Saturday, June 04, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 845: Charles Morey

Charles Morey


Well, that’s modestly complicated. I’m never quite sure what the answer should be. Born in Oakland, CA., lived in the San Francisco Bay area in a variety of communities (Diablo, Antioch but mostly Berkeley) until I was nine when we moved to Portland, Oregon, then at thirteen, moved to Tacoma, Washington where I went to High School. Left there to go to college in New Hampshire, then straight to Graduate School in New York. So, sometimes I say Berkeley, sometimes I say Tacoma, sometimes I just say “the west coast.”

Current Town:

Upper West Side, Manhattan at the moment – but that’s also modestly complicated – as my wife and I still spend time in Salt Lake City and own a home there. (I call it the most expensive storage unit west of the Rockies as most of our “stuff” lives there and not in our nice but tiny New York apartment.) We lived in Salt Lake City for twenty-eight years while I was artistic director of the Pioneer Theatre Company. When I stepped down four years ago, we started splitting our time between NYC and Utah – mostly NYC these days.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I’ve got two un-produced plays that I think are ready for production or a serious workshop so my agent and I are trying to push those. And I have a third that I’m currently in the middle of and trying to figure out exactly where it is going to lead me.

The first of the unproduced plays is “The Salamander’s Tale”. I only somewhat facetiously call it “the play I couldn’t write while living in Utah.” It is based on a true story of fraud, forgery, murder and the Mormon Church that happened shortly after we moved to Utah in 1984. Mark Hofmann, on the surface a faithful, mission serving Mormon, forged and sold hundreds of documents to collectors all over the country. His creations included letters and autographs of Washington, Lincoln, Mark Twain and even an “unpublished” poem by Emily Dickinson. All were authenticated by acknowledged experts in their fields. Principal among his forgeries were documents relating to the early history of the Mormon Church, some of which were embarrassing to the Church as they cast doubt upon the motives of its founder, Joseph Smith, and the official origin stories. Church leaders purchased some of these documents in an attempt to conceal their contents from the public. Hofmann had found the perfect victim, an institution so defensive about its past that it sought to acquire and bury, almost without question, any document that seemed to contradict official beliefs. When Hofmann’s schemes began to unravel, he killed two people with pipe bombs in an attempt to conceal his crimes. This play is part “who did it"; part “how he did it”; but mostly “why did he do it"? At its core it is a play about the relationship of faith to fact, the very nature of religious faith itself and an investigation into the psychology of an individual who is utterly without faith while wearing all the outward trappings. “The Salamander’s Tale” had a week long workshop and reading in Salt Lake City in the fall of 2015 and another reading in New York at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre in February of 2016.

The second is “Crotched Mountain”. It is a “pre-quel” to “The Granite State” (produced in 2014 by the Peterborough Players) utilizing four of the characters from the latter play. Both plays stand alone and can be produced entirely independently of the other. They will eventually form two-thirds of a projected trilogy (or cycle of three related plays might be a more accurate way to describe it), the third play of which is tentatively titled “Monadnock” – and that’s the play I’m currently trying to write.

CROTCHED MOUNTAIN is a comedy about death, loss, literary ethics, old love, new romance, acceptance and redemption. The play takes place over the course of one day and night in January of a recent year in Hancock, New Hampshire, somewhat in the shadow of Crotched Mountain.

George is an aging novelist who has recently lost his younger wife, Kate, also a writer, to cancer at an early age. Essentially unable to function, he retreats to an attic bedroom emerging only to replenish his supply of vodka. His son, Tom, concerned about his father for good reason, enlists his mother, George’s ex-wife Anna, to try to take care of George while Tom returns to L.A. where he is scheduled to direct his first low-budget feature film. Carrie, the assistant to George’s and Kate’s agent, unexpectedly arrives with contracts and galleys for Kate’s last book. Carrie asserts that the contracts must be signed immediately despite the fact George has yet to read Kate’s book which deals unsparingly with the months that lead up to her death. As the first act ends, it is revealed that Carrie is operating solely on her own, without the knowledge of her boss (George’s and Kate’s agent) and has her own desperate agenda in wanting to see Kate’s work published.

