My next adventure had two beginnings and both of them were actors. I met Glenn when I went into the sound studio with Jan to watch the audio-taping of the SRA scripts. He had big brown eyes and a face somewhere between Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, and I loved the way he read my lines. (Yes, I am a sucker for actors who can read my lines well. More about that later.)
Anyway, I asked Glenn out, we started dating, and I ended up seeing a lot of plays. That’s one of the consequences of dating actors. You see the plays they’re in and you also see the plays all their friends are in, because actors are really loyal about attending each other’s plays. And here’s the thing. When you go to the theatre that much, you see a lot of really, really bad plays. Terrible plays. Mind-numbing, nausea-inducing, please-let-me-out-of-here-before-my-brain-liquefies plays. I began to feel quite certain that I could do better. (Forget about that first act I wrote in London. I did.) I decided to write a play.
Another consequence of dating actors is that you get to hear them complain about not getting cast. Even actors who are cast often complain, and Glenn was not in that category at the time. So I decided my play would star Glenn.
Then I did what I always do before I try something I don’t actually know how to do. I started reading books. I read scores of plays, books about plays and books about writing plays. I really hit the jackpot when I found How Not to Write a Play. This wonderful book by Walter Kerr, Jean Kerr’s husband–I’ve always wanted to write that–turned out to be exactly what I needed. It wasn’t about getting people on and off stage or writing an elegant exposition. It was about the art of theatre, what it’s for and how it should treat its audience. He particularly emphasized that plays should be intelligent without being written for the intelligentsia. I liked everything he had to say.
Having filled my head with plays and ideas, I drew the set. Since the play I was going to write was set in a bookstore on Halsted Street in Chicago, this did not stretch my imagination. On another large sheet of paper I drew the characters, a somewhat more difficult task since I wasn’t basing any of them on real people. On the other hand, the characters would be played by actors who probably wouldn’t look anything like what I was imagining, so in a way it didn’t really matter what my pictures looked like. They just helped me keep the characters real for myself. (Later I would “precast” the plays I wrote with actors I knew or had seen perform, like, oh, Meryl Streep.) When I finished drawing, I put the pictures above my desk and stared at them when I wasn’t pounding on my typewriter.
It wasn’t long after I started writing that Glenn was cast in a play that turned out to be a hit. It was directed by Mike Nussbaum, an excellent Chicago actor who later became a regular in David Mamet films and was the outside casing for an alien in Men in Black. Mike and I met at one of the cast parties I went to with Glenn and we hit it off. He and his wife, Annette, had two strong feminist daughters, Susan and Karen, and Annette was no slouch either. He was used to women like me.
When St. Nicholas theater asked Mike to direct the play Uncommon Women, he was in something of a bind. He wanted very badly to have a serious directing career, and St. Nicholas was very prestigious–Mamet’s theatre. But Uncommon Women was an all-woman play, written by a woman, and Mike had those three women at home to answer to. And one of them would be in the rehearsal hall with him; Susan was precast as Rita, the role originally played by Swoosie Kurtz.
His solution was to have a woman as assistant director, and he asked me to take it on. When I protested feebly that I didn’t know anything about directing a play, he said he didn’t need me for that. He just wasn’t about to direct this play without the help of a woman, specifically a feminist. I knew damned well this was the best chance I would ever have to learn about the theatre, so I dropped my protests lunged at it.
Sitting next to Mike as he cast the show taught me almost as much as rehearsals would, but it didn’t prepare me for . . . No, I can’t write any smooth segue here. There isn’t any way to say what happened next except to say it straight. Just after we went into auditions, Susan Nussbaum was in an accident at the Goodman Theatre loading dock and was paralyzed from the neck down. Mike took it as hard as you would expect, but he didn’t turn the show over to another director. Instead, he held onto it like a life raft, working hard, being gracious to the actors auditioning, and looking until he found just the right person for each role.
