Readings

SPARKLER (2019) / Industry Reading by Erik Champney

To begin with, there’s no way to describe how it feels when Alan Cumming, Christy Altomare, Garrett Clayton, and Erich Bergen sign on to do your play. But first! The backstory!

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 ultimately, it became a workshop for what was to become a full-length play. Many people had asked and/or persuaded me to turn it into a full-length.

Sparkler workshop trailer.

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. Henry Willson, the manipulative, sex-hungry representative of countless beautiful men-turned-actors (including Rock Hudson) was introduced as a new character. He 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 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.

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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CRAB ON ITS BACK (2016) / Potomac Theatre Project by Erik Champney

READ THE BROADWAYWORLD ARTICLE

Bill Army and I met through a mutual friend in the winter of 2016, and I knew right away he was the guy I needed to talk to. Bill is a damn fine actor and he seemed level-headed and comfortable in his skin. I’d only been in New York about six months at this point. It was time to get serious. So I asked Bill if he’d be open to sitting down with me and letting me pick his brain. He agreed. Just like that. Bill’s great.

Before we met, I got super presumptuous and sent him one of my scripts, Crab on Its Back. I gave the guy homework! It wasn’t very savvy, but he did read it. Fortunately, he liked it. He actually seemed to more than like it, as he embarked on a mission to have something done with it. After some back and forth about what would be the best angle, Bill decided we should present it as a concert reading at Potomac Theatre Project’s After Dark series. PTP presents a couple productions during the summer, and Bill was in one of them. Some nights, artists are showcased following their performance. It’s a great set up and their staff is wonderful.

Bill also took on the responsibility of casting most of it. From his PTP family, he brought in Valerie Leonard and Judith Chaffee. He also enlisted Dan Van Why. With the help of my friend, Glory Kadigan, I found Bill Jaffe. With Bill Army jumping in too, Crab on Its Back was cast. Still no director, so I reached out to Drayton Hiers, a friend from NYU, who was badass at staging a reading.

The day of our performance was intense. We all gathered at Tisch and spent the morning rehearsing. It was lightning fast and it felt like so much hadn’t been done. I didn’t know how they were going to pull it off that night. Are all playwrights constantly worrying or is it just me?

I attended PTP’s performance that evening, and it was excellent. Then it was our turn. Those actors got up there and kicked my play’s ass. Such incredible work. Each of them was embodying my characters wholly. I was so happy, sitting back and just experiencing it. Crab on Its Back is my only true comedy to date. It felt so good knowing it was in more than capable hands.

Thank you, Bill Army, for being my soldier. Thank you, Valerie, Bob, Judith, Dan, Drayton, and all the folks at PTP for welcoming my work and giving me that wonderful night.

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