Also, making a first appearance in George’s household on this January day is Louise, a pot-smoking, aging hippie born again Pentecostal who found Jesus while vacuuming and quotes the Grateful Dead and Dante with equal ease. The plot swirls around literary ethics (or the lack thereof) while, despite initial antagonism, Tom and Carrie find themselves falling in love and eventually into bed and George and Anna explore an old relationship and perhaps re-kindle lost love. All comes to a head in a 3:00 AM impromptu meal in which Anna’s perception’s, Tom and Carrie’s embarrassment, Louise’s knowledge of The Grateful Dead and Dante, and the un-expected appearance of the Northern Lights bring George to his own small epiphany.

“Crotched Mountain” had a reading in New York at the Players Club and has been a finalist for several reading series and workshops and was a semi-finalist for the 2016 O’Neill Conference – but is still looking for a first production.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I don’t have anything resembling a transcendent moment where I realized I would be a writer, nor is there any one experience that struck me like Saul on the Road to Tarsus and committed me to a life in the theatre. But from a very early age – maybe nine or so – I knew I wanted to write. I don’t know how I knew that. But I liked the doing of it and my teachers and parents and classmates seemed to react positively. So, as I cruised into adolescence when I didn’t dream of playing quarterback for the 49ers I thought I would write novels and poetry. I had no notion of ever going into the theatre. But as a junior and senior in High School, I had one of those great teachers who, in a sense, gave me permission to imagine myself as a writer. So, of course, I dumped every scrap of paper filled with my adolescent poetry and prose on his overly-supportive head and at one point my efforts included a couple of excruciatingly bad one act plays. If my memory serves me correctly, they were kind of ersatz teen-age Samuel Becket. Can you imagine anything much worse? I cringe at the memory. But Jack Coogan, this wonderful teacher, very gently responded to these plays by saying something along the lines that he thought I had promise and maybe some talent as a writer but obviously I knew absolutely nothing about the theatre. I had to acknowledge he was right about that. He suggested that if I were serious about writing for the theatre, when I went off to Dartmouth the next fall, I should get involved in the theatre department and be in a play or two, build scenery, hang lights, take a couple of classes and maybe I’d learn something about what it was that made a play. I took him at his word and did just that. As a freshman, after quickly discovering I wasn’t good enough to be a fourth string quarterback at Dartmouth, much less for the 49ers, I auditioned for a production of Racine’s “Phaedra” and was cast as (literally) a spear carrier; no lines, one scene, full body paint. I thought it was pretty cool, the lights, the sets, the older “real” actors – not to mention… the parties! Definitely the best parties on campus. And at the time Dartmouth was all male and the only place there were any women was around the Drama Department, so that had its own distinct lure. And I was rapidly seduced to “the dark side” of performing. At the end of my freshman year I was cast in a student written play about the assassination at Sarajevo which instigated World War I. I didn’t have much to do, but I was an extra in a bar scene at one point during which I passed the time by making out with a very attractive Hanover High School Senior. (Sidebar: I very rarely ever got to kiss the girl again in my rather pedestrian career as an actor.) But, I distinctly remember thinking, “this would be a dandy way to make a living.” So, I abandoned my English major and switched to the newly formed Department of Drama – which was essentially dramatic literature with a few practical classes tossed in here and there and a lot of simply “the doing of plays.” After graduation I managed to escape being drafted into the Vietnam War at the very last possible moment (that’s a whole other story) and went to Columbia for a M.F.A. in acting. After banging around Off and Off-Off Broadway and regional theatre for much of the 1970s, I began to transition into directing and in a perfect serendipity of timing and good luck became the artistic director of a small summer theatre in New Hampshire, The Peterborough Players, at a time when no one in their right mind should have given me that job. Seven years later I went to Pioneer Theatre Company as artistic director for what I thought might be three to five years. And twenty-eight years later, I said, “I think I’m done with running theatres – thirty five years is enough.” BUT, through all that time I never stopped writing. And I guess my High School teacher was right – by the time I went back to writing plays in earnest in the late eighties – I had hung around the theatre long enough to kind of know what makes a play. I started by writing adaptations of 19th century novels very specifically for production at PTC because I knew I could sell these known titles and they would fill our Broadway sized stage (932 seats, 46’ proscenium). So my first five plays, over a period of eight years, were adaptations of “The Three Musketeers”, “Dracula”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”. All of them did blockbuster business for us at PTC and all but “…Two Cities” went on to have successful lives in other professional theatres. (Always been frustrated that “A Tale of Two Cities” never even got that second production!) After that, while continuing to mine the adaptation fields, I branched off into writing original plays as well. But, I guess I’d have to say, that in a sense, I taught myself to write plays by adapting 19th century novels to the stage. In retrospect, not a bad way to go about it, maybe?

