Playwright and director Charles Morey talks about The Granite State, his Cowardesque new American comedy premiering July 23-Aug. 3 at Peterborough Players, his first and continuing artistic home, in southern New Hampshire. The play reflects the New England geography of the venerable summer stock troupe, but it also draws on the playwright’s life, times and literary passions.
Since leaving the artistic directorship of Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company in 2012, Charles Morey has found himself with more time and mental space to reach toward his other longtime passion as a theatre artist — playwriting.
“[Exiting PTC after 28 years] has freed me up to concentrate more on writing,” Morey tells me. “I am still directing. I enjoy directing. I think I’m good at it. And I have no intention of stopping as long as someone will hire me. But being free from the administrative side of running a theatre is what I was after.”
Morey already had a healthy body of work as a dramatist, including adaptations of the classic titles The Three Musketeers, A Tale of Two Cities, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Count of Monte Cristo, but recently his new works not strictly based on source material are coming to the fore, including more than 100 productions of his theatrical comedy, Laughing Stock (inspired by his time working at Peterborough Players in the 1970s and ’80s), and the new comedy The Granite State (set in Hancock, NH, near Peterborough), about an irascible, prize-winning septuagenarian writer unable to move forward creatively and personally. It begins rehearsal July 10 toward a July 23 world premiere at his old stomping ground.
Morey is also hoping for a wider life for The Yellow Leaf, a meeting-of-literary-minds drama featuring Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, and The Ladies Man and the well-reviewed Off-Broadway Figaro, freely adapted from Feydeau and Beaumarchais, respectively.
Also in the wings — now seeking production, as they say — is his true-crime drama The Salamander’s Tale, inspired by a shocking forgery and murder scheme that shook the foundation of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City. (Getting that produced at PTC would certainly have shaken the audience, which is populated with not a few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.) Morey is repped by Mary Harden of Harden-Curtis Associates. His plays are published by Playscripts and Dramatists Play Service. See Morey’s list of properties at his official website CharlesMorey.com.
Morey remains a freelance director whose connection to Pioneer will continue in 2015 when he directs The Crucible, his third and final contractual gig as a guest director there. (Karen Azenberg is now artistic director of PTC. I met Chuck Morey in spring 2013 when he guest-directed a reading of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder‘s play Provenance at Alabama Shakespeare Festival‘s Southern Writers’ Project, which presented my play Alabama Story in its first reading.)
Meanwhile, this summer he’s directing The Granite State in Peterborough, where he was artistic director 1977-1988. The cast includes his wife Joyce Cohen as Anna, the understanding ex-wife of novelist George Gordon. Anna and her son and his perky girlfriend visit the writer at his family homestead, a converted barn, on a weekend fraught with a professional pressure, personal grief, memories of the past and surprise visits by another ex-wife and a Russian mistress toting vodka and borscht.
Here’s how the play is billed by Peterborough Players: “Chuck Morey’s comedy Laughing Stock, produced last season at the Players, won six NH Theatre Awards, including Best Production and Best Director. His new play concerns George Gordon, ‘America’s greatest living author,’ who is living a happy quiet life in Hancock, NH, until he wins the prestigious Hochmuller Award and its $2 million cash prize. The famous writer’s world becomes anything but quiet when his ex-wives, son and mistress all come knocking at the door. Who is there to celebrate, and who just wants a piece of the prize?”
The Peterborough Players cast features Anderson Matthews as George; Tom Frey as filmmaker son Tom; Joyce Cohen as second ex-wife Anna, an actress; Karron Graves as Tom’s fiancée, Carrie, who works for George’s agent; Beverly Ward as first ex-wife Claire, a former hippie who is now a Texas tea party Republican; and Lisa Bostnar as George’s Russian lover, Yelizaveta, a stripper with a soul.
The production team includes production stage manager Allison Deutsch, scenic designer Ray Recht, costume designer Betsy Rugg, lighting designer John Eckert, sound designer Kevin Frazier and props designer Sarah Powell.
Morey answered a slew of my questions about his latest act in a rich life in the theatre.
