Amtrak Resident: Jeffrey Sweet

Amtrak Resident: Jeffrey Sweet

October 21
One of the main reasons I enjoy traveling by train is that, if you’re on your own, when you get seated in the dining car you find yourself seated fairly randomly with other people, giving you the chance to have conversations with folks you might ordinarily not meet.

I’m a playwright, and I mostly live in New York and deal with people in the theatre.  But so far on my Amtrak Writers Residency  I’ve talked to a bass clarinetist who also programs computers for a government project, a woman (traveling cross country with her mother) who spent decades working with Head Start, and another woman who was married to a career pilot and moved wherever Delta needed him to be based.  Also, a woman on her way to a bachelorette party.  (I wish she had been returning from the party, she might have had some fresh tales to tell.)  These may not immediately sound like the seeds of high drama, but talking with these people (and the others I’ve met over the years) has opened some doors on how folks outside my often insular profession approach their lives.

There’s an old saying – some people work to live and others live to work.  I live to work.  There is little that gives me more pleasure than to sit at a keyboard inventing characters and situations and making something that might someday absorb an audience for a couple of hours.  This is true of most of the people I know who write for the theatre.  It is generally too perilous a way of trying to support yourself that, if you don’t feel a sense of urgency doing it, I don’t know why you’d accept the attendant risks.

Though a lucky minority get satisfaction from their jobs, I bet most people are in that other camp – those who work to live.  They go to the office or the mine or the store, put in their hours necessary to pay their bills and devote their non-work hours to pursue their personal interests.  Few people can play golf, manage fantasy football teams or brew craft beer for a living .  This is what their evenings and weekends are for.  And I think those who work to live deserve to have their stories told, too.

I’m not saying I’m going to write a play about a bass clarinetist, but stuff I’ve picked up from conversations on train has found its way into my plays.  I once found myself talking with a woman who made a specialty of helping refugees who had been admitted to this country find places to live that would make their transition to this country as easy as possible.  Some years later, I was writing a play and needed to give the female lead a profession, so I used that one.  It turned out that this  opened new thematic possibilities in the play, suggesting that there were different kinds of refugees.

Anyway, I’m on my way to New Orleans, a city I’ve never visited (which is why I asked to go there).  More when something else occurs to me.

Jeffrey Sweet
October 21, 2016

October 27, 2016
Got into New Orleans a little ahead of schedule and grabbed a cab to the AirBnb I had booked, a room with a desk and wifi a few blocks from the Garden district. My host, Hayan, had everything waiting for me as promised.

I serve on the Council of something called The Dramatists Guild, which is an outfit organized to be of service to professional playwrights. It’s not a union. (Unions are for employees and playwrights aren’t employees.) But it shares information that makes playwrights lives a lot easier and helps on issues we’re concerned with – particularly copyright and censorship. There are regional representatives scattered around the country, and the regional rep for the Gulf area is Rob Florence. It turned out he also runs a company called Historic New Orleans Tours that takes tourists around the various neighborhoods of the city.

He set me up with a couple of tours, and for the first time I began to understand something of the nature of the town that I never appreciated from the outside. (Pardon me, any of you for whom this is not news.) My sense of New Orleans comes from a streetcar line which seems to bridge various aspects – the Saint Charles line. The eastern end puts you at the doorstep of the French Quarter, the legendary area of anything goes, filled with jazz, booze, clubs that appeal cheerfully to your worst impulses, and the Café du Monde, where I sampled beignets with a café au lait. This is the New Orleans we see most often in the movies with the iron-railed balconies and narrow streets. The place where the Mardi Gras scenes feature women cheerfully flashing for strings of beads. (No, it wasn’t Mardi Gras when I was there. I just hear about these things, you know.) The tour guide said that this is a world that has largely been formed by a form of Catholicism that claims a special relationship with the Virgin Mary. Why this should manifest itself in endless souvenir shops where you can buy things to prove you visited New Orleans is something I haven’t quite figured out.

