PANGAEA (2019) / Above the Stag Theatre / Announcement by Erik Champney

Oh, Pangaea. What a long life of development it’s had. Starting with its initial 2010 workshop and university production at Centenary College of Louisiana, directed by Ryan Williams, leading to director Jake Smith’s 2016 workshop of it at Abingdon Theatre Company in New York, which pushed it to become a staged reading in 2017, directed by Shaun Peknic for the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, finally stopping off in London for a 2018 rehearsed reading at Above the Stag Theatre. All major steps forward.

Now, this.

In October of 2018, my agent, Elaine Devlin, and I met with Above the Stag’s Artistic Director, Peter Bull, in Greenwich Village. It went very well. Peter wanted to produce Pangaea and asked what I thought about Jake Smith as director. Since he led that 2016 workshop, Jake was very eager to take on the production. He and I had been wanting to get it onstage professionally for three years. Suddenly, here we are.

In June, the contract was signed. All I had to do then was wait for Above the Stag to announce it. (Waiting is agony for me.) Announce it they did. Tickets are on sale now!

The long and the short of it is Pangaea will have its official world premiere in London, performances starting October 23. It will be presented by a renowned company in their gorgeous facility. It will be directed by one of the UK’s rising stars.

I’m counting my blessings, guys. Have no fear. I’m counting my blessings.

And if you’re planning to be in London this autumn, you can get your tickets here.

Pangaea , a world premiere play by Erik Champney. Key art designed by  Jon Bradfield .

Pangaea, a world premiere play by Erik Champney. Key art designed by Jon Bradfield.

SPARKLER (2019) / Industry Reading by Erik Champney

Sparkler was originally conceived in 2016, specifically for Blankets and Bedtime: 3 Restless Plays, an anthology production of my one-acts, which would run in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. At first inspired by the closet modern actors continue to live in, everything changed when my friend, Dylan Goodwin, asked, “Is it a period piece?” Suddenly, the stars aligned and I realized the answer had to be “YES.” So, you see, this is all Dylan’s fault.

Off I went to write the story of Clayton Boyd, closeted superstar of 1964, who was in a marriage of convenience with television star Carol Hayes, while having a torrid love affair with former Mouseketeer Jack Halpon. The piece was thirty minutes, and it was blood thirsty, hilarious, bitchy, and violent. Janet Bentley broke new ground as a director, really finding the guts of the play — but never neglecting its heart. It was the star of Blankets and Bedtime, and everybody kept asking me if I was going to turn it into a full-length.

At our final performance, Rachel Klein came to champion her friend and cast member, Erik Ransom. Accompanying her was Broadway producer, Jim Kierstead. He fell so in love with Sparkler, he asked to be introduced to me after the performance. As was the trend, he asked if I’d thought about turning it into a full-length. I had and told him so. “Well, if you do,” he said, “I’ll help you.”

This is like dreams-come-true-Peggy-Sawyer-in-42nd-Street shit, right?!?!

A couple months later, in August of 2016, our meetings began. And I got to work on developing that sucker. Jim recommended introducing to the play notorious talent agent, Henry Willson, the manipulative, sex-hungry representative of countless beautiful men-turned-actors (including Rock Hudson). Henry is the only character in the play who was a living person. Clayton, Carol, and Jack are my way of telling this story without being bound to the autobiographical details that would come with writing about, say, Tab Hunter specifically. By entwining truth with fiction, I was allowed to cover everything.

The first draft was finished November 7, 2016. We were off and running. So much work needed to be done, but the foundation was solid as a rock and, with Jim’s support, I felt like I could do anything. “Support” isn’t the right word. Jim had become a friend, a mentor, and a hero. His belief in me and this play was so palpable, it inspired me to gleefully work my ass off.

Jim and I held a number of readings as Sparkler grew, populated by magnificent actors. Among them were Lowell Byers, Brooke Garfunkel, Dylan Goodwin, Ellie Gossage, Bob Jaffe, Craig MacArthur, Misha Osherovich, David Pittu, Charity Schubert, Marrick Smith, Frank Vlastnik, and Alan Wager.