While reading The Granite State I couldn’t help wondering if your recent retirement from the artistic directorship of Pioneer Theatre Company helped prompt it: this story of an artist looking back at a body of work. Is this a play you could have written as a younger man? What was the starting point for writing it?
Charles Morey: No, I don’t think it’s a play I could have or would have written 25 years ago. Its concerns are those of someone at my stage of life, I think.
In a certain sense, the play grew out of one I wrote some eight years ago, The Yellow Leaf. It was produced at Pioneer Theatre Company, directed by Geoffrey Sherman in 2008. It’s about Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and friends, their tangled relationships and sex lives and the fateful few weeks they spent together on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816. It was “the year without a summer” in which the bad weather kept the group cloistered in the Villa Diodati. To fill their evenings’ entertainment, Byron began by reading ghost stories to the group — and famously Coleridge’s poem “Christabel,” which sent Shelley literally into a fit of terrified hysteria for which he had to be sedated — and subsequently proposed a competition to see who could write the best ghost story. As a result of the competition, Mary conceived “Frankenstein.”
Sometime during the research and writing phase of that project I began to idly wonder what would have happened had Byron lived to become an old and venerated man of letters, rather than “living hard and dying young” at the age of 36. What would have happened had Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister who pursued Byron across Europe as a young woman and was the mother of a child by him, arrived on Byron’s doorstep decades later in his old age? And then what would happen if you added to that mix, say, his ex-wife and his current mistress? That notion planted the seed for a kind of geriatric sex farce set amongst the literary world. I knew from the outset that if anything were to develop out of that idea, the play would not try to resurrect the historical figures, but might use them as a jumping off point for a contemporary, American comedy of ill manners.
Asking “how long was your writing process on this play?” is a tired old question, but I’ll ask it: how long did it take?
Charles Morey: A few years ago now — the date on the computer file tells me it was 2010 — I wrote pieces of two scenes, maybe 10 pages total, that established the characters and the basic situation of The Granite State. I filed away the pages and let the idea ferment as I worked on my adaptation of Beaumarchais’ Figaro, which the Pearl Theatre Company had commissioned with some pretty tight deadlines. And, as you point out, I was still running Pioneer Theatre Company at that time and had plenty on my plate in that capacity.
The fall of 2010 was also right about the time I began to think seriously about leaving PTC. I had been the artistic director there for 26 years at that point following 12 years as artistic director of the Peterborough Players (1977-1988), including five overlapping years during which I was artistic director of both. Also, in 2010, I turned 63 and it became clear that it was time to begin to think seriously about what the rest of my career might look like. Kind of late to have a “what shall I do with my life moment,” perhaps, but there you are. The following summer, 2011, I made the decision that 40 seasons as an artistic director was plenty, that I would resign as artistic director of PTC shortly after my 65th birthday and that I wanted to spend the remainder of my career focused on writing — directing too, yes — but mostly writing.
It was a project that clearly seems to acknowledge the next act in your life.
Charles Morey: Yes, I suppose part of the impulse behind The Granite State came from where I was at that time. I was thinking about aging and how I wanted to play out whatever the “next act” of my life would be — and there are fears that with come with those thoughts, the fear of cognitive impairment and diminishment of creative abilities. And mortality. And those fears certainly inform the play and its central character
So, I wrote about 10 pages and left them for three years to ferment while I completed my tenure as an artistic director, then concentrated on Figaro through the production process in the fall of 2012 and then turned to another play I had wanted to write for many, many years but for several reasons really couldn’t while artistic director of PTC.
You mean your terrific true-crime detective story set in the highest halls of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?
Charles Morey: The Salamander’s Tale is based upon a true story of fraud, forgery, murder and the Mormon Church that had occurred in Salt Lake City in 1985, a year after we had moved there. The play required significant historical research not only in court documents and transcripts and the multiple published accounts of the crimes, but in Mormon history as well. The research and first draft took me about a year of full time work.
