During a brief period in the mid 80s the illustrious Organic Theater Company of Chicago invited a number of gypsy theaters (troupes without permanent homes) to set up shop in their rambling, ramshackle barn of a place on Clark Street. There were seven collectives, as I recall, with such diverse names, and aesthetics, as City Lit, The Directors Group, The Gellman Project, The Meyer Project, MinaSama-No, Red Key, and, the company which I was affiliated with, Chicago New Plays Festival. This motley conglomerate, made up of artists from all over the city, was brought together by Thomas Riccio and Ronald Falzone under the banner of the Organic Greenhouse Project. We were encouraged to convene in some corner of their facility, allowed free use of whatever we could find, and told to produce something, anything, in a tiny theater with 65 seats called the Organic Lab. Essentially, we were asked to experiment.
My colleagues and I had been meeting regularly for a few years, reading each others scripts, discussing the Chicago scene, sharing information, sharing insults, and struggling towards some understanding of what it meant to be a playwright in present tense America. We were all writers, though some of us acted or directed or acted like we directed (that would be me). Sally Nemeth, our founder and artistic director, brought together such interesting and insightful characters as Anne McGravie, Scott McPherson, Nicholas Patricca, David Rush, and, I like to think, myself. We had talked ourselves silly and were now ready for some action. We also had $2500 in the bank and the Organic was telling us that it was our turn at bat. It was November and rapidly closing in on our allotted slot in December. Other theaters had been planning their holiday offerings for months. What were we going to produce on such short notice?
I had been developing a musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's classic story The Wind In The Willows and saw a chance for us to make our mark by staging this child's play for adults in our storefront theater. Who were my collaborators on this erstwhile undertaking? I could only point to myself, egotistically thinking that I had the chops to write and compose book, music and lyrics. Some of my colleagues were not so sure and I can't blame them. We had limited resources and if the show lost money we would be starting from scratch. But we had also been given a remarkable opportunity to take full advantage of everything the Organic had to offer including sets, lights and costumes. I knew I could find the actors. The accompaniment could be taped. I made a strong case for pushing ahead and my peers finally signed off on the idea, mostly, I think, so that I would stop talking about it.
A month later we opened our little show to the sort of reviews that my mother would have written had she been a theater critic. I was astonished at how well the work was received and how strong the word of mouth was. It helped tremendously that my actors, many of whom I had worked with previously, were highly inventive and having a wonderful time. We sold out our short run and doubled our investment. Sally Nemeth thought she was the smartest producer in town and, to my way of thinking, she was. Simultaneously, another musical version of Grahame's book opened on Broadway. It cost exactly a hundred times as much as ours and lost everything. Our show ran for four weeks. Theirs lasted four days.
The following spring we were asked to contribute scripts to a highly unusual event—a marathon play reading series in which 32 new works would be presented over a 64-hour period. I was somewhat dubious. It seemed to me that the endeavor was too large and, perhaps because of my less than enthusiastic attitude, I was left out of the planning stages. Instead, I concentrated on completing a triptych of interrelated one-acts entitled Belongings And Longings which I subtitled "Three Plays About Love And Furniture." This was my first serious attempt at writing a script without songs and I was terrified. But I had also received encouragement from my fellow scribes and so pounded out the pages on my old manual typewriter, turning them into my actors only a few hours before they were to go on stage.
It was then that I discovered a critic from The Chicago Tribune would be in the audience that night reviewing the new work. I had the good sense to panic, but kept the painful secret to myself, knowing that this knowledge would not be particularly helpful to my performers. They went out and enacted my comedy of manners on contemporary relationships with incredible care. The next day I opened the newspaper to see that the reviewer had actually liked my work and I wondered how many playwrights had finished a new drama only to see it reviewed, favorably, twenty-four hours later in their town's leading periodical. I felt unbelievably lucky.
My play went on to be produced at the Lab that July in a potpourri of one-acts, scenes and sketches called The Summer Shorts Festival and, again, good notices encouraged theatergoers to fill our few seats.
The next summer we produced a similar extravaganza and this time I tried my hand at farce with a send-up of Raymond Chandler's favorite genre titled Detective Sketches (Trouble Is Eating My Pants). I remember walking into the first day of rehearsal with an incomplete script. I didn't have a last scene, but knew that I would find it through the course of our meanderings. My actors were barely phased, having got used to this sort of seat-of-the-pants approach with me. Our rehearsals were great fun. We all laughed a lot and I was astonished at the ingenuity of my cast. And though I don't think there was much scenery left on stage after we had got done chewing it all, the positive reviews allowed me to think that I might actually be able to make a living in this strange business.
Over the course of eighteen months, I had written a musical, a drama with some laughs, and a farce. I had seen all three efforts put up on their feet with an informal ensemble of actors in front of a paying audience. And I had learned a great deal. Belongings And Longings went on to be produced in New York. Detective Sketches was later staged in Los Angeles. And The Wind In The Willows has now be seen at over a hundred and fifty theaters across the country.
I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to muck about, to make mistakes, to experiment in the Organic Lab where nothing, and everything, was at stake and where the process was infinitely more important than the product.