reg e. gaines in conversation with Richard Wesley
Presented by the African American Cultural Committee of the Montclair Art Museum
Thursday, Oct. 10, 7-9 p.m.
MAM, 3 South Mountain Ave.
By GWEN OREL
How do you get your play to Broadway?
For one thing, don’t focus on Broadway. Focus on the story. Find your community.
Those are some of the takeaways Tony and Grammy Award-nominated playwright, poet and lyricist reg e. gaines and playwright and screenwriter Richard Wesley will give during their talk at the Montclair Art Museum on Thursday, Oct. 10.
gaines (his name is in lower case to distinguish himself from another member of the Screen Actors Guild who has the same name) is the writer of the book and lyrics to “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk,” the 1996 Tony Award-winning musical with choreography by Savion Glover.
Wesley is a Broadway-produced playwright himself, with “The Mighty Gents” in 1978.
The conversation is sponsored by MAM’s African American Cultural Committee, and admission is free.
Audiences will also hear excerpts from gaines’ new musical “The 88.”“The 88” had a workshop at Luna Stage in West Orange in the fall of 2017. Audiences will hear some music from gaines’ team (which includes brother Calvin, sister Shelly, Mark Wilson on piano, and gaines and Layla Davias performing).
He is wearing a producer’s hat now, he said, raising money to rent a theater and have a 21-show performance, hopefully in the winter of 2020.
“The script is done, the music’s done, the casting’s done,” gaines said, from his home in Los Angeles.
Poetry theater is a staple of what gaines does, and he teaches spoken-word poetry in schools as well. A documentary titled “Instant Art” about his workshops is coming out soon.
A “straight” — or nonmusical — play, “Tiers” will have a workshop production at Yendor Theatre Company in Jersey City on Oct. 9. And gaines has also been commissioned to write a play about the late Amiri Baraka, titled “No Dutchman.”
He has New Jersey roots, though: he grew up in Jersey City, and three of his 10 siblings live in Montclair.
Wesley, a Montclair resident, is an associate professor in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and has lately written two opera libretti. His play “Autumn” premiered at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick in 2015, and a subsequent production in NYC received the AUDELCO Award for Dramatic Production of the Year. He is married to the novelist Valerie Wilson Wesley.
THINK LIKE A PRODUCER
Wearing a producer’s hat is something playwrights need to consider, gaines said. Looking for a suitable space for a show is part of that. He’s talking to the president of Bloomfield College about using their space, and also looking at a space in Jersey City.
But the first thing a playwright needs to think about?
“Just get it done,” he said. “Get it as close to perfect as you the playwright think it can be before you start showing it around.”
Next, workshop it or let other people read it. And most importantly: tell the story. “No matter what form or structure you use, form and structure are second place to the story. Finish as much as you possibly can.”
And for musicals, that means involving lyricists and composers from day one: they are part of the story, not an afterthought. “When the seed pops up in your mind, reach out to the set designer, the composer, the choreographer immediately. Get them in on the ground floor,” he said. While theater is collaborative, “Everybody’s got to be on the same path, have the same vision.”
Once the story is in great shape, “You gotta hear it,”he said. “As soon as you hear the audio, you are going to change it. Get the voices and let it rip.
“If you are not saying it out loud when you are writing it, you are slowing down the process. Then you have to hear different voices, different rhythms, different styles saying the words.
You can spend a long time writing a play, and think it’s perfect, then hear it… the first thing that happens to me is I realize could do a better job than just selecting words. I could put in a word that puts more pictures in people’s minds.”
And then, he said, he has to consider would that character say that word. Or is the play written in a heightened language, more like Shakespeare?
“It’s a lot of work,” gaines said.
Playwrights should not be afraid to put up their own work, too, Wesley said. “What you’re trying to do is, you’re trying to grow your audience.” So if you do present your own work, or even have a reading, have a mailing list. Begin with a little notebook at the front of the house, he suggested. And the next time you present something, contact everyone, he said.
Soon you’ll have an audience. “That’s your first publicity,” he said.
“I never submitted anything anywhere in my life,” gaines said. “I’m used to figuring out a way to get it done.” He’s never had an agent either, though he said it’s probably good to have one.
Instead, his productions have come through community connections.
“Tiers,” which takes place in the early ’70s, is about four African American men who meet once a week to play cards and their “failure to think before they speak, which leads to deadly circumstances,” gaines said. He wrote it about 10 years ago. It’s had a workshop at the Bowery Poetry Club and Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York, and then he put it away. The time wasn’t right for the language, gaines thought.
In “The 88,” gaines said, “I’m just trying to tell a story about my grandma. It happened by chance. I have 10 Gaines siblings. Seven of us were at Calvin’s house for Thanksgiving. Somebody started talking about being taken to the theater when young, then someone else. We all went down to the studio and recorded at least one story each.”
He took the stories home to California, and began a piece about his grandmother Marcella, who was “obsessed with taking us to plays, ballets and museums. She did it to show us we belonged to these places.”
Putting the material together was gaines’ “Chorus Line” way of working. The 1976 Pulitzer-prize-winning musical about dancers was famously created by Michael Bennett from taped sessions with dancers.
Playwrights who want to see their work on stage should stay local at first, Wesley and gaines agree.
“When you hear it and think it’s good, then reach out to your community, whoever your community is. Invite them into your living room, for a reading or a workshop. Wherever you live. I wouldn’t go more than a 5-mile radius. Kickstarter and gofundme are all well and good but you can go to friends, door to door,” gaines said. “There has got to be 100 people who know what you do. Reach out to them first.
“If I write a play about carjacking in Newark, New Jersey, and I live in Newark, I have no business going to Montclair,” gaines said.
Wesley also emphasized working with personal connections. “Find a theater that has a special affinity for your work,” Wesley said. “It doesn’t have to be some major regional. It can be as small as a community theater. But as long as they understand what your work is about, and understand you as a writer, that’s the first thing, that’s the most important thing.”
For Wesley, getting to production, beyond a reading, is particularly important. “Every writer needs the opportunity to see their work mounted. Seeing your work performed before a live audience, witnessing the audience’s reactions, and the excitement and pleasure that you get when the audience reacts exactly the way you hoped … and yes there’s the horror when they don’t. … But even that is a learning tool,” he said with a laugh. “In fact I think it’s so much more educational for a writer than just simply being in a workshop, and having the workshop instructor say well you know if you tweak this scene this way or if you change these words over here.”
Workshops and instructions are important for new writers, but by the time a writer is on his or her third play, Wesley said, “I think it’s time you saw that play standing up.”
The community can help with ideas, funding, seed money, rehearsal spaces, and actors. You want to make sure what you’ve written is a low-risk investment, gaines said.
Playwrights should also find institutions that can help them. “How many playwrights write a play and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to approach local colleges and see if the theater department would be interested in my next play’?” gaines said.
His sister Phyllis, who teaches at a high school in Tampa, Florida, is workshopping a few numbers from “The 88” with her students. That’s a workshop that costs nothing for the show.
And, Wesley said, there is no road map to follow.
People think there’s a formula, but there isn’t, he said. Wesley’s play “The Mighty Gents” had been produced at Manhattan Theatre Club.
“There was some interest in perhaps moving it to the Public Theater with Joe Papp, but that didn’t work out. I was really concentrating on what my next play was going to be. Out of nowhere, here comes Jim Lipton.” Lipton (“Inside the Actors Studio”) had come to see it based on its good reviews. Lipton, affiliated then with Madison Square Garden productions and the Shuberts, said, “I think this play needs to be on Broadway.”