That’s a lot of talent. We were fortunate to have them come into our world and play.

Fast Forward to March of 2019. Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller was on board to direct, Tara Rubin was our casting director, and we were at last putting together the cast for our industry reading.

Garrett Clayton hopped onto the train first and would play Jack. This was especially fantastic for me. After seeing Garrett in the film, King Cobra, my creation of Jack gradually transformed into a gift for him. Let me tell you something, he hit it out of the park. On instinct alone, he had Jack figured out. Hearing him speak the language was indescribable. All the better since it was written for him.

Alan Cumming signed on next. He would embody Henry Willson. Alan has a powerful presence. Even the most subtle of glances would propel an avalanche to fall. Being in a room with him was bloody magical.

Erich Bergen was next. Clayton was all his. A dashing, intriguing man, who is always comfortable asking questions to help propel his performance further. He has a gentle strength about him, and it’s wonderful to watch him work. He reaches for the stars.

Finally, there was Christy Altomare as Carol. She of Anastasia, who had been carrying that show for two years. The reading and surrounding rehearsals came just before Anastasia’s closing weekend. Yet she joined us, her heart firmly planted on her sleeve. If ever you’ve heard about Christy’s kindness, unyielding generosity, and open spirit, it’s all true. She’s a mesmerizing person.

The industry reading was March 29, 2019. The attendance was massive. They applauded when my name was introduced. It was surreal but so exciting. So fulfilling, and I kept thinking about my four-year-old self, dictating plays to my father, who dutifully wrote them down. I wondered if that little boy ever imagined this was possible. The answer was “YES.”

Through it all was Jim Kierstead, by my side, Sparkler’s biggest fan. We had made it this far. Nearly three years of development, labor, praying, hoping, believing, not knowing. Not knowing. But we made it.

I’m elated to take the next step and bring Sparkler closer to its destiny.

Sparkler , a new play by Erik Champney.

Sparkler, a new play by Erik Champney.

DEAD BRAINS (2018) / Planet Connections Theatre Festivity by Erik Champney

Dead Brains was originally a product of the American College Theatre Festival. The Kennedy Center awarded it the National AIDS Fund/CFDA-Vogue Initiative Award for Playwriting. Yep, THE National AIDS Fund and THE Vogue Magazine. Crazy, right? To top it all off, the deciding judge was THE Craig Lucas! This resulted in a fully staged reading at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, presented by The Kennedy Center, The National AIDS Fund, The Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Vogue Initiative. It was directed by John Morace and featured Brian Erlich as Henry, Stacey Jackson as Philly, and Kenny Shults as Corey.

In 2002, Dead Brains took its first bow at the Seattle Fringe Festival. Directed by Megan Carter, the original cast was David Hogan as Henry, Emily Vise McBride as Philly, and Eric Stevens as Corey. Seattle Fringe honored it with their Sold Out Award. It was a very successful run.

Fast forward to 2018 and a completely gutted and rewritten script (making it practically a new play), under the guidance of Jake Smith’s sensational dramaturgy. I made the decision to resurrect the play at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. The quirky, wonderfully sedate Adam Chisnall came on board to direct, and we put together a cast that included Richard Wingert as Henry, Ellie Gossage as Philly, and Matt Maretz as Corey. If ever a cast looked like these characters, it was this one. There was no denying it.

During our crowdfunding campaign (something I hate doing but it was simply necessary), Jim Kierstead assumed the role of our lead producer, matching the funds we’d accumulated. He was our angel and quite a prominent name to have associated with the production. At the time, he had two Tonys, an Olivier, and an Emmy (he would win his third Tony for Hadestown). Not to mention he was already my producer on Sparkler, a play we’d been developing for a couple years. He’s also a wonderfully generous and loving human being, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Dead Brains was dark to begin with. Lots of humor as well, but it was ten times more grim in New York than it was in Seattle. The rehearsal process was arduous. To be fair, the play was asking the actors to take on a great deal, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. It’s a parable about the manipulation of art to, essentially, seduce, destroy, and reinvent people. These characters were a lot to shoulder, but they powered through it and totally delivered.

