For me, the joy of being a writer is to know that, now and then, one has the opportunity to change, to enhance, to enlighten the lives of other people. Among the over 40 plays of mine that have been published by DPC, two or three, depending on how you count, afforded me particularly large rewards in this respect.
I had the pleasure of adapting Daniel Keyes' lovely book, Flowers for Algernon, into both play and musical. The story concerns Charlie Gordon, a retarded man who is given an operation that makes him a genius and who finds love with the teacher who has helped him. At the height of his happiness the operation fails and, unable to save himself, he returns to the way he was, though, at the end, he is grateful for the moment of light he has had. The play has been performed with great success worldwide: the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, Singapore, Japan, etc. There were many professional productions but far more in community theatres, colleges and high schools. Obviously, I was only able to attend a few of these productions and was in no way actively involved in them. But there was a strange phenomenon that occurred in all of the productions I saw. Amateur actors, mostly very young, seemed to connect very strongly to the story, to Charlie Gordon, and the other characters. I saw performances that were way above amateur levels, as though the play had taken the actors further than they were accustomed to going. In some instances I saw approaches to the play and ideas about the scenes that I was able to utilize later in writing the musical version. In a few cases actors asked me for college recommendation letters which I was happy to supply and which I later heard helped them gain admission. As the years have gone by I have met many young actors...and by now, some not so young, in the professional theatre who have told me that they played Charlie in high school or college, frequently winning awards, and often being influenced by the play to become professional actors.
I was very involved in the early professional productions of the musical which is called Charlie and Algernon. It was nominated for a Tony on Broadway. In London's West End Michael Crawford, later the original phantom of the opera, played Charlie. It was seen at the Kennedy Center, in Hollywood, Canada and elsewhere. From the very beginning, auditions for backers, theatre owners and actors, I was amazed at the number of people who spoke to me privately about their experience with retarded people: children, siblings and others. Many of them expressed strong desires to be involved with the production feeling that it would help others in their situation. Oddly, in the Broadway production both the actor who played Charlie and his understudy had retarded siblings who attended and greatly enjoyed the show. At the Kennedy Center, I was privileged to meet a young woman who taught the retarded. She attended every matinee bringing two different pupils to each performance. She told me that watching the play and meeting backstage with P. J. Benjamin who played Charlie had resulted in adding to her pupils self-esteem and ambition for themselves, a result I had hardly expected but for which I was deeply grateful. But the very nicest thing that happened was a letter from the parent of an institutionalized retarded child who wrote that he had dreaded the child's Christmas and Easter vacations at home but after seeing the play felt a new and deeper understanding of his own child and was looking forward to the next visit. That probably was the most gratifying thing that ever happened to me as a writer.
Here and Now was based upon a human relations group that was conducted by Dr. Robert Selverstone in the high school in the Connecticut town in which I live. He helped me enormously to organize the materials of the play. His groups consisted of students, teachers and parents...though parents did not work in groups with their own children...who were able to discuss the problems young people face and gain help in understanding and working through them. Dr. Selverstone shared with me the problems that recurred in all his groups. Because of my knowledge of high school theatre I was able to shape the story as a play within a play. Actors in a drama group (who use their own real names in these sections) rehearse a play about students with problems much like their own. The play is an ensemble piece, all of the parts being of the same importance. I was fortunate enough to see several productions of this play. It was fascinating to see how the quality of both play and characters changed from one production to the next. Watching, it seemed evident how strongly the actors identified with the problems they were portraying. In speaking to the actors and the directors after performances, I was amazed as each of them told me stories, the same but different, in which the actors realized facts of their own lives through the characters they portrayed. I was told of rehearsals that dissolved in tears and others when the actors laughed so hard they had to stop for the day. Teachers told me they had had amazing responses from the parents recognizing themselves at performances. I had enormous mail on this play but the letter that touched me most came from the principal of a religious school in Florida. He told me the school had used the play as the basis for classwork in courses in English, sociology and religion. He closed by saying that at a time when news reports are filled with heartbreaking stories of students whose serious problems go unrecognized until disaster strikes, plays such as Here and Now encourage audiences to look and listen more carefully to those around them.
I have written many plays and musicals and in the last several years I have returned to what was my youthful occupation, working as a professional actor on Broadway and in the best regional theatres in the country. I continue to be amazed at the power of theatre to teach us about the human condition and about ourselves. I feel so fortunate to have spent my life working in the theatre, in one capacity or the other. I hope that those who come after me will continue to have the opportunity in our schools to begin to learn about and develop an abiding love for the life enrichment that is theatre.