At length there was only one role left uncast, the role of Rita. Susan’s role. Mike and I shuffled through the photos and resumes, said good-night, see you tomorrow and left. I walked into St. Nicholas the next day, ready to take my usual place a few seats away from Mike, and I was told he wouldn’t be there. He had to be at the hospital, so I would be casting the role of Rita by myself.
I have always thought of this as a measure of how devastated Mike was by Susan’s accident. He is nothing if not a professional, and he had to be aware that I wasn’t up to this responsibility. What I knew about acting, directing and theatre in general could have been put into a flea’s athletic supporter, and some part of him must have realized that. But he just couldn’t cast that role. So I did what was required of me and cast it myself. The young woman I chose was a good actress, but she was not Susan Nussbaum.
If you have never participated in, or at least watched, the rehearsal process for a play–the whole process, from the first read-through to the final dress–you have missed one of the great experiences life has to offer. That first taste of it led to what I thought for a time would be a lifelong addiction. I was sure I would never want to do anything but theatre for the rest of my life and equally sure that the friends I had made in the cast would be a crucial part of that life. Given all the bad plays I had seen produced, I was also pretty sure that my work would be successful. I was thirty-one years old and still as innocent of wisdom as a bare-bottomed baby.
Uncommon Women opened to rave reviews and played to full houses, despite the fact that the author flew in during rehearsals and apparently demanded that the play be re-cast. Mike refused, defending even my choice for Rita.
I completed the first draft of my first play, The Order of Things, and asked the cast of Uncommon Women to do a reading of it at my apartment. Kathy Melvin, Annabel Amour, Pat Terry, and Jodean Culbert read roles. Kathy was dating Bob Falls at the time and he agreed to read. Glenn read the lead, of course. I wish I could remember everyone who was at that reading, because it was the first time I got to hear my own lines performed, and few beginning playwrights have ever been blessed with such actors.
Apparently it went to my head. When Bob, who had just begun his distinguished career as a director, told me that the play had something of the feeling of You Can’t Take It with You, I replied with some utterly asinine comment like, “I hope it has more substance than that.” I believe I had the brains to be mortified by the next morning. I know I’ve been mortified ever since. It’s one of those moments that flashes into your brain as you walk towards the bus stop or drift towards sleep at night and makes you, as Jan would say, leap like a gaffed salmon.
When Mike heard that I had completed the first draft of a play, he asked to read it. A few days later he called to say that he liked it. Very much. He wanted to direct it. He wanted to show it to his friend Barbara Rush to see if she wanted to star in it.
Blood started to rush to my head. As if Mike’s directing it weren’t enough to make me lose my senses immediately, he wanted to show my play to a movie star. A beautiful, talented, famous, smart, classy–did I mention this?–MOVIE STAR.
Ms. Rush was looking for a play to star in that would help her move from her usual glamour roles to something more appropriate for her age. At fifty, she still looked as gorgeous as she had when she starred with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in The Young Lions, and she frequently performed at commercial theatres around the country, such as Chicago’s Drury Lane. Audiences loved her, so she was always in demand, but she thought maybe it was time for her to move on from witty romantic comedies. The role of the strong, insightful bookseller who ruled over a domain filled with eccentrics might be just right, according to Mike. I stammered that it was just a first draft, but Mike was sure that Barbara Rush would see what he had seen in it.
About a week later, the call from Mike came. Barbara Rush wanted to do my play and wanted to show it to a theater that had been asking her to perform there again–a big, successful dinner theater.
I called the actors and went to the liquor store by the el stop to buy cheap champagne, as much as I could afford. We sat around the same big table where they had helped me read the script and laughed in amazement. The room was filled with the kind of hope that makes working in the theater so intoxicating. The amount of champagne we drank was fairly intoxicating, too. Jodean and the young theater critic she was dating were pulled over by the police a little later that evening, only they didn’t pull over. They decided to try to lose the squad care in the alleys of Lincoln Park.
It was my first warning that theater makes people slightly insane.