Something that deserves special mention is Matt Maretz’s performance of an extremely complicated, heartbreaking monologue, which he had already begun to conquer during his first reading, only to grow it into an extraordinary moment that was as beautiful as it was painful.

The production was simply staged, to its benefit, and lit masterfully by the one and only Gilbert “Lucky” Pearto. Alongside us all was our stage manager, Richard Sommerfield, who was invaluable in every way imaginable. He’s pretty much the one who kept me sane throughout the process.

The new Dead Brains received two Planet Connections Awards that season: Outstanding Overall Production and Outstanding Playwriting. Richard Wingert was also nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Leading Actor, and Matt Maretz was nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actor. I was so proud to see everybody shine.

It was a tough summer, but we did it. And I think we did it right. Dead Brains lives again!

Matt Maretz (L) as Corey, Richard Wingert as Henry, and Ellie Gossage as Philly. Photo by Bryan Cash; design by Erik Champney.

Matt Maretz (L) as Corey, Richard Wingert as Henry, and Ellie Gossage as Philly. Photo by Bryan Cash; design by Erik Champney.

LEGACY (2018) / La MaMa by Erik Champney

My summer at La MaMa Umbria resulted in the complete overhauling of a play I’d been stressing over for years, Eight Blocks From Edgar. I even hated the title. It’s the story of a gay couple losing touch with each other (and reality) due to the sexual opportunities provided by such apps as Grindr. Easy story, right? Wrong.

In 2016, Pittsburgh New Works Festival presented a concert reading. As I sat there, watching Tristan Reid and Harry Gerhardt give lovely performances, all I could think was, “It doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” Because it didn’t. So, I put the play away after that.

Something about that August in Italy — being guided by our teacher, Erik Ehn, and the company of all those splendid playwrights — called me to return to the play. I could finally see what it needed to do.

January of 2018 reunited all the 2017 La MaMa Umbria characters in New York for a weekend long marathon of presentations. It was time to show off Eight Blocks From Edgar. Only now, it was called Legacy, and it had teeth.

Once again, I lured staged reading maestro, Shaun Peknic, to direct. He brought in gorgeous Wil Petre to play Edgar. I brought in the adorable Remy Germinario to play Lance. What a team they made; their chemistry was bouncing off the walls. Shaun guided them to a wonderful place and we presented Legacy to an incredibly receptive and large audience. I finally found the play.

At weekend’s end La MaMa gave us a banquet of perfect Italian cuisine. They’d flown in the chefs who’d prepared our meals at Umbria! Of course, it was perfect! What a fantastic time.

Remy Germinario (L) as Lance, director Shaun Peknic, and Wil Petre as Edgar in rehearsal for  Legacy .

Remy Germinario (L) as Lance, director Shaun Peknic, and Wil Petre as Edgar in rehearsal for Legacy.

La MaMa Umbria (2017) by Erik Champney

In August of 2017, I went to Italy for the first time. For three weeks, I roamed Spoleto with Glory Kadigan, underwent an intense experimental writing workshop with Erik Ehn, lived in the beautiful villa claimed and repurposed by La MaMa’s Queen, Ellen Stewart, slept in a hammock, prayed in a tiny chapel, laid down with other artists on a field of green to look up at the stars, saw weird Italian theatre, ate extraordinary food, explored Rome, entered the Sistine Chapel to see the hand of God, gazed at the coliseum, and was always in search of my next Coca-Cola. Thank you, Glory, for giving me Italy. Thank you, David Diamond for curating an experience I’ll never forget. And for the most awesome bedroom in the world.

