiana
did. She simply stated that, somehow, I had rendered the Soul of the character and, often, that intuitive insight into the Soul was more important for the audience than the understanding of the language itself. I found this astonishing. Until that point, I had pretty much convinced
myself that I was merely demonstrating the playtext (though, once again, the packed art-gallery, in which I was giving the reading/performance, dematerialized and I was in the theatre space in which my anti-hero Peter Paradise was working through his crisis). But what also astonished me was the student Tatiana’s use of the word “Soul.” I have been teaching for over forty years and I have been in contact with hundreds and hundreds of students, but rarely have I had a student talk about the “Soul” of anything. Was this sort of spirituality so deeply ingrained in all Ukrainians? —Again I was moved.


The Curator Tatiana Tkachenco obviously took great pride in the Museum’s collection and was determined to restore those pictures that had been damaged. One of the paintings, “Blood Sunday in St Petersburg” —a very large canvas—by the artist Wojciech Kossak, had large patches
covering the damaged areas. It broke my heart to see it. Band-Aids on a work of art. Ms Tkachenko said it would cost about $10,000 to restore; a large sum of money for the Kirovohrad Regional Museum of Art; not that much money for such an undertaking in my country. I was convinced,
because of Ms Tkachenko’ s enthusiasm and pride in her charge as Curator, that she would get the needed money and have the restoration done. Perhaps she has achieved that by now. I hope so.

Still in Kirovograd I visited the State Regional Research Library, where a gracious handsome woman, Olena Garashenko (who spoke excellent English and had done some studies at The Library of Congress in
Washington, D.C.), allowed me to see some of their rare book collection, with some of the most incredibly designed book covers I have ever seen; some, as I recall, detailed with rare stones. The Library itself was featuring a contemporary art exhibit, and its permanent stained glass
windows were colorfully designed in vibrant colors. In Kiev there were some shows of contemporary art, at which I saw that there were many fine contemporary Ukrainian artists working in the media of painting and sculpture.

The one contemporary play I saw at the Kirovograd National Theatre, “Desire of the Extreme,” by Anatoly Krym, was very well performed. My friend Pavlò Bosyy needed to translate (in whispers) the more subtle parts to me as the play progressed, but it was very clear what the
political nature of the piece was all about: Corruption.

Some other Kirovohrad snapshots:

1) Svetlana Bosyy, Pavlò’s beautiful mother (a retired medical doctor), being sure I had many of her marmalade filled pastries for breakfast; and making certain I take some jars of her homemade honey home to my wife Sandy.

2) Vasyl Bosyy, Pavlo’s father (a Dance Master), holding me by the arm to make sure that I didn’t slip on the treacherous ice that was still thick on the streets of Kirovagrad that March.

3) The student Tatania accompanying me on the long bus ride from Kirovograd to Kiev airport and giving me, as a parting gift, a beautiful handkerchief, made by her grandmother.

4) Pavlò Bosyy, on the train ride from Kiev to Kirovograd,! organizing a detailed itinerary for me and, with his usual energy, galvanizing everyone else to implement it.

5) In Kirovograd, at the entranceway of an apartment building, two old women, wearing black clothes, and with head scarves (babuskas?) covering their heads, talking on cell phones.

6) At the farewell lunch, given me by the staff of the Museum—in the same gallery where I gave my reading/performance of “My Chekhov Light” — and after the usual 3rd toast to the women in the room — I was
asked many questions about the United States; the last one being: Are Americans as fat as they are said to be?!!I said, yes.

3) What did you discover about Ukraine and Orange Revolution before your visit and how did your opinion change during your visit?

Before my visit, the glories of the Orange Revolution were featured in our media, and the revolution’s stories were top news for a long while. The generally peaceful nature of the revolution to bring about democratic change, and the ensuing result, was, indeed, inspiring.