When I finally came up for air in the summer of 2013, I began to look again at the 10 pages that roughly defined The Granite State. It seemed those years of “fermentation” had paid off as the play had in some ways formed itself in my subconscious and I was able to sit down and let it take on its own life as it became something much richer, deeper, perhaps more personal, and, I hope, every bit as funny, as the “geriatric sex farce” I had once envisioned. In August 2013, I started working on The Granite State all day, every day and had a solid first draft by the end of September that in many ways had just kind of fallen in to place.
The Granite State reveals itself as a delicious, literate homage to Noel Coward comedies that were populated by irascible creative types, their professional woes and their connection to women who are decent, nurturing — and sometimes downright irritating. Was Coward on your mind when conjuring this world? I hope you take the connection as a compliment.
Charles Morey: I do take that as a compliment! Very much so. I love Coward, have directed a lot of Coward and I think Private Lives is just about as perfect a comedy as has ever been written. (I played both male roles as a young actor, have subsequently directed it twice and would direct it again in an instant if anyone would ask.) One of the two scenes in The Granite State that I sketched out in 2010 was the beginning of the dinner table scene and it was very deliberately a homage to the breakfast scene in the third act of Private Lives. You’re the first one who has picked up on that.
You write beautifully about the personal and professional decline of your writer, George, who fears obsolescence and cannot seem to jumpstart his work three years after the death of his third wife. The play’s title (and the very bedrock of New Hampshire) is used as a metaphor about ossification. Is mortality something that was a shadow in your play from the beginning or did it emerge and you wrote it?
Charles Morey: I’m not sure I know how to answer that. Yes, I suppose it was always there — suggested anyway. But, as mentioned previously, when I finally sat down to write the play the characters just seemed to naturally want to deepen. When I first sketched it out I thought of it and described it as a “kind of geriatric sex farce” — and there are certainly moments of farce in the play — but the shadow of loss and, yes, mortality was always hanging around in the wings. I guess mortality always is hanging around in the wings, isn’t it?
You have a history adapting classics for the stage. George name-drops references to the whole of Western literature. Is there a lot of Chuck Morey (either personally or professionally) in the character of George?
Charles Morey: Um…Can I plead the Fifth Amendment here? Yeah, some people have said they see me in George. But believe me, the fictional character I wrote is really much smarter and quicker and certainly more accomplished than I. But people say they see me in “Gordon,” the lead character in Laughing Stock, too — and I never know how to take that because Gordon is really kind of a doofus. But I have always believed something I read a million years ago in the wonderful little Boleslavsky book, “Acting, the First Six Lessons” — that every character you play is a creation of the author’s mind and therefore a version of the author him/herself.
Are you “irascible,” like George?
Charles Morey: Funny you should ask! Shortly before I wrote that first pass at the dinner table scene in which George does a riff on the word “irascible,” someone had called me “irascible.” I was sort of taken aback — but kind of flattered too. “Irascible” is a wonderful word. Suggests difficult, yes, but charming… “It suits me well,” as George says. But no, I don’t think I’m irascible. But clearly someone else does!
It’s so rare today in the theatre that we hear references to the experience of the 1960s and ’70s. The early Baby Boom generation is under-represented. Charting the life of George’s first wife, Claire, from hippie wild-child to Texas Tea Party conservative is fascinating and helps give George deep roots. And stories about his parents in the play’s setting — a New Hampshire farmhouse — lend additional depth and history. Is this the first time you’ve explored “your” generation?
Charles Morey: I’ve never written anything specifically about “my” generation before — since a semi-autobiographical and pretty bad one-act in college about a young man trying to make a decision to flee to Canada to avoid the draft. And that play has and never will see the light of day. I didn’t really set out to do so. But given the fact my central character is in his early 70s now and the conflict in the play derives from his first marriage in the 1960s, I suppose it was inevitable that all these things about the ’60s and my generation’s somewhat wild ride would emerge.
I was surprised to see that among the farcical elements of the play there was also an intimacy and candor about the way George speaks of his late father and his childhood in that farmhouse. Did this surprise you? As you were writing, what character or thread ended up surprising you or sneaking up on you?