La MaMa Umbria, Spoleto, Italy

La MaMa Umbria, Spoleto, Italy

PANGAEA (2017) / Planet Connections Theatre Festivity by Erik Champney

Following the 2016 workshop with Jake Smith at Abingdon Theatre Company, there was much discussion about getting Pangaea onto the professional stage. I knew the script needed revisions, so I started dealing with that immediately. I was preparing for the moment when it would be time to launch a production. I didn’t know when it would happen or where, but I wanted the make sure the play was ready. I had already been given the gift of the ultimate workshop in Centenary College of Louisiana’s fully mounted staging. Enough time had passed since that time for me to have an objective lens. I knew what had to be done — at least, I was pretty sure.

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity accepted my application for a staged reading slot in their 2017 June festival. This put a ticking clock on my work and would give me the chance to present the results before the public.

To direct, I enlisted Shaun Peknic. He has special powers when it comes to staged readings. He designs fully staged, intricately choreographed presentations that bring the work to life in a way that spotlights the writing, while still giving the audience a surging theatrical experience. And that’s hot. And that’s what I wanted for Pangaea.

The goal was to keep as much of the cast from Jake’s workshop as possible. They had congregated with me since for a table reading of the in-progress new draft. I loved them. They had united as people and the energy of the group was healthy and secure, which made their readings of the play super strong.

Unforeseen scheduling debacles called for the replacement of Max Meyers, who’d been doing Phillip, and Connie Wookey, who’d been our Gertrude. After a couple interviews, I decided on Ryan Molloy for Phillip. Ryan and Max are incredibly different, so this would add a new element. The same could be said for Susannah Perkins and Connie. Shaun was able to bring in Susannah, who’s a total chameleon, utterly disappearing into her roles. The others welcomed them whole-heartedly, of course.

As Ross, Marrick Smith would continue to bring his beautiful spirit and irresistible charm. Misha Osherovich would continue to peel back the layers of Georgie. Finally, there was Elizabeth Inghram as Lang, making the character’s destructive weaknesses equally hilarious, jarring, and devastating.

I remember flashes of Shaun’s intense rehearsal process, it all happened so fast. Charity Schubert was with us, reading Stage Directions, and Vanna Richardson stage managed, which was a great comfort to me since the three of us share a hometown and have known each other a thousand years. I continued to make changes up until the eleventh hour. Everyone worked their asses off for this play. That’s what I remember.

And what happened? The reading opened the entire festival with a full house. The cast shot beams of electricity through the room and they sold the shit out of that thing. And it worked. Everyone was enraptured.

That’s why I choose my directors carefully. That’s why I’ll go to bat for any actor I believe in. For moments like that.

The script still needed a few tweaks, but it was ready. It would be nearly two more years before I would sign the contract that changed everything.

Meanwhile, this staged reading of Pangaea would go on to win 2017 Planet Connections Awards for Outstanding Playwriting and Outstanding Lead Actor (Misha Osherovich). Elizabeth Inghram, Ryan Molloy, Susannah Perkins, and Marrick Smith were also nominated for acting awards. The entire cast was recognized, and one of them actually won!

Top: (from L) Charity Schubert (Stage Directions), Susannah Perkins (Gertrude), Elizabeth Inghram (Lang), Marrick Smith (Ross), Misha Osherovich (Georgie), and Ryan Molloy (Phillip). Bottom: (L cube) Susannah Perkins, (Center cube) Ryan Molloy (L) and Elizabeth Inghram, (R cube) Elizabeth Inghram embraces Misha Osherovich.

Top: (from L) Charity Schubert (Stage Directions), Susannah Perkins (Gertrude), Elizabeth Inghram (Lang), Marrick Smith (Ross), Misha Osherovich (Georgie), and Ryan Molloy (Phillip). Bottom: (L cube) Susannah Perkins, (Center cube) Ryan Molloy (L) and Elizabeth Inghram, (R cube) Elizabeth Inghram embraces Misha Osherovich.

