In our previous article, Cheryl Katz explains how Luna Stage was able to weather our current economic condition by commissioning a play on Thomas Edison as they moved into their new space in West Orange, NJ. Other theaters, however, haven’t been so lucky. After twenty-four years of being a home for contemporary American playwrights, Florida Stage had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

So far on Poor Lessing’s Theatre Almanack, we have stayed present by focusing on current productions that inspire dramaturgical lessons. But after reading Nan Barnett’s article “One of Those People” on Howlround, my dramaturgical mind had more questions. When theaters committed to American playwrights close their doors, not only the opportunity for writers to get produced disappears, but the institutional memory of what made Florida Stage so successful gets lost. I immediately asked playwright Tammy Ryan, whose new play we recently featured, to write about her experience of working at Florida Stage on her play The Music Lesson in 2000. As she recalls her memory of that experience, one of the lasting legacies of Florida Stage for her was how everyone was so nice. What a great lesson for those of us who are currently working on new plays to pause and consider!

I hope this will be the first of a series of articles that can give a deeper insight on what institutions like Florida Stage did right as well as what current theaters are doing to stay true to American playwrights in such difficult producing conditions.   —Heather Helinsky

THOUGHTS ON FLORIDA STAGE by Tammy Ryan

In January 2000, Florida Stage flew me to Manalapan, FL for a reading of my play The Music Lesson.  I’d met Mark Lynch their Education Director at that time, at the Bonderman National Playwriting for Youth Symposium at Indiana Rep the previous year where my play originally written for young audiences was first developed.  Many theaters expressed an interest in Music Lesson that weekend, but I was surprised to get a call from Florida Stage since they were interested in the play not for young audiences, but for their mainstage adult audience.

They picked me up at the airport on a gorgeous West Palm Beach day and took me to a restaurant near the ocean where I met Lou Tyrrell who at the time struck me as this very cool, very laid back, very nice man who wanted to make sure that I was taken care of during my visit.  Nan Barnett was the next person I met who took me under her wing and was so warm so welcoming I felt I’d known her half my life.  In fact everyone there was so NICE.  This is my overriding memory of that time (it was over ten years ago) and the fact that the theater itself was a block from the beach and I could walk there on rehearsal breaks.   I could get used to this, I remember thinking.   This was my first experience at a regional theater, and I believed (at that time) that every regional theater treated its playwrights this way. Later I would learn this wasn’t always true, but Florida Stage set the bar high for my expectations.

The reading went very well and the talkback with the audience made it clear how much this audience felt ownership in the process – lucky for me they loved the play.    Afterwards Lou and I talked about the different possibilities for staging and I began to get the feeling they were interested in producing it.     A few months later I got the phone call from Lou – Mark and Lou would co-direct.  Jessica Peterson, who did the reading, would play the lead role.    This would be the first professional production of this play and my first LORT production.  A few other theaters were interested in producing at this time, and in October, Suzan Zeder at University of Texas at Austin, who had been developing the play since the Bonderman, invited all the interested producers and directors for a little pow-wow about the play. Lou and Mark came with a model of the set, along with David Bradley of Peoples Light and Theatre and Dan Herring of Stage One.  I felt that they were committed to not just their production of the play, but to the play itself, to me.

They flew me back to Manalapan in December for the opening.  During the rehearsal process we had only a few phone calls, a few minor adjustments but no real re-writing, and I had very little idea about what I was about to see.  I remember being the only person in the audience during a dress rehearsal.  It was the most professional and beautiful production of one of my plays I’d ever seen.  It was handled with such care, skill, imagination, and heart that I sat in my seat and cried.  Yes, the bar was set high now.

Jessica K. Petersen as Irena, in background Maggi St. Clair Melin as Maja. Thanks to Jeanie Burns for preserving this photo.

The audience loved the production and loved me, Opening Night was a love-fest.  My family came and the theater set us up in a lovely little house near the beach, and when Lou introduced me to the audience on opening night, my eight year old daughter looked up at me with such pride and awe, “Is he talking about you?”     The look on her face was a gift I will always treasure.

My experience with The Music Lesson at Florida Stage was such a turning point in my career and in my life it is difficult to sum up in just a few words.  It was a high point, a measuring stick for all future theater experiences, but it also gave me a rock solid sense of myself as a theater artist.  They treated me like a REAL playwright, and probably for the first time, I believed it.

Afterwards the play was optioned for off-Broadway a few times.   Lou was committed to bringing it to NY and it looked like it was going to happen, but instead 9/11 happened, we lost investors.   They tried again, bringing it to The Dorset Theater Festival in another beautiful production.  New investors were onboard and we were about to have auditions in New York, but in the end that fell through too.  By 2003, I was ready to move on, publish the play and let it have productions at theaters for young audiences across the country.  I was also personally overwhelmed at the time, just after giving birth to my second daughter.  Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision. I know it disappointed Lou, when I didn’t take the option the third time (and they were less than happy with my then agent) but Lou never pressured me, never gave me a sense that it was ever anybody else’s decision, even though they invested a lot of time, talent, energy and money in trying to bring the play to New York.  Although we never did find another project to work on, we kept in touch and I always got the feeling that the folks at Florida Stage not only respected me as a playwright, but cared about me as a person. I feel blessed to be able to count myself as one of the lucky playwrights who had the good fortune to have their work produced there.

For further thought: Nan Barnett shared with us a link to an panel at their final 1st Stage Festival that features Deborah Zoe Laufer, Carter W. Lewis and Israel Horovitz, as well as two FL-based playwrights, Christopher Demos–Brown and Kew Henry (AKA Kathleen Holmes) and Tony-nominated actor John Herrera, who was there as a playwright. Thank you, Nan!


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