Charles Morey: I think that kind of “happened” in the writing. I don’t know if it surprised me. It just felt right and natural and important at that moment, a direct out-growth of the central character’s deeper concerns in the play. I like plays that are able to organically change tone — as does life, certainly — from out and out farce in one moment to pathos in the next. It needs to toe a very delicate and disciplined line in both the writing and the playing of it, so that the tone change is earned. Some people have criticized my play Laughing Stock for the shift of tone from pure farce to a gentler kind of comedy, rich with sentiment. But I like the change of tone — and I think it works when it is acted and directed well.
When you write, do you meticulously map out a plot? Or do you write more freely than that? Does it depend on the project?
Charles Morey: It very much depends upon the project. I don’t think I have ever done a detailed outline before I start, though I can’t even begin unless I have a general idea of where I am headed. I might jot down a list of projected scenes and events as I’m working along — things that have to happen — but that list never seems to evolve into a coherent outline — more like a few guide posts. The Granite State had been fermenting (I keep using that word) for a couple of years before I sat down to really write. I knew where I was going in a general sense, but then just let my imagination pull me along.
I’ve written a bunch of adaptations — five from classic 19th century novels, two from classic French plays. In an adaptation, you have the plot all set out for you. In the case of the novels, it is really about finding the voice and the “dramatic engine”…that drives the story, selecting those elements of the plot that are essential and fundamentally dramatic, jettisoning those that are not and sometimes inventing material to connect the dots. And if your novelist doesn’t write much dialogue, then you have to invent it and take narrative scenes and turn them into dialogue driven scenes. Actually, maybe the metaphor shouldn’t be “dramatic engine,” more of a “dramatic gear box” that can translate narrative into dramatic action.
Is something like The Granite State harder to write without source material?
Charles Morey: I’m not sure one was harder than the other. But The Granite State sure felt easier. I wrote it very quickly and it seemed to just flow. But, it had been…in the back corners of my brain for three years. I would think about it without thinking about it over that time, if you know what I mean. But “plot” does not come easily to me, so it’s always nice to have that “outline” in front of you like an existing novel, play or historical event. You know where it begins and where it ends in any event.
Once I know in general what the “voice” is, how I’m going to approach it and have a general idea of a couple of guide posts along the way, I just start writing and trust to the imaginative muscle to take over. This has become a fairly familiar pattern with me over the 12 plays I’ve written.
Is it accurate to say that Laughing Stock and The Granite State are your two most “original” plays in they are not based on real people or literary classics?
Charles Morey: I suppose that is accurate. Though, I consider both The Yellow Leaf and Dumas’ Camille (about Alexandre Dumas fils and the real “lady of the camellias,” Marie DuPlessis) to be original. Though based on historical characters, the scenes and almost all the dialogue are invented. I confess I stole many of Byron’s best “bon mots” to use in The Yellow Leaf — and there are a lot — but I was very proud of the fact that no one could tell where Byron’s witticisms left off and Morey’s began — it was pretty seamless that way, I think. I’m proud of that — despite the fact I’m frustrated the damn play has only had one production. A few nibbles over the years – but no bites! But, all the adaptations contain original material to a greater or lesser degree. In the author’s notes to the published editions of the adaptations I always start with an apology to horrified purists about the deletions, emendations and whole cloth additions I have made.
How did your association with Peterborough Players begin?
Charles Morey: I started my career with the Peterborough Players the summer after I graduated from Dartmouth in June 1969. In fact, I went to graduation, said good-bye to my parents and drove to Peterborough and went to work that afternoon. I went to Peterborough because it was the only offer I had that summer and I really didn’t want to go back out West and work in the woods as a logger (which was where I had spent three other summers in college). I was going to start in the MFA program in acting at Columbia that fall if I weren’t drafted and sent to Vietnam. Well, I had already been drafted actually — but that’s another story.
