For the past month I have been producing and directing a new play called Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier, written by my friend Bill di Canzio. Bill and I know each other from Philly Theatre circles, and he used to teach at Haverford College, very near my Quaker meeting. I was in a reading if his play Hindustan and ever since, he has periodically sent me his plays mostly for feedback, but also, I think, because he thought I could somehow get one produced in a Philly theater. I like his writing, but nothing he had sent me had ever grabbed me with any urgency. Then, in November of 2007, he sent me Johnny. Two days later I called him and said, I have to work on this play with you.
I wasn’t sure what I meant by that, but we decided we needed to test it in front of an unbiased audience. So in the spring of last year, I pulled together actors for a reading at Haverford College and Bill got funding to pay people. I rehearsed it in one day and we presented it one night in March 2008 on the giant stage of Roberts Hall, a large concert hall on campus. We had wonderful actors, and the response of the audience of about 250 convinced us that play, as we say, had legs. In short, they laughed, they cried.
For six months, Bill and I, assisted by Randolph Rand who played the Prisoner in the reading, schemed away at producing a small production of it in Philadelphia in the fall of 2008. But the the economy tanked and we quickly realized we had picked the worse time in recent memory to ask people to give money to produce an unknown play. Just when it felt like all hope was lost, my friend Lenny Haas swooped in and gave us $15,000 from the Haas charitable foundation. Then Amaryllis Theatre offered us space to rehearse and perform in May/June of ’09 for cheap. So we came up with a new idea, which is really an old idea: that we produce a week-long, modest production of the play, a production known in our circles as a “showcase”.
We agreed that we weren’t going to take advantage of anyone, and so our first financial priority was to come up with an amount we would pay actors, designers and a stage manager which seemed fair to us and more than what actors at least would be accustomed to receiving as a fee for this kind of production. With that amount settled, we set up auditions during the run of Scorched, and I met with prospective designers and stage managers. The result is an astonishing array of talent working on this brand new play.
The link at the top of this post will take you to the Johnny website, where you can learn more about what the play’s about. In short, it’s a love story with an anti-war theme, using the Iraq conflict as the backdrop. Bill’s years teaching teenagers and young adults has given him an uncanny ear for the way young people speak, and in Dan and Sarah, the two leads, he has created two deeply affecting characters. But the play is book smart too, and the encounter Dan has with an astonishing Iraqi prisoner introduces Homer to a play which already echoes Romeo and Juliet and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I feel that Bill has written a play which speaks passionately against war, and specifically against that war, without being didactic. It also treats the lives of military families with deep affection, and succeeds in being anti-war but not anti-soldier.
To date, we have raised roughly an additional $3000. I been budgeting and this morning, slaving over a rehearsal schedule. I scheduled three read-though/rehearsals in advance of our scant two week rehearsal time. These allowed the cast to meet regularly over a month’s time, get to know each other and become deeply familiar with the entirely of the play, its rhythms, transitions, peaks and valleys. From those read-throughs, I have given the actors notes, but beginning May 19th, I will finally be able to work on scenes, slowly, digging more deeply. The designers and I have been meeting too, and we have come up with an approach to presenting the play in the intimate dimensions of the Playground using a flexible set design, moody lighting and live music.
I am alternately excited and overwhelmed, and it has felt a lot more like producing than directing thus far. This is the down week before the whole thing lifts into another level, riding a rolling path with gathering momentum, leading inexorably to opening night, 8:00 p.m. Thursday June 4th.
Johnny-post 1, originally published Tuesday, May 12, 2009