PANGAEA (2016) / Abingdon Theatre Company by Erik Champney

I met Stephen Collins by chance during the winter of 2014. He was in New York from London, I was in New York from Louisiana (my move to the city would at last come a year and a half later). A lawyer by trade and a burgeoning theatre critic on the side, Stephen’s love affair with the stage is a bottomless inferno of rapture and diagnosis.

It didn’t take long for Stephen to ask for one of my plays. I chose Dead Brains to break him in. Truly the most relentless, shameless, and diabolical piece in my collection, and I’m not sure why I gave it to him. The odd thing is he loved it. His assessment was full of intellectual explosions, entangled with the deciphering of allegories and admissions of formidable emotions provoked by my characters’ actions. He made the damn thing sound like a masterpiece! So I gave him another play.

Stephen would develop great affection for Pangaea, the most intimate play I’ve written so far. He decided he should claim responsibility for my work in the UK and started keeping an eye out for directors he thought would be a good match. Eventually, he narrowed it down to rising star Jake Daniel Smith, who was then a Resident Director at the Almeida Theatre.

A couple years had passed since Stephen began his hunt. I had been in New York more than a year when I was told Stephen and Jake were coming to town for a week, and Jake’s primary purpose was to oversee a reading of Pangaea. So, now I’m blushing because that made me feel really pretty.

The true excitement was from the opportunity to revisit the play. I didn’t know what would come of the reading, but at least the words would be active again for a couple hours. It also gave me the chance to start building a legacy. Pangaea received a beautiful Premiere Production at Centenary College of Louisiana in 2010 but had remained dormant since. This reading was a new beginning.

Jake and I emailed and Skyped in the days leading up to his visit, which came in November of 2016. For our cast, I assembled Marrick Smith, Elizabeth Inghram, Misha Osherovich, and Max Meyers. Jake brought in Connie Wookey. I’d been dying to put Marrick into one of my plays since I first saw him at the York some months before. He was part of the staged reading for Erik Ransom’s More Than All the World. He simply shined on that stage, including the moments when he was only observing the other actors. There were galaxies swimming behind his eyes. He was perfect for the lead in Pangaea, I couldn’t stand it.

Marrick’s involvement was the icing on the cake of a cast that was special across the board. We were fortunate they all said yes and, in communicating with them, it was clear this wasn’t going to be just another reading. The actors seemed to catch a piece of themselves within the play and were holding on tight. They wanted into that world.

My producer for Sparkler, Jim Kierstead, is on the board of the Abingdon Theatre in Midtown and was wonderful enough to volunteer one of their stages to us. I loved that. A reading on a stage. Not in some nameless rehearsal room, but in the theatre itself. The energy in that changes things. Makes them more vital. Immediate. The event of the stage.

One cold November morning, Jim welcomed all of us as we gathered at the Abingdon. The actors instantly connected on sight and fell into sharp focus when Jake took control of the room. His approach was gentle but so definite. The actors were mesmerized by him. They were putty in his hands. He talked them through some preparatory exercises, leading them with delicate certainty to the door of the play. And he pushed them through.

It was one of those readings that happen only once in a while. Everyone was in sync. Everyone understood what they were saying. Everyone listened. They made theatre at that table and it sizzled. Pangaea was at the start of a long road to resurrection, and I knew Jake had to direct it.

But the play would need more time and work before it would be ready for a new life. Developing a new play is maddening, but it would be worth the wait.

More on that later.

Director Jake Daniel Smith (L) with Misha Osherovich, Erik Champney, and Marrick Smith, following a stirring reading of  Pangaea  at Abingdon Theatre Company, New York, NY. This act of preservation was thought of last minute, after some cast members had left, which explains the text overlaying the image.

Director Jake Daniel Smith (L) with Misha Osherovich, Erik Champney, and Marrick Smith, following a stirring reading of Pangaea at Abingdon Theatre Company, New York, NY. This act of preservation was thought of last minute, after some cast members had left, which explains the text overlaying the image.