The following summer (1970) they asked me back and gave me my Equity Card and I returned every summer for the next 25 years. I started directing there — the Intern Show in 1974, the main stage the next season and became the artistic director in 1977 at a time when no one in their right mind would have considered me for the job. But the producer, Sally Stearns Brown was both mentor and surrogate mother in a way and she was willing to take a chance on me. When I was offered the job at PTC in 1984, I took it on the condition that I could continue as AD of Peterborough, partly because I wasn’t sure how long I’d last in Salt Lake City but also because the Players were in a very tenuous situation at the time following the death of Sally Brown in 1983 and continuity of leadership was key in keeping the theatre alive.
Sounds like you could have used a clone to help with the double duty.
Charles Morey: By 1988, the Players were on solid footing and I was working myself into an early grave, trying to run two theatres at the same time, so I resigned as AD of the Players. But I came back every summer through 1995 as a guest director doing one show a year, except for 1991 when I was there as author of my adaptation of Dracula — and that production became the germ of an idea that ultimately became Laughing Stock some 10 years later. (More “fermenting” there!) Over the past 20 years I’ve been back sporadically — 2004 to do the second production of Laughing Stock, 39 Steps in 2012, Laughing Stock again last summer (2013) in celebration of the Players’ 80th anniversary and then this summer with the premiere of The Granite State.
Sounds like Peterborough Players had a profound influence on you.
Charles Morey: I met Joyce Cohen, my wife, at the Peterborough Players in 1977. Our son Will spent three summers there as an Intern. So, yeah, Peterborough formed me as a theatre person and a human being. It was — and is — summer stock. Two weeks of rehearsal, two weeks of performance — and in the early days with extremely limited resources in a 200-year-old barn with folding chairs for seats and no air-conditioning. (Thankfully, the physical plant is vastly improved since my day.) But we did good plays with good people and often, not always, but much of the time, we did good work. It was there I learned the most important thing a director can learn — and that is to tell the story, clearly, simply and honestly. Everything else is dressing. I think every director should have to do five seasons of two-week stock before they are allowed to get their SDC card!
Laughing Stock — my most produced play by far (100-plus productions) is a backstage comedy with a sentimental streak, set in a New Hampshire summer theatre in a 200-year-old barn. I don’t call it the Players — but it is a fictionalized, exaggerated, comic version to be sure. The names have been changed to protect the guilty! The play ends with the entire company singing “Auld Lang Syne” (as we used to do at the Players on the closing night of every season in the old days) and in response to a question from an intern, “What does ‘auld lang syne’ mean, anyway?” The answer to which, of course, no one really knows — but the simple and honest response from the senior members of the company is: “It’s about friendship” / “And not forgetting” / “And telling stories in a barn on a summer night.”
Is Hancock, your setting for The Granite State, a real town? Have you maintained a relationship with New Hampshire since?
Charles Morey: Yes, Hancock is a real town. It is about five miles north of Peterborough. Population 1,700 or so. It is the archetypal New England Village. We had a summer home there — a very rustic stone cottage on nine-plus acres — three and a half miles from the village. We bought it in 1982 when we were still living in New York and spending summers at the Players and we lived there all or part of every summer through 1995 and sporadically thereafter. We sold it in 2003 to put our son through college. The Granite State is laced with real local references. I thought for a brief second about fictionalizing the town and the references, but why? I think it makes it a very real place. At least in the writing it certainly grounded it very specifically for me.
Peterborough is Our Town territory, yes? Does that geographical connection to an American classic inspire you as an artist? Is there a literary vibe about New Hampshire?