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Ticket prices. We are pricing ourselves out of existence. But that is way too simplistic. The economics of producing live theatre have become very difficult at almost every professional level. And I have no solutions other than the utterly naïve and it-ain’t- gonna-happen remedy of “more public funding for the arts.” But we are compounding that within the theatre by two things that CAN be changed. First, the work we are producing is becoming less and less accessible to the average audience member, more and more esoteric and solipsistic. We can change that. Also, INCOME INEQUALITY has become an issue in the non-profit theatre as well as our society at large. I’m not pointing any fingers – but when you have a theatre where the senior management is being paid in the low to mid six figures annually and the actor is receiving six hundred dollars a week – I think you’ve got a problem, an economic injustice. Similarly, when you see a theatre with an administrative staff of thirty that only hires twenty actors a year for five plays – you’ve got a problem. And finally, the ever declining cast size. A theatre runs in the red one season, so they cut the budget for the next and what is the most easily cut-able line item? – the number of actors in their season. And each season thereafter, they lose money and the cast sizes keep getting smaller and smaller. So, now they open and close with one actor plays and do two three character and one four character play to fill out the season. It’s a vicious circle. The plays get smaller, therefore the audiences get smaller, therefore the plays get smaller. There is nothing wrong with small cast plays – there are a lot of truly GREAT small cast plays – but a steady diet is like never hearing anything but string quartets. And audiences WANT to hear “Hamlet” and “Lear” with a full symphony orchestra of voices and “Henry V” with a Battle of Agincourt that fills the stage and “Our Town” peopled by an entire community and yes, “My Fair Lady” with a string section and a real singing and dancing chorus, not ten actors, doubling like crazy and two pianos or actors accompanying themselves on cello. (Sorry, the first time was unique and exhilarating, the fifth time was annoying!) The only thing that doesn’t get smaller are the ticket prices. At one time, not so few years ago, going to see a one person play was an EVENT. The one time you could really ask “How did they learn all those lines?!” Now, they are so commonplace it is hard to find an actor who hasn’t done a one person play. I have made a vow that I won’t see another one person play unless the theatre charges me 10% of what they charge me for a ten person cast. (I confess to have broken this vow from time to time.)