OMEN ROAD TO STARRVILLE (2016) / La MaMa by Erik Champney

Experiments 17: Omen Road to Starrville

October of 2016 would bring my first collaboration with Glory Kadigan, a director who had impressed me in general with her determined but effervescent spirit. Glory and I first started having random conversations on the street in front of the festival where my show, Blankets and Bedtime: 3 Restless Plays, was causing a stir. Initially, I found Glory extremely easy to talk to. Something about her made me want to trust her and tell her everything about my life. Other than that, I had no idea who she was. Another artist with a show probably, but I was wrong. Turns out, it was her festival I was in, and it amuses me still that she allowed our interactions to continue for days without telling me that part. Sneaky.

With grit and guts, Glory had created the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity from scratch. It was currently the festival’s eighth summer and it was loaded with productions and staged readings. Many participants were devoted, counting on it to be their annual platform. So, I realized, this is a woman who gets shit done. She’s a creator, a mother figure, and unapologetically independent. She’s worked with John Patrick Shanley, Regina Taylor, Neil LaBute, Israel Horowitz, Erik Ehn, and so on and on and on. That’s a pretty goddamn eclectic list. Who is Glory Kadigan anyway?

One thing I knew without question is I wanted to see what she would do with Omen Road to Starrville. This is a play that was deep in process, born from an idea I didn’t know how to execute until Ethan Chia changed my life with his performance of Alan Strang in Equus. From his first entrance, I was paralyzed in my seat at Singapore’s National Library Building. Moments into the performance, my play started crashing down around me, and I knew I had to write it for him.

And that I did. Ethan would eventually workshop Omen Road with me at NYU Tisch Asia, where I studied, and he dug his heels deeply into the role of Kendle off and on for a year. An online specter, who presents himself as a twenty-two-year-old debate team captain to a woman, whose perception of him is what the audience sees. Kendle’s a tough cookie since we’re never allowed more than his words in chat and what she imagines he is. Ethan ate it up and his work on the play culminated in a beautifully constructed concert reading by fellow Tisch alum, Drayton Hiers.

But now I was in New York and Ethan was in Asia. Omen Road to Starrville is lovingly dedicated to him, but this was a whole new ballgame. Upon Glory’s recommendation, I applied for a slot in La MaMa’s annual reading series, Experiments. They accepted the play and Glory came onboard to direct. We were in motion.

But first, I dove into revisions. One afternoon, Glory called me to say, in that even, tranquil voice, “I need you to cut ten pages from your play. It doesn’t matter to me where you do it, but they’ve got to go.” Even when she was bossy, she was serene. It was crazy. But as busy, even frantic, as that episode of rewrites was, never once was it scary or overwhelming. All the while, I sensed everything was in a good place. Some of that must have been the result of Glory’s energy, which gently led me to the edge of the cliff and made jumping a real good time.

For the cast, Glory enlisted Maureen O’Boyle, Elizabeth Inghram, Sawyer Spielberg, and Michael Gnat. She trusted me to deliver Kendle, who was an acting student at Montclair State University named Misha Osherovich. It was a strong group, and they all arrived with a dynamic connection to the play. Under Glory’s watch, rehearsals felt therapeutic. The actors knew they were safe to let the play corrupt them, and they got down and dirty and showed us the characters. Also with us, in all her royal zaniness, was my old friend from Shreveport, Vanna Richardson, stage managing

The performance of the reading was well attended. By that, I mean there were a whole hell of a lot of people there. People we didn’t know, for the most part, who simply came to experience the play. What I realized that night was Omen Road to Starrville had surpassed the need for readings. That was good news. It was ready to be alive. It was ready to show us what it can do.

Ideally, I wanted to keep the play with Glory. What she sculpted for that reading was barely a scratch compared to what she would be capable of in production. That was my instinct. But life and opportunities and time would ebb and flow. The next serious discussion about Omen Road to Starrville wouldn’t come for nearly three years.

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