When I got to Kiev and walked the Square where thousands of Ukrainians—so many of them young people—kept vigil, I found it a very moving experience. Then, while visiting Mohyla Academy in Kiev, the provost, Dr. Panchenko, showed me a gallery of many blown-up photos of
the young people who took part in the demonstrations; and when I was told that even romances developed between young policemen and women students, that was a delightful bit of news that fed my romantic soul.The students at Mohyla Academy were very like the students in the
photos. They also resembled students I see on my campus at West Virginia University and at all Colleges I’ve worked at or have visited. I did meet some Ukrainians who were not sure the revolutionary spirit would be
sustained. Have they been proven right? I hate to think so. But, as I write, and from this distance, it does seem that the Orange Revolution may have been betrayed. But that just means that the habit of corruption is very hard to break. But if anyone can break it, it is the Ukrainian
people.

Again, the ones I met were strong, competent, compassionate, hard working, talented, and wanted a better future for themselves and for their families. I am sure that that whiff of freedom and empowerment will win out over the stench of corruption—a stench, by the way, that now
engulfs the country I live in.

4) How did you start writing? What are you earliest theatre experiences? Do you have any fun stories about playwriting and theatre?

I started by writing original plays for radio. In those days (which seem like a million years ago), the United States radio broadcasting companies featured original drama, written specifically for that medium. In High School I began writing original stage plays for our drama club. Many of the
plays were controversial; I think it was because I used “bad” language. I have no particular fun stories about playwriting. It’s all fun — and all pain.

5) How do people make a living on playwriting? Is that
tough?


It is very tough to make a living writing plays in the United States. Virtually impossible, in fact. Many writers turn to television to make a living; some (as I do) teach.

6) How does one teach creative writing? Can you teach
someone to become Shakespeare or Chekhov?


The best way to be a playwright is to write plays and get involved with their productions. On the job training. That's just about impossible today. Even readings and workshops are hard to come by. So classes are offered, in which all you can teach is technique; you can’t teach genius, or talent. However, if there is a student with genuine playwriting talent, a teacher of playwriting (who has been around the production block, as it were) can often spot it, and nurture it, and encourage it, and let it blossom. Also, it’s very important to establish a structure for the class
that allows for the student to hear his/her play read: The name of the game is, it’s all in the dialogue, so one's stage dialogue must be heard. It's amazing how quickly one recognizes what needs work as soon as the words are put out there.

7) What’s your dream theatre school?


One that is built around playwriting. This question, however, requires a book- length answer.

8) How does your teaching style differ from what the other professors of playwriting do?

I have no idea. I know what I do; but that would take another book-length essay to answer.

9) Frank, I remember how proud I was to discover your name on the board of produced works of contemporary playwrights at the legendary Cherry Lane theatre. How did you discover that company? Who directed your plays over there and performed them? Did you make any personal friends at Cherry Lane?

Edward Albee formed a theatre group that presented “emerging playwrights” to New York theatre. This was in the 1960s.! I was one of those chosen playwrights. Albee presented a series of plays by new playwrights at The Cherry Lane Theatre, a famous theatre of 150 seats,
located in Greenwich Village. One of my early plays, CONERICO WAS HERE TO STAY, was produced in that series.!

The following year, Edward Albee, at The Cherry Lane Theatre, produced another play of mine, NIGHT OF THE DUNCE.!Two years ago, I gave a
reading/performance of MY CHEKHOV LIGHT at The Cherry Lane Theatre (just before I gave a reading/performance of it in Kirovograd) and it was quite successful. The Cherry Lane Theatre is now run by Angelina Fiordellisi, a terrific actress and believer in encouraging new playwrights:
Her Mentor Series is now one of the leading venues for developing new American plays.

The directors and actors I worked with would not be household names in Ukraine, but they are all well-known theatre practitioners in America. This is true of designers, as well.

10) How did the big classical artists of the 1960s, like Beckett or Strasberg influenced your art?

Strasberg; not at all. My work has an operatic component to it and is informed by lyrical language and theatrical wonder with a streak of Absurdism. The Method, as practiced by Strasberg, was antithetical to my work.

