Today marks 25 years since a play of mine about a pizza delivery man and his determinedly awkward customer was first performed. It was part of a writers' showcase based around food - the theatre producing it had recently moved to new premises in an area associated with eateries. The building's transformation from its previous use had not yet been completed, however, and perhaps because this event took place before the official opening there is little mention of it online. Which seems a pity to me - and I daresay five others might feel the same, though they will have to tell their own stories in their own doo wop-related blogs.
I remember my play with great fondness and pride, as it was a breakthrough of sorts. On and off, over the last two years, I'd been labouring over something much longer and had made the fatal mistake of directing most of my efforts into polishing and repolishing the dialogue before I really had a clear idea of the overall shape, of what it was about. A writing tutor summed up my plight with painful directness: "The trouble with your play," he said, "is it should be like this" - he drew an arrow on a paper napkin - "but it's like this" - I looked down at the oval he'd drawn. A literary manager felt the same: he initially used the tactful term "writerly" - but later, when I'd been redeemed by my fast food fantasia, the word "turgid" slipped out.
The pizza play was different - not just the resulting work but my approach to writing it. I had submitted a couple of ideas for consideration for the showcase, the other of which was in a similar mode to the earlier piece: would-be witty dialogue without any clear sense of characters' intentions.
Luckily the theatre chose the other submission, one which seemed so simple that I knew I could do it in my sleep. I knew the endings for each of the three scenes, and I think I had also sketched out the characters' wants and needs.
The result of having this solid grasp character and structure was that writing the dialogue came easily: I didn't have to strive to be clever or funny and the lines came without too much effort. They seemed right and the play felt all of a piece. (With the "turgid" opus the literary manager had asked at one point: "Which of these six plays do you want to write?")
I also benefitted from having the safety net of a close friend and writing buddy, whose opinions I trusted, and from being in a small writers' group with him at the time. One piece of advice I got from one of the group's sessions was useful: at one point one of the characters had left the room, and it was suggested to me that that would lessen the tension. The idea of their being trapped together made immediate sense and I went with it.
I also felt that perfect balance between involvement and distance which is the mark of the true artist: I knew that I wasn't the person depicted but it was very easy and natural and pleasurable to consider what verbal or other weapons I might deploy if I were in that situation.
I'm not sure whether it was a conscious decision but I wrote one scene per day, first thing in the morning. Earlier I had tried to begin at my place of work but immediately knew it was far too important to attempt with the ever-present threat of distraction in my lunch hour. Maybe, when I finally sat down to do the deed, I felt a mild tension over whether I could pull it off or maybe not; all I can say is that memory insists that the act of sitting down and writing on those three mornings made my toes tingle.
I wasn't allowed to be part of the rehearsal process other than speaking to the director over the phone in the evenings. I recall that at one point he expressed his surprise that I knew the details of the play so intimately; that surprised me. Didn't he realise that it was, well, rather important to me?
Anyway, it was duly put on and from the beginning worked very well, helped by having Dino's That's Amore ("When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie ...") as the introductory music to lull the audience into a sense of pleasurable anticipation. An accident of casting also helped: I had intended the pizza man to be Italian or Greek but the actor selected to play him didn't really look convincing as either, so I agreed with the suggestion that he should be Eastern European. Which added another layer: it suggested a reason for his standing and passively accepting the customer's mockery in a way that someone more secure about his position in the country wouldn't have tolerated - or not for long, anyway.
Having only had one piece on before, and only for a single performance, it was interesting to see how things changed from night to night. In each performance the dominoes would start to fall in a slightly different way, dictating the rest of the decisions the actors made. Sometimes the audience found matters immediately funny; on other occasions the mood was considerably darker right from the off.
The play was so well received that I had the momentary illusion that I was now standing on an "up" escalator and that henceforward success could not but attend my endeavours. It didn't, of course, and there have been any number of misfires or might-have-beens in the intervening years. Don't worry, I won't go into them in detail - you will doubtless have your own woes - but one of the reasons which may be worth mentioning here is that you can hold a one-act play in your hand, as it were, but a full-length piece involves more conscious deployment of craft, more consistent application, over a longer period of time ... and every step forward is also an opportunity for self-doubt, especially when a play is a considerable way down the line: has a decision altered the play for the worse in some way not immediately apparent?
But none of that was on my mind when I read the first review a day or two after that first performance. I'd missed it in that day's paper, but was handed a copy at the box office before I went in to see the play again. (I couldn't imagine being anywhere else during the run.) Having already been toiling at the craft for some years by then it felt like a vindication.