Monday, June 27, 2011

And The Winner Is. . .

I know everyone has been waiting with bated breath since I announced the finalists for Montgomery Theater Too’s Adaptation Competition last March. Well, it’s June now and as promised we’ve got a winner: Fairy Tale High School by Bill D’Agostino! Bill isn’t exactly new to the MT community - he served as Tom’s dramaturg on last year’s production of Alice in Wonderland – but this is the first time he’s lending us his playwriting skills. So without further ado, ladies and gentleman I give you an interview with Bill...

Q: What is your hometown?
A: Chappaqua, NY, a New York City suburb. It used to be known (when it was known) as the worldwide home for Reader’s Digest. Now it’s where the Clintons live.

Q: Current Town?
A: Byrn Mawr, PA.

Q: Tell me about Fairy Tale High School.
A: Fairy Tale High School imagines what it would be like if all your favorite fairy tale characters - Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jack, etc. - were all in high school together, taking classes and getting into trouble. The witch teaches students to cook children who eat their house, the track team run laps around a beanstalk, and everyone (predictably) lives happily ever after.
FTHS began life as a sketch for a class of youngsters I taught in Harrisburg, when I was a company member for Gamut Theatre Group. The kids at the time were obsessed with High School Musical, and I wanted to write them something they’d be excited about reading. At the same time, I was also performing in funny and quick fairy tale adaptations with the company.
When Montgomery Theater announced its playwriting competition this year, I knew it was time to expand that initial germ of an idea until it became a full-fledged disease.
The play also owes huge debts to Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods, which was one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw.

Q: Who is Bill? Are you an actor? Playwright? Performer? All of the above?
A: I’m just the boy who can’t say no - to theatre, that is.
I got my BA from Brown University with a theatre concentration and my master's degree in theatre from Villanova University. For theatres across the country, I've acted (mostly playing clowns and pompous anti-heroes), directed (mostly new plays), taught and written.
Currently, my day job is the Communications and Education Director for Act II Playhouse in Ambler, where I also serve as dramaturg for many of the productions. That means I help do research, gathering background material to inform the work of the director, actors and designers. Last year, I was the dramaturg for Montgomery Theater's production of Alice in Wonderland, helping director Tom Quinn with his adaptation, and I’ll also be dramaturg for Montgomery Theater’s upcoming comedy Big Boys.
I was also a professional journalist for seven years, which I mostly did because I wanted to know more about the world to write better plays.

Q: How did you start writing?
A: My freshman year at Horace Greeley High School, I fell in love with theatre while playing Wally Webb in Our Town. Later that year, I asked my mom to enroll me in a summer theatre camp for high school students at SUNY Purchase. In selecting classes, I had to choose between musical theatre and playwriting. Since I couldn’t sing, I chose the playwriting class, and a new lifelong obsession was born. So really, I owe my love of writing to the fact that I’m tone deaf.

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The fact that most of my friends in theatre can’t afford to pay off their college loans. Theatre is chronically underfunded in this country, which is why in curtain speeches we are constantly thanking our generous donors.

Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: In no particular order: Tony Kushner, John Guare, Anton Chekhov, Paula Vogel, Suzan Zeder, Bertolt Brecht, William Shakespeare, Michael Hollinger, Charles Ludlam, Thornton Wilder, Oscar Wilde, Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Mary Zimmerman and a bunch of others I'm probably forgetting right now.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre that’s original and fun. Theatre that gets my pulse beating. Theatre that's REALLY well constructed. Or really messy and exciting. Theatre that questions why things are the way they are.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: See lots of theatre. You learn just as much from bad plays as good ones. In fact, the bad ones will probably boost your confidence as you think, “I can write something better than this.”

Q: Plugs, please. Any other upcoming projects?
A: I’ll be serving as dramaturg for Act II’s Fall production of Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, directed by Harriet Power. It happens to be starring the lovely and talented Jessica Bedford, Montgomery Theater’s Director of Education and a classmate at Villanova University’s Masters of Theatre program. She plays an adorable stray dog. (For reals!) So I’ll be driving up to Souderton for Fairy Tale High School rehearsals while she’ll be riding down here to Ambler for Sylvia performances. We’ll probably pass and wave on Route 309.