A piece of mine was once performed in The Actor’s Studio. It was a short absurdist piece that should have taken about 40 minutes to perform. It took 90 minutes in the Actor’s Studio production. Agony.

I am in awe of Beckett’s genius; but I do not think he influenced me. Brecht was more of an influence: The songs, the distancing, the poetic energy, and the often-grotesque humor. But I think the major influences on me were Georg Buchner, Federico Fellini and Giuseppe Verdi.

Hold on! Re Beckett! Of course I was influenced by Beckett. In my play, FATHER UXBRIDGE WANTS TO MARRY, I even used Estragon's opening line ("Nothing to be done") for Mrs. Bethnal Green, when she fires Morden from his elevator job. Morden asks, "Is there nothing to be done?" And Mrs. BG responds with the bleak, Beckettian, "Nothing to be done." I remember, it took me a long time to frame the way Morden asked his question, so that Mrs BG could respond with the GODOT line. Also, I believe the specificity of punctuation in GODOT taught me a great deal about dramatic punctuation. And, as for Beckett's pauses and
. . .Yes, of course Beckett influenced me.


11) Which theatre companies of that time were especially dear to your heart?


The Berliner Ensemble. The Royal Shakespeare Company of England. The American Place Theatre in New York.

12) What did you know those days about the Soviet Union and the Soviet Theatre? Other art forms?

Just about nothing. In America, at that time, one got the impression that there was little in Soviet playwriting that was worth considering (I had never heard of Bulgakov). I don’t know if that was true or not, but that was the thinking in my country during the “Cold War.” Of course, Ballet
Companies from the Soviet Union were always featured in our country then. I saw some of them and, compared to the work being done by Balanchine in the USA, the Soviet Ballets seems old fashioned. The dancers, of course, were superb.

13) Tell us a little bit about translation of your works into foreign languages. How do you work with your translators?

I’ve had three translators for my works: two different German translators, and one Ukrainian, Inna Derkach. All three were superb and I only had to explain certain idioms that they could then translate into idiomatic writing
in their own language. I was always impressed with how each was concerned about the rhythms in my work and how to retain the feel of those rhythms in their own language.!

14) How did you meet your wife? Did her art and personality influence your work?

Sandy and I met at Queens College in the City of New York. We were both undergraduates. I then went to another University and then was drafted into the Army. When I returned from the Army, I did my graduate work at
Columbia University in New York City. There, Sandy and I met again. We were married a year later. Sandy was an actress/singer, singing Opera and Lieder. I was brought up on Opera —Italian opera especially — but I was new to the world of Lieder. I was always impressed with her method of dealing with the words to get at the music. The integration of music into the fabric of my work is an outgrowth of Sandy’s influence. She is still my partner.

15) Do you like directing yourself? Would you prefer direct your works yourself or someone else to do it?

I do like directing, especially the early part of the process where discoveries are being made. After that, I lose interest.

16) What is your dream director/actor?

Any director and actor who understands my work and can render in theatrical terms my lyrical language and special humor, mixed in with all of, what I call, my characters’ “centers of pain.”

17) What’s your dream theatre? Do you prefer resident
repertory theatres or the commercial model? Or Off-Broadway?


Any theatre that will produce my plays, and produce them well, is my dream theatre. Often, of course, they (resident or commercial) turn out to be nightmare theatres. I guess I still like the small, intimate, Off-Off Broadway space where actors and audience are receiving my play in close up.

18) If you are directing yourself how do you treat a
playwright-including yourself? Do you make changes or cuts?


New casts of actors, in a new setting, with new designers, always require a new approach to any text.

Generally, if the play is not a brand new one, I’ll limit my revisions to cutting, perhaps. It’s dangerous to try to make major revisions in a piece that was written in another time and which bubbled out of a different emotional wellspring. If it is a new text it’s best not to direct it yourself. A first-draft piece being made for the first time might require major writing surgery while in production, and, at that point, a playwright needs to function purely as a writer; directing the play as well, can fragment the focus. I will, however, direct a reading of a new play of mine.