The Garden District, on the other hand, had its roots in a Protestant ethic. This is the land of houses built in the spirit of conspicuous (but tasteful) consumption. The guide led us past houses she said are owned by Sandra Bullock and John Goodman, but neither of them stepped outside to wave at us. (Goodman’s currently on Broadway starring in The Front Page.) Nearby is one of New Orleans’s legendary cemeteries. Because of the peculiar nature of the soil, the dead are buried above ground, and conspicuous consumption plays a part here, too. The plots with the biggest and most elegant marble edifices win. Really, that’s how it works. The bigger your monument, the bigger your win. Honest. There was one unoccupied plot owned by the city. It is here that, when film companies shoot funeral scenes, fake temporary monuments are put up so that actors have somewhere to mourn for the camera.

Also went to the Oak Street Po Boy Festival. A Po Boy, I learned, is a kind of a sandwich so loved that they … well, they throw a festival to honor it. There are various kinds of po boys, and the determined seek out arcane varieties to fully enjoy the spirit of the event. I relished a roast beef po boy and something else I can’t recall. I hesitated at the prospect of a catfish po boy. I mean, that’s an ugly fish.

The guide was Gina Forsyth, a friend of a friend who is a fierce Cajun fiddler, guitarist and songwriter. Aside offering me further orientation about some of the cultural tensions that keep New Orleans, she led me through the neighborhood surrounding the festival, one in which she had once lived. It seemed that every third house was holding a party near its front door, and she saw many old friends and we had many opportunities to get sloshed and debate art and politics and the relative merits of various po boys.

I had dropped a line to the drama department at Tulane University to say that I would be visiting town and that I’d be delighted to be a guest at whatever classes people cared to invited me to, and I got two takers. One class wanted my take on the state of the playwright in the current American theatre scene, and the other wanted a workshop in improvisational techniques that could be used to begin developing new scripts. I was happy to oblige in return for gaining impressions of the campus and the people who call it home. My father worked for universities (Northwestern and the University of Chicago), when I was growing up I lived in a college town (Evanston, Illinois), and I have a strong love for these enclaves filled with books and coffee and people who still take the communal pursuit of knowledge seriously.

Next stop, Atlanta …

Jeffrey Sweet
October 27, 2016

October 30, 2016 

I went to New Orleans just because I had never been there.  I went to Atlanta because I’m thinking of writing a play set there and I need to know more about it.

I also went to Atlanta with a bit of an advantage.  Years ago I wrote a book called Something Wonderful Right Away, which tells the story of the early days of improvisational theatre.  From the perspectives of people like Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Alan Alda, Del Close and Gilda Radner, it covers the creation of Second City, the Chicago-based company that has introduced more comic talents to American film, TV and theater than any other.

The book had an effect that I hadn’t anticipated.  A number of people read it and said, “This is what I want to do with my life.”  A woman named Charna Halpern started an improvisational theatre named iO (which originally stood for ImprovOlympic Theater, until the lawyers for the Olympics threatened to sue).  Out of that came a New York-based theater named the Upright Citizens Brigade and spinoffs call the Magnet and the People’s Improv Theatre.  A college student named Mick Napier was inspired to start another Chicago company, the Annoyance Theater, and Napier later directed some key shows at Second City.  I had long known about the book’s part in the creation of those theatres, and, in fact, I’ve performed in both iO and the Annoyance.  (I do a solo show called You Only Shoot the Ones You Love about my dealings with the improv community.)

When I spread the word that I was coming to Atlanta, I got a message from a man named J Star.  It turned out there was another theatre that had begun with the book, his space called The Basement.  Would I perform there?  And would I run a workshop in his space?  And would I be his guest at a show?  And, oh yes, he had a spacious spare bedroom in his terrific big house – would I like to stay there during my stay?  And all these things happened.