Monday, June 20, 2011


by Tony Braithwaite
Growing up, I learned that nothing is ever, "merely," funny. To my family, funny is a commodity, funny is an ace of trump, funny is a defense mechanism, funny is a gift, and funny is a life force. Then, and even now, my family members and I don't say I love you to one another very often. Rather, we try to make each other laugh. If we can make each other laugh, we can make each other feel loved. In short, we say, "I laugh you."
When I was a little boy my mom and dad came home from seeing Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and said I should play Eugene Morris Jerome one day. When I was in 8th grade I saw my first Broadway non-musical, The Odd Couple (Female Version) with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno. And when it was clear during my adolescence that I was a hypochondrical neurotic neat freak, I realized that Neil Simon had written the role of Felix Ungar for me 17 years before I was born.
Prisoner of 2nd Avenue marks the 4th time in my career that I have actually been in one of Simon's plays. In the fall of 1997 I was in Biloxi Blues at the Hedgerow Theatre in Media (where I did get to tackle Eugene Jerome, albeit in Brighton's sequel); a year later I played Lenny in Rumors at the same theatre; and just 2 years ago at The Kimmel Theatre I played Felix Ungar at last (having done scenes from The Odd Couple in college and a reading of it for 1812 Productions).
In short, I've been a huge fan of Neil Simon for many years.
I laugh his plays a lot.
Every time I am lucky enough to be in a Neil Simon play I am always struck by the same things: how relatable and familiar his characters feel (is it any wonder that Jack Lemmon, known for decades as the American Everyman, played so many Simon roles?), how perfectly crafted his writing seems (It's often compared to symphony music), and of course how damn hilarious he is.
I'd venture to say that no one in the history of the American Theatre has written as many laugh lines as Neil Simon. There's just been no one funnier. Theatre snobs often decry Simon's plays as trite populace fare, "merely," because he's funny. (Ironically they're often the same people who often ascribe to the theatre mantra, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.") This always amazes me because no one would ever look at Jerry Seinfeld or Johnny Carson and say the same thing - that they were, "merely," funny. In fact, when Seinfeld 's tv show went off the air it was uniformly lauded for being so ground-breaking and successful even though it was, "just a bunch of neurotic New Yorkers sitting around an apartment; just a show about nothing." The New York Times helpfully countered by pointing out that Neil Simon had been writing plays of that exact ilk for years.
From Vaudeville on, so much in American comedy is based on rhythms. A lot of American comedy today (stand-up, sit coms, and even things like South Park) is based on not only on the comedic situations involved but, perhaps more importantly, on the economy of words and the rhythm of the punch lines. There's a science to this, and Simon gets that. Too many syllables and the joke falls flat. Change just one word in the sentence and it triggers a laugh not present before. Simon has even said that some words may be considered inherently funny. Consonant plosives - that is words that start suddenly or "explosively" - p, b, t, d, k, and g - are often considered the funniest sounds in the English language. In the 1996 video Caesar's Writers, Simon discusses writing for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, and a skit in which Imogene Coca places a bet on a roulette wheel. For an hour the writers tried out various numbers before deciding "32" was the funniest number Coca could say. With such craftsmanship, how could any of that be considered merely funny?
In that great tradition Prisoner of 2nd Avenue is very non-merely funny, in part because it's also surprisingly moving and very timely. You'll see echoes of The Out of Towners, The Odd Couple, and maybe even Barefoot in the Park, and you'll also see some of the darker themes present in Simon plays like Lost in Yonkers and The Dinner Party. At its heart, Prisoner is about the struggle of a man and his wife to cope with the pressures of the day - finances, employment, marriage, family, and even noisy slash nasty neighbors. The couple uses humor as one of their great unitive resources and as one of their best defenses.
That's something I imagine many of us relate to.
I know I laugh it a lot.