In the USA all plays start by having readings and then are workshopped before, if they are lucky, getting a production. The reading consists simply of actors sitting on stools and reading the play for an invited audience. From that you can begin to see how the piece is developing. After a reading, one often has “talk backs” with the audience, to get a
sense of how the piece is being received. Then, often, it’s back to the drawing board with the piece. This often is a journey to disaster. Again, this is material for another book-length essay.

19) Could you tell us the funniest story related to your teaching and playwriting experiences?

Many many years ago, I entered my text analysis class early and some students were already there. The class was being held in a large Conference room with a large table. One of the boys was sitting on the table and his sox were off and he was painting his toenails with red nail polish. Without thinking I said: “ And do you also paint happy faces on
the head of your penis?” The student fell off the table, laughing. I can’t recall what happened to the nail polish.

20) How did Ukraine and its perception in the world change in the course of 1,5 years?

It seems to me, from this distance, that the promise of the Orange Revolution is now on hold. But I would return to Ukraine in a shot — especially if one of my plays was being produced at the Kirovograd National Theatre. That would be an honor.

21) Did the USA change much in the same time period?

Very. The quagmire that is the Iraq War has divided our country even more, and has isolated us from much of the rest of the world. In addition, I feel that our Constitution is now under attack and, in my long life, I wonder (for the first time) if that great document will survive.

22) In your personal opinion, what’s more correct, Ukraine or the Ukraine?

Ukraine. “The” Ukraine sounds like it is still part of another country.

23) How do you personally perceive the recent political changes in Ukraine?

It is at a crossroad. See above.

24) How does Ukraine as a nation, Ukrainian art, science and business influence the world?

I really don’t know. All I can say is that, since returning from Ukraine, I have discovered more and more people with Ukraine backgrounds, who are artists, workers, mothers, fathers and who are integrated into the fabric of our country and are part of its energy.

25) How does the Western world influence Ukraine? Could you notice any changes related to such an influence?

I don’t know. I only hope that the McDonald and Starbucks influence will not override the Ukrainian native institutions; or that the “Disneyfication” influence does not corrupt your theatre. I also hope that Ukraine does not “privatize” everything: That road leads, in my opinion, to disaster; a road that often kills the soul of a country.

26) What’s your “Ukrainian dream”? (An idealistic picture of Ukraine in the future)

That the integration of your rich culture absorbs whatever new outside influences try to overwhelm your collective soul; and that that integration gives to the world something new, and rich, and startling and astonishing.

27) What do you expect in real life from Ukraine in the near future?

The question is not mine—it is yours. What do you expect? The question of integrating “real life” with “inspired dreams of a new future,” poses a wrestling with intellectual and philosophical issues that is a monumental struggle. At this point of my life I don’t how that struggle will play out.

28) Which changes are essential to make as soon as possible? What must we all do?

First, squeeze out the puss from the boils of corruption; then cauterize the wounds with the salve of honesty and decency, and allow the pure and healthy energy of the Ukrainian creative Soul to emerge triumphant. A bit of purple prose there, perhaps; but I like the puss analogy.

29) When do you think Ukraine will be able to join the EU if that will ever happen? Would they both benefit from that?

I have no idea; but I’m sure both would benefit.

30) How big is your family?

Besides my wife Sandy, there is one son, Rico, who works as an Associate Producer and writer for National Public Radio.

31) Are there any hobby magazines in the USA? Are they much different from our magazine? (Our magazine tries toremain comprehensive and cover very many different hobbies).

I have, on occasion, thumbed through various hobby magazines in my country, but my impression is that they are not comprehensive at all. They seem narrowly focused on a specific hobby (“Wood Working?” “Penile Enhancement”) without any deeper resonances explored.

32) What do you think about Ukrainian language? Could you distinguish it from the other Slavic languages?