I also met a key figure in the development of Atlanta’s improv community, Robert Lowe.  (Cue jokes about the pairing of our last names – Sweet and Lowe.)  He had been one of Star’s teachers and had connections to much of what turned out to be a sizable improv community in Atlanta.  Would I run an additional workshop and visit another Atlanta comedy institution, Dad’s Garage?  And that, too, happened.  I also had the pleasure of seeing Democracy Achieved, one of their current shows.

I frankly had not been aware that Atlanta’s improv/comedy scenes was as extensive as it turned out to be, but Robert volunteered to be my guide and took me to various neighborhoods frequented by people involved in this work.  Everywhere we went, Robert ran into and introduced me to another improviser.  This may have something to do with how much I laughed during my visit to Atlanta.

As long as I was in Atlanta, I thought I should connect with the playwriting community.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild, so I contacted the Atlanta representative of the Guild, Pamela Turner, to see if the local members wanted to get together.  Word came back that they wanted a seminar on playwriting technique.  The Horizon Theatre (whose handsome venue I go to take a peek at and covet – wonderful space) offered the use of a rehearsal hall, and about twenty playwrights showed up to talk about negotiating over objects, character versus event-structured writing, high-context exposition, and other craft aspects of building plays.  It was a great pleasure to meet other people engaged in the wonderfully impractical pursuit of creating stories for the stage.  It was a little like meeting family I had never been previously introduced to.  I only wish I had had enough time to see some plays by writers in that room.

But, as I mentioned above, I had a specific purpose in coming to Atlanta.  I am in the process of working out a play that I think has to be set here.  Much of the action will take place in the gay and black communities.  Not being gay, black or Atlantan, I felt I needed to understand a hell of a lot more in order to write this story with any claim to accuracy.

Rob Woods, Sr. Field Organizer of Georgia Equality [http://georgiaequality.org/], offered to help, and he arranged for a conversation in a conference room at the Philip Rush Center.  Charles Stephens joined us, the founder of the Counter Narrative Project, an Atlanta organization devoted to, as their website says, raising “awareness around the issues impacting Black gay men.”  I think Charles was a little bemused by some of the naivete of my questions, but he quickly delineated much of the politics I needed to know in order to write a story that bears some relation to reality.  It was a long, generous and often very funny conversation.  I gave him the outline of the story I wanted to tell and he told me that it was not only a story that actually could happen, he could could (and did) give me details about where my characters would live, what kind of work they would do, and where they would socialize.

If I had had no other encounter, that conversation would have justified the entire trip.

Jeffrey Sweet
October 30, 2016

October 31, 2016
Sitting in my roomette for the last leg of my Amtrak Writer’s Residency.  Boarded in Atlanta last night, grabbed dinner in the dining car (picking up a conversation with a college administrator), sat at a table in the lounge car to respond to assignments from my playwriting students at Wagner College.  (So pleased that Amtrak offers wifi!)  After that grabbed some sleep, and this morning went to dining car for breakfast.

It turned out the couple sitting opposite me had their own relationship with Amtrak.  They live in South Dakota, but they flew to Los Angeles so they could take the train cross country along the Southern route.  This trip, they said, would complete their goal to take all of the cross-country Amtrak routes.

As I type this, we’ve just pulled into Baltimore, and I remember that my friend Kwame Kwei-Armah runs Baltimore Center Stage which is a short distance from the Amtrak station there.

It occurs to me that there are regional theatres doing fine work near many Amtrak stations and that another journey could be made to visit them.  A terrific trip could be made on the Boston-Washington, DC line.

Begin at the Boston end by visiting the American Repertory Theater of Cambridge.  Founded by controversial visionary Robert Brustein, the schedule alternates between challenging experimental fare and musicals, many of which are directed by current artistic director Diane Paulus.  Among the ART shows Paulus directed that came to Broadway were hit revivals of Hair and Pippin and the current hit, Waitress.