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I learned much of what I know as a theatre person from Sally Stearns Brown, the enormously supportive Producing Director of the Peterborough Players who gave me my start. She died over thirty years ago and I still think of her all the time. I learned most of what I know about directing and what it means to be an artistic director in one summer working with Tom Moore, who was one of my predecessors as artistic director of the Peterborough Players and who went on to direct the original productions of “’Night Mother”, “Grease” and so many more. And of course: Shakespeare and Wilder and Tom Stoppard.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A: My tastes are very eclectic: from the classics to musical theatre. But mostly, I suppose, I am excited by a theatre of ideas; by plays that are language driven; by stories that can be best told on a stage in front of a live audience; by theatre that makes us laugh, feel and think. And “LAUGH” is very important to me. I want to laugh in the theatre. And I think that’s one of the things we do best. There is no opiate stronger or more addictive than rolling, continuous laughter in a theatre. I love farce. I think it is generally under-rated as a form and frequently poorly done. I think farce is maybe the most difficult AND ultimately the most truly THEATRICAL of all forms.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Get involved in the making of theatre and learn what it is that makes a play a play. I guess I’d have to give that advice, wouldn’t I? Also, don’t get pushed into the, “I have to write plays with no more than four characters if I ever want to get produced” box. There are some theatres that will produce big plays. Big ideas, big themes often demand big casts. And big ideas and big themes are what make theatre worth doing in the first place. Not every piece of music can be reduced to a string quartet or, God forbid, a solo violin. Some music needs a brass section, winds, timpani, a xylophone and a Kazoo chorus in addition to the strings. Also: big theatres that produce big plays pay big royalties. Small theatres that produce small plays pay small royalties. One big production in a LORT B house may very well pay you the equivalent of ten productions or more in 100 seat SPTs.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  OK! You asked for it!

Both “The Salamander’s Tale” (cast of 7) and “Crotched Mountain” (cast of 5) are looking for first productions and I think are pretty much ready to go. (Though I confess to being an inveterate RE-writer, a devotee of the Paul Valery statement: “A poem is never finished, it is abandoned.”) “The Granite State” (cast of 6) has had one very successful production; is funny and smart and touching (if I do say so myself) and I think would do very well at many theatres.

As to productions of older plays that are current or in the works:

“The Ladies Man”, my adaptation of Feydeau’s “Tailleur Pour Dames” will be produced this August by the Peterborough Players under my direction. It has had about sixty productions total, including major regional theatre productions at Indiana Rep., Geva Theatre Center, Shakespeare and Company, Pioneer, Centenary Stage, Sierra Rep. Arvada Center, Creede Rep., Theatre in the Square and many more. It is published by Dramatists Play Service and has multiple amateur productions scheduled in the coming months

“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” will be produced this fall by the Hilberry Repertory Theatre in Detroit in October/November, also under my direction. It has also had numerous regional theatre and amateur productions, notably Denver Center Theatre Company, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, L.A. Theatreworks (a recently concluded National Tour), The Stage Company in Singapore and twice at Pioneer Theatre Co.

“Laughing Stock” has been running for the past three years in the repertory of the Arcadia Theatre in Moscow in Russian translation, titled “Balagan” and is also in the repertoire of three other Russian regional theatres. “Laughing Stock” has received over a hundred and twenty productions and has been produced professionally by Milwaukee Rep., Asolo Theatre Company, Pioneer (twice), Peterborough Players (twice) and many more. It is published by Dramatists Play Service and has multiple amateur productions scheduled in coming months.

My adaptations of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” are both published by Playscripts and have multiple amateur productions currently scheduled or recently concluded. “Musketeers” has been produced professionally by Rep. Theatre of St. Louis, The Meadowbrook, PCPA Theatrefest, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Elm Shakespeare Festival and Pioneer Theatre Co. and many others. “Monte Cristo” has been produced by Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Pioneer as well as dozens of amateur productions.

“Figaro” is currently being produced in L.A. by an amateur company and has received several other amateur productions in recent months. It was commissioned and originally produced by the Pearl Theatre Company, Off-Broadway where it was a NY Times “Critic’s Pick” and was produced professionally in L.A. last year by A Noise Within where it was a L.A. Times’ “Critic’s Choice” and nominated for multiple awards.

And I have a few plays that have only received one production that I would love to see somebody else do: “The Granite State” which I mentioned before. “The Yellow Leaf” about Byron, Shelly, Mary Shelley and the summer of 1816. “Dumas Camille” about Alexandre Dumas fils and his relationship to the creation of his novel and play “The Lady of the Camelias” and the opera “La Traviata”. And of course, there’s that “A Tale of Two Cities” that’s never been done since a hugely successful production in 1995! You can learn about all of them at

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