I really can’t. But I was delighted with the musicality of the language.

33) What do you want to wish yourself?

A venue where I can see produced a retrospective of all 15 of my plays in wold class productions.

34) When do you plan to visit Ukraine again?

As soon as I am invited back.

35) What do you want to wish our readers?

A productive future, in which the flowers of your creative Ukrainian Souls can blossom —free from the corruption of a corrupt politics and free from mediocre outside influences. Oops! More purple prose? Hell
I mean it.

EPILOGUE

As a! matter of fact (see #34 above), I may be returning to
Kirovograd in December 2010 — to oversee a production of my play, IN THE VOODOO PARLOUR OF MARIE LAVEAU (see
selected scenes from LAVEAU in “the plays” link). Pavlò and I are talking about it.

In the opening paragraph of Part 1 of my Ukraine odyssey, I said that the experience had changed my life. I think what I meant by that was that my getting so immersed in the reading/performance of MY CHEKHOV LIGHT to a Ukrainian (mainly non-English speaking) audience—and moving them—had finally validated the technique I had been working on for years: Holographing The Playtext—a method of working through a text to get to build a performance. I will be posting excerpts from “Holographing The Playtext” in the near future. Stay tuned. [ ]

Frank Gagliano
June, 2009

 

MAMA’S EULOGY

A few days after my mother, Nancy LaBarbera Gagliano, died on 9 January 1994 (a month short of her 96th birthday), in Mountain View, California, I delivered, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, her Eulogy. I delivered the Eulogy again the following April for the East Coast family and friends at a church in Fairfield, Connecticut. The next Fall I delivered the Eulogy as part of an evening of “Legacy” pieces at New York’s Primary Stages; and again, the following spring, as part of a weekend of “Legacy”  pieces, produced by Pittsburgh’s Pyramid Productions. —Then I lost the Eulogy file. For good, it seemed. Until — miracle of miracles—after all these years, a few weeks ago, It turned up under another name, in some old, buried, converted-to-Word, files.

What follows is the Eulogy I delivered  on 12 January 1994, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in Mountain View, California—three days after my mother, Nancy LaBarbera Gagliano, died,


“During the last days of mama's life, and even into the last hours in the hospital, when she recognized new visitors at her bedside — and even though she hardly had enough strength left to speak — she would  manage to get out the same few words — words that were extremely important to her — as they had been important to her throughout her almost 96 years. And the words were these: "Did you eat?” It was funny, of course; but it was also mama's true essence: To nourish. 


“A nourisher.  That's what my mother was. Nourished everything and everyone. Every time you just came into contact with mama — you were nourished. By her mind, her bearing, her sense of humor, her physical beauty — for she truly was a beautiful woman, by any standards; by her ability to empathize — to share your pain; and nourished by the common-sense advice she gave when people came to her for it — as they often did. And of course, in the days when she could move around freely, you were nourished by her cooking.  . . .

To continue reading the Nancy Gagliano Eulogy (pdf with photos), click here  

 

 

[HERE'S A PIECE I JUST POSTED ON FACEBOOK WITH SOME PROFESSIONAL BIO INFORMATION]

 

I FOUND IT! I FOUND IT!"

by Frank Gagliano
playwright

So I'm throwing out boxes of stuff from my garage (summer of 2009 project) and I decide to explore one box before I dump it and --LO! --I find it: The lost souvenir program from the American Theatre Wing's 1957 "Command Performance--Serenade to the White House. . .Musical Highlights from the Nineties to the Fifties" --a souvenir program glossy booklet I'd been looking for for decades--a program booklet that would prove that I was there--actually there-- at the Ball-- and I automatically give out the famous Jimmy Durante cry: "I found it--My Lost Chord!"