Charles Morey: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. For my money Our Town is The Great American Play. I have directed it twice in Peterborough and twice at Pioneer. I played a (very young) Stage Manager in it at Peterborough in 1976 and then I directed it again and again played The Stage Manager in 1993 for the 60th anniversary of the theatre. (Both directing and acting for the first, last and only time in my career!) Doing Our Town in Peterborough (or anywhere really) is a spiritual experience. Very special…
Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town in Peterborough at the MacDowell Colony where he spent many summers and it is very definitely based on Peterborough, though Wilder would never tie it down to a specific spot as he wanted to keep the play as universal as possible. The latitude and longitude that the Stage Manager gives in the opening speech are actually in the Atlantic Ocean. But on the opening night of Our Town in Peterborough in 1976, Fletcher Dole, the model for Howie Newsome, was sitting in the front row, 90 some years old leaning forward on his cane and beaming. Mr. Dole owned a dairy farm on High Street, a few hundred yards from the MacDowell Colony and Wilder, an inveterate walker, would accompany him and his horse drawn wagon on his rounds many a summer morning in the early 1930s.
The first production of Our Town following the original Broadway production was at the Peterborough Players. Wilder was there and there are pictures of him working with the company. Somewhere there is a piece of film of me and the cast of the ’76 production doing the graveyard scene in the old Peterborough cemetery. Through a bizarre set of circumstances it was filmed for West German National Television as part of a documentary on the American Bicentennial. I actually got a residual from AFTRA for it a few years back!
In 2006, I applied and was accepted as a MacDowell Colony Fellow. When I arrived they took me down to the studio I would work in for the next six weeks and outside the door, there is a plaque saying that Edward Arlington Robinson had worked in Veltin Studioo for 24 summers between Nineteen something and Nineteen something else. I thought that was pretty cool and then I set to unpacking all my research materials on Byron, Shelley, et.al. (I wrote the first draft of The Yellow Leaf in Veltin.) A few minutes later, Blake Tewksbury, the wonderful ”‘man for all seasons” of the Colony, one of whose tasks is to deliver the daily lunch baskets, arrived at my door. I introduced myself and he said, “You know this is a famous studio?” “Oh, yes,” I said, “I saw that Edward Arlington Robinson was here.” “Yep, but did you know this is the studio where Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town?” I almost burst into tears. And I was afraid I would be so intimidated I wouldn’t be able to write a word. But the ghosts of Veltin — and the previous residents I ultimately learned included not only Wilder and Robinson, but Leonard Bernstein, Wendy Wasserstein, Stephen Vincent Benet, DuBose Heyward among many others — were very benevolent and I not only turned out a first draft of The Yellow Leaf but the second act of The Ladies Man.
So, yes, Peterborough, the MacDowell Colony and Our Town are rich in meaning and inspiration for me.
Where were you born and raised, and what was your first brush with theatre? School? Did your folks take you to the theatre?
Charles Morey: I was born in Oakland, California. I am a fourth generation Californian on my father’s side. My great grandfather left Maine for the California gold fields after the Civil War. We lived in the Bay Area until I was nine, moved to Portland, Oregon, then three and a half years later to Tacoma, Washington. My father was in the lumber business. I went to high school in Tacoma, then New Hampshire for college at Dartmouth and New York for graduate school at Columbia.
My parents didn’t take me to theatre much — though I do remember seeing Alfred Drake in the national tour of Kismet in San Francisco when I was about nine — and being amazed. In high school we went on school trips to the Seattle Rep in its earliest days a few times. I remember seeing The Crucible, The Firebugs and Man and Superman there. And we read a lot of plays in high school English classes in those days. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. But we read Shakespeare and Shaw and Miller and O’Neill and Williams; Moliere and Jules Romain in the original in French class.
But in the summer of 1963, I went on this amazing trip with a phenomenal teacher and two other students — and I could go on about this trip for 10 pages, about how important and formative it was — but part of that trip included a week in New York. We saw the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, which I remember distinctly. We saw the original production of Oliver and Beyond the Fringe and Paula Prentiss playing Viola in Twelfth Night in the Park. I fell in love with New York and kind of got hooked on theatre, too.