Going south, in Providence, is Trinity Rep, a solid company with strong ties to Brown University.  It’s currently playing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s remarkable play, Appropriate.

Next?  If you’re traveling in the summer, it’s well worth visiting The Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center, a short cab ride from the New London station.  Their public offerings are scheduled for June, July and August, including a puppetry conference, a series of readings of new plays and musicals, and a cabaret festival.  I have a special attachment to the place and, in fact, wrote a book about it called The O’Neill.  This is where many of the great playwriting, musical theatre and acting talents of our time got significant career boosts including Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of super-hit Hamilton), the late August Wilson (a film version of his play Fences will be released soon), Tony-winning playwright Christopher Durang, the late Wendy Wasserstein (who won the Pulitzer for The Heidi Chronicles), John Patrick Shanley (writer of Moonstruck), Robert and Kristin Anderson-Lopez (who between them have contributed songs to Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, Frozen and the up-coming Broadway show, In Transit), and Michael Douglas.  Years ago, I saw a children’s play there featuring a dazzling young blonde performer straight out of Yale University.  I remember thinking Streep was an odd name.  (She and Douglas wrote forewards to the book.)

Speaking of Yale, another skip down the line to New Haven brings us to both Yale Rep and Long Wharf.  Yale Rep, connected to the Yale School of Drama, has given early employment to much of the playwriting, acting and directing talent of our times.  Last season’s Broadway success, Eclipsed by Danai Gurira, premiered at the Rep; the Broadway run and starred Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, who trained at Yale.   Coming soon to Broadway is another play that started at the Rep, Paula Vogel’s Indecent, based on the true story of a controversial Yiddish play that had a violent effect on the lives of its players.  Across town, Long Wharf has a strong reputation for doing solid revivals of works in the American and British repertoire with the occasional premiere.

A couple hours south, and it’s New York, still the capital of American theatre.  I live in New York and it’s not unusual for me to see four or five plays a week.  As I write, aside from Hamilton (which is as good as the hype says), I strongly recommend The Color Purple, The Humans, a stunning revival of Fiddler on the Roof and a wild and unconventional adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that is one of the hits of the off-Broadway season.

New Jersey plays host to two major houses reachable by transferring from Amtrak to local transit – the George Street Playhouse of New Brunswick and another theater run by a buddy, the gifted playwright-director Emily Mann, the McCarter.  Emily commissioned and presented the original production of Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning hit, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.  (It’s now among the most-produced plays in theatres around the country.)

Philadelphia has turned into an important theatre center.  I’ve seen impressive work at both the Arden and the Wilma.  The Wilma is particularly interested in introducing European work to American audiences; it has a particularly strong association with Tom Stoppard.

I’ve mentioned Baltimore Center Stage.  Later this season, it will present an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz written by another buddy, Nambi E. Kelley.  (Nambi is also an actor and will be co-starring off-Broadway in my play Kunstler, this February.)

There are a number of strong companies at the end of the line, in Washington, DC.  Perhaps best known is one of the pioneering regional theatres, the Arena Stage.  I am particularly indebted to it for helping start my playwriting career by doing the first professional presentation of my play Porch.  The Arena is the place in DC to see major productions of contemporary American works, but there are a number of other companies in the area doing exciting work.  (One short Amtrak stop away, in Arlington, Virginia, the Signature Theatre has made a national reputation developing new musicals and presenting vivid revivals of classics.)

Those are just the companies that come to mind as I mentally revisit the line from Boston to Washington, DC.  My idea of a dream trip.

We’re pulling into Trenton now.  I used to teach in Philadelphia and was always bemused by the words visible from the train window on a Trenton bridge: “Trenton Makes/The World Takes.”  It’s always struck me as a petulant motto.

I should start packing.  We’ll be in New York in less than an hour.

It’s been a rewarding trip.  I have been delighted to be an Amtrak Writer!

Jeffrey Sweet
October 31, 2016