Jimmy Durante was a famous eccentric comic during most of the 20th century (even warranted a line in a famous Cole Porter song, "You’re the Top:" ". . .you’re a rose/you're Inferno's Dante/you’re the nose/on the great Durante. . ." Jimmy was a little guy and, indeed, had a magnificent nose. And a belligerent swagger. He was a hell of a piano player; wrote surreal songs like, "Inka-Dinka-Do;" had a gravelly voice; mangled the English language ("It’s a catastrastroke!"), always seemed angry -- but the anger was a sham: He somehow exuded sweetness. Everyone loved Jimmy.

(Now watch: I’ll be inundated with Facebook reminiscences of Jimmy Durante being a son-of-a bitch in his private life)

At one point, way back in the day, there was a rage for a churchy, serious, (in my opinion) pompous piece, in the classical music mode--for the organ, I believe: "The Lost Chord," by Sir Arthur Sullivan, the composer who was half of the successful musical theatre team of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sullivan was always chagrined for not being lauded as a serious composer and, on the side, as it were, he wrote "serious" music. Thus: "The Lost Chord."

Jimmy durante could not let that one go and he developed one of his classic, zany, musical numbers, "I’m The Man Who Found The Lost Chord," and de-pompoused Sir Arthur's earnest "Lost Chord."

Here's the content of Jimmy's number: He's noodling on the piano one night, "Improvising symphonies" and masterpieces like "Hav'a Banana" from Carmen, and the Sextet from "Luigini’s," while cracking nuts with his bare feet ("You see I hadd'a eat, too")--when he finds it: "The Lost Chord." He riffs on this discovery for a few minutes and plays the miraculous chord over and over again -- then loses the chord! ("It’s a catastrastroke!"). He calls out the Marines, amidst gunfire and bugles, and in his frustration, Jimmy sits down hard on the piano keys -- and finds the lost chord again! "That’s strange," says Jimmy, seriously perplexed, "I always thought I played by ear." The crowd goes wild.

Anyway. When I find the souvenir program booklet, I really do cry out, "I found my Lost Chord!"

Here’s the story about that just-found 1957 souvenir program booklet for the American Theatre Wing Ball--that may be the only proof that that event actually happened:

--so, I’m a graduate student at Columbia University, in the MFA Playwriting program, back in the day, and I see on the bulletin board that a researcher is wanted for a fund-raising Ball that The American Theatre Wing is giving. I don’t know what The American Theatre Wing is (I later discover that they produce, among other things, the annual Tony Awards show), but I figure It could be a good credit for my beginning resume. At the Columbia U drama department, I had been working crew that day on some show, so I exchange my jeans for trousers and jacket from John, a classmate. My clothes are too tight for him, his are too baggy for me--but what the hell! I rush downtown to Tex McCrary's office (PR for the event, and who was, then, a television personality with his fashion model wife Jinx Falkenberg). I get the job and I meet the producer, Arthur Schwartz, in his law office. I know that Mr. Schwartz wrote the great song standards, “Dancing In The Dark” and “You and the Night and the Music,” but I didn’t know he was a lawyer. (Of course, later, I came to understand that Arthur Schwartz, along with his lyricist, Howard Dietz, had written some of the most elegant songs in the history of Musical Theatre (especially during the heyday of the Broadway Musical Revue), and that Dietz also was PR head at MGM and had developed the MGM Lion logo). Schwartz is an elegant, friendly man who tells me that the theme of the show for the Ball will be "supposed musical Command Performances from the various presidential administrations, moving backwards in time, through American History." My job will be to gather material -- photos and headlines and interesting trivia from the archives and -- get this! -- I am to report to Oscar Hammerstein II, who will be Master of Ceremonies for the show and, I believe, will write the narration. I meet Mr. Hammerstein -- I can’t recall where, but I do recall that he is a tall man with a pock-marked face. And friendly. Very friendly.

These are a few -- very, alas, few-- of the other things I remember:

Spending a great deal of time in the New York Public Library on West 42nd Street and photo copying photos and news stories (I can't imagine what primitive photo-copying method was available then). The only story I remember making an impression on me in my research is the history of the Chautauqua circuit. I had known nothing about it.