I was in a couple of high school plays, it being a small school and everybody kind of doing everything from the annual play to the literary magazine to the football team. I had not the slightest notion of going into the theatre. At age 17 I thought I was going to be the next great American poet and novelist and maybe write a couple of plays now and then. And I did write a couple of really, really bad, sophomoric, pretentious one-act plays. If I remember correctly one was sort of pseudo Beckett and the other pseudo Brecht. Can you imagine anything worse from a 17-year-old? But I had another wonderful English teacher who was very supportive of me as a young writer. He was the one who gave me permission in sense to think that I could be a writer someday. And he said, “You have some talent as a writer, but you have no idea even what a play is. If you really want to write plays, when you go off to college, get yourself into a play, carry a spear, build scenery, hang lights, you’ll begin to learn what theatre is about. Then maybe you’ll be able to write for the theatre.”
So I took his advice and in my Freshman year at Dartmouth, having declared myself an English major, I summoned the courage to go over to the Drama Department (then part of the English Department, actually. There was no Drama major. You could major in English with an emphasis in Dramatic Literature.) I auditioned for Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s Phedre and was cast quite literally as a spear carrier with no lines and a lot of body paint. (Incidentally, the very imposing senior playing Hippolytus in that production was Tell Schreiber — father of Liev and Pablo.)
Dartmouth was all male at the time and the only place there were any women was around the Drama Department — so they had the best parties on campus — and that kept me hanging around. And then in the Spring of my freshman year I got a role in an original student written one-act play called Assassination at Sarajevo and my task for most of that play was to sit in the back of the bar-room set and make-out with this very attractive Hanover High School senior girl — and I thought to myself, “This could be a dandy way to make a living.” So, I was seduced to the dark side. The idea of writing never really left, but didn’t re-surface until many years later after my career had evolved into directing and producing. And by that time I discovered that my old high school English teacher was right. I’d hung around the theatre long enough that I actually did know what a play was.
I started playwriting by adapting 19th-century novels to the stage, a great way, actually to kind of teach your-self the craft. And it all started with “The Three Musketeers.” I had been at PTC for three years or so. I loved the novel and the great Richard Lester films and thought it would be wonderful to tell that story on that big stage, so I went looking for a good adaptation. I couldn’t find one that I thought was even acceptable. But I had an idea how to approach the telling of that story on stage and decided to try to write it myself. It turned out to be pretty successful, got produced at some other theatres and that started me down the road.
What has been your greatest adventure since leaving Pioneer? Seeing your backstage comedy Laughing Stock translated into Russian?
Charles Morey: Seeing Laughing Stock (known as Balagan in Russian) in Moscow — where it has been running for over a year now — was astonishing. And there is now a second production in Pervouralsk, Russia, at the Variant Drama Theatre. Pervouralsk is in the Urals and the theatre calls itself “the last theatre in Europe.” I believe — and certainly hope — they mean that geographically not qualitatively.
Laughing Stock in Moscow was an amazing experience. The production is very different; the Russian directorial aesthetic being so very different from ours, not to mention the textual changes needed to translate the play into a very different culture. But the essence of the play is the same. They get enormous laughs where the play gets big laughs in English and the production has real heart as well. When it first opened they sent some of the reviews — which had been machine translated, you know, like “Google Translate” — which makes them unintentionally hysterical. My favorite was one that Google translated to: “I laughed until my arms were like windmills and at the end, the tears were screwed into my eyes.” Who can ask for better than that? And it is still running, most performances are sold out and every six months they send my agent a check!
But, I was there essentially as a tourist. I had no part in the production and don’t speak a word of Russian. They took great care of me, treated me royally. I ate pelmeni and drank vodka and kvass at the Café Pushkin and saw an astounding, a brilliant production of The Lady of the Camellias at the Pushkin Theatre all in dance and mime and I was very grateful and appreciative the theatre brought me over. It was an adventure to be sure — particularly navigating the Moscow Metro on my own — but it was not necessarily what I would call a creative adventure.
The Granite State is currently being translated into Russian. The translators (Olga Varshaver and Tatiana Tulchinsky) who translated Laughing Stock are hoping to sell it to a major theatre in St. Petersburg that is looking for a new translation of an American or English play to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of their leading actors with the company. Imagine that — a company that can celebrate an actor’s 50th anniversary as part of their resident company! Should this come to pass, I’m hoping for another trip to Russia, this time St. Petersburg!