I recall, too, delivering material to various people, including Robert Rounseville, who was then starring in the original production of CANDIDE on Broadway, and to the famous choreographer Helen Tamiris (one of the founders of American Modern Dance and choreographer for Broadway’s ANNIE GET YOUR GUN).

I also recall a rehearsal of bits and pieces of the COMMAND PERFORMANCE show at some midtown rehearsal studios--must have been a stagger-through of sorts because all the artists are there and I am allowed to stick around.

There is some kind of an outer room where the artists wait before entering the main studio. Skinny, small, Sammy Davis Jr. is there, wearing tight black fitted slacks and black jacket with a black turtle neck and black socks and black shoes and he never stops moving, tap dancing all the while he talks. He’ll be Sporting Life in the PORGY AND BESS segment of Command Performance.

I also remember walking into the main rehearsal room when Lena Horne is running through her set and when Ethel Merman is rehearsing HER set. All I remember of the actual show is the huge Ball Room at The Waldorf Astoria and sitting at a table a great distance from the stage. I recall seeing Comden and Green and Leonard Bernstein somewhere in the room (was I at their table?) and watching Judy Holliday on stage singing (in period costume), “Rose of Washington Square.” But her number -- amazingly -- is all I remember of the show.

Some days after the show, Arthur Schwartz, again in his office, thanks me for the good job I did and asks me if there’s anything he can do for me (I had received no pay). I say, “introduce me an to an agent. If you would.”

What Arthur Schwartz does next is something I’ll never forget (and, I suspect, is a rare showbiz occurrance): He -- right there and then -- picks up the phone and dials the then biggest playwright's agent in the theatre, Tennessee Williams' agent Audrey Wood of MCA, Music Corporation of America. Audrey herself picks up and tells Arthur Schwartz to send me around the next day to MCA. The next day, at MCA, I meet Jack Phelps, an assistant to Audrey Wood and an aspiring agent, and he asks to read my new play. I give him a copy of THE LIBRARY RAID (later to be produced Off-Broadway as, NIGHT OF THE DUNCE). He calls me soon after and says he wants to represent me--and does.

I keep the Gala event souvenir program in my files. Then one day I want to check something from the program and I can’t find the booklet. Two decades go by (I even call The American Theatre Wing, but they can’t find a copy) and I look and look and despair of ever finding it again -- and then, on 5 June, 2009, while throwing out boxes from the garage, I find it!

The program booklet is in excellent condition and when I review it, my jaw drops. This is what that program for the Command Performance shows me:

The title page features a “Programme” (with two m’s, that outlines the evening):

Cocktails;
The Champagne Dinner;
Special Drawing for a 1957 Chrysler Imperial;
The Command Performance;
--and, finally,
dancing to the music of Meyer Davis and his orchestra--the famous "Society Orchestra."

The food menu consists of Paupiettes of Channel Sole (I thought Paupiettes were short, French Rockettes), Champagne Sauce, Golden Fleurons; Hearts of Celery, Ripe Green Olives, Salted Almonds and Nuts; Prime Ribs of Beef, Potatoes Champs-Elysee and Asparagus Tips Polonaise; Anniverary Dessert Glacè Surprise, Brandied Cherries Flambe; Petits Fours; Demi Tasse.

Judging by the program, the Command Performance was a full-fledged musical revue featuring Musical Highlights of the last twelve Presidential Administrations from 1956 to 1890. It had costumes and orchestrations and vocal arrangements by the likes of Robert Russell Bennett, Hugh Martin, Don Walker, Lennie Hayton, Milton Green and Milton Rosenstock. It had an opening number, “Command Performance” (would I could get my hands on it), written specifically for the occasion by Schwartz and Dietz (the same team that had written “That’s Entertainment,” for the MGM musical THE BANDWAGON).

And all I remember of it is one number performed by Judy Holliday!

As listed in this fabled "programme," here’s how the show breaks down:

The Eisenhower years’ segment feature Janet Blaire and Art Lund, doing a montage of hits from the fifties.

(If you don’t recognize any of these names--google them --or visit my Web site, www.gaglianoriff.com, where I’ll be elaborating on this piece in my “memoir” link. Believe me, these were big stars of the period).

For the Harry Truman years, Shirley Jones and Stephen Douglas perform a scene from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL -- and Lena Horn (Lena Horne, for Christ’s sake! -- who I had a crush on at the time) sings songs from the forties, orchestrated and conducted by her then husband, Lennie Hayton.

For the Franklin D. Roosevelt period, Peter Gennaro and Ellen Ray dance the "Carioca," and Ethel Merman sings (what else?) Cole Porter Songs. In that same section, Steve Allen, Skitch Henderson and Louis Nye perform in a sketch: “Who’d You vote for?"

The Herbert Hoover era follows, with Julie Andrews singing Rodgers and Hart songs (Rex Harrison is listed, but it’s not clear what HE does) And Daniel Nagrin and a company of four dance to "Frankie and Johnny."

The Calvin Cooledge section has Edith Adams singing "You Oughta Be In Pictures," with a Vocal Arrangement by Hugh Martin (composer of "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"); Sammy Davis and Company do a scene from PORGY AND BESS; Allyn McClerie and Peter Palmer perform a scene from the musical, GOOD NEWS and -- get this -- ELLA FITZGERALD (Ella--for Christ’s sake!) sings Irving Berlin songs.

It goes on:

In the Warren G. Harding era section, "Dancies of the 20’s" are listed, with additional lyrics by Howard Dietz and staging by Rod Alexander.

The Woodrow Wilson era follows, with Sid Ceasar and Carl Reinar doing the Professor sketch and Judy Holliday performing the aforementioned "Rose Of Washington Square"--the only number I specifically remember.

Then comes President William H. Taft and a song performed by David Wayne.

And in the following Theodore Roosevelt section, W.C. Handy (still alive then, apparently) plays (and sings?) his famous "St. Louis Blues," and Janet Collins sings “Glow Worm,” -- (the olde timey version, or the hip Johnny Mercer version, I wonder?) -- backed up by a dancing ensemble, with choreography by Helen Tamiris.

For the William McKinley section, Bill Tabbert (the man who introduced the song, “Younger Than Springtime” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC) sings something called, “Little Lost Child,” assisted by a number of other entertainers -- and with the use of slides ( "donated by Mr. Herbert Marks."
Was my research responsible for finding those slides, I wonder?)

The Grover Cleveland next-to-the-last segment features 12 top performers performing, “The Floradora Sextette”: Stephen Douglass, Bill Hayes, Johnny Johnston, Art Lund, Robert Rounseville, Bill Tabbert and Janet Blair, Dorothy Collins, Virginia Gibson, Florence Henderson, Doretta Morrow and Jo Sullivan.

The Benjamin Harrison presidential segment closes out the show with the great clown Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion of THE WIZARD OF OZ and Estragon, in the first Broadway production of WAITING FOR GODOT) singing, “After The Ball” -- assisted by the entire ensemble.

Again--these were biggies in musical theatre-- and the numbers must have been stunning -- and Oscar Hammerstein’s narration, brilliant and witty--but the only sketch I’ve ever been able to remember was Judy Holliday performing “Rose of Washington Square” (the old Fanny Brice number)!

Incredible! And depressing! That I can’t visualize the complete show.

But I was there! I know now that I was there, because I’m listed in the "staff" section for COMMAND PERFORMANCE. Even John, the fellow student who switched clothes with me at Columbia University, is listed as my assistant.

Important find, this. For me. Because, finally, at my age, one begins to think that it's all been a dream--one’s life. Then once in a awhile you find something that validates the realty. An elaborate souvenir program, say. You lose it for awhile. Then you find it. And part of your life is validated again. At least this part. But, God, I wish I could remember. . . FG