Play production journal: Shaina

The first two plays I ever wrote were Jewish plays. Well, sort of.

I don't really like how messy life is, but it is messy, and so I need to clarify this. The first play I ever properly wrote was called "Santa Muerte," and I wrote it for a program for homeless teenagers run by Shelley Winters in Hollywood in the early 90s. But it wasn't so much a play as a series of scenes created out of unstructured improvs, Shelley didn't like it, I didn't like it, it was never produced, and so I don't think of it as being my first play.

No, my first play was written just as "Santa Muerte" was falling apart. I had taken a trip home to Minneapolis and discovered a few pages of something I forgot I had written, and I quickly expanded it into an epic stage play called ""The Substitute Bride."

While the play superficially was a sequel to "Alice in Wonderland," I had been reading a lot of Yiddish theater in translation, and so "The Substitute Bride" is, in its not-well-hidden heart of hearts, my attempt to write a Yiddish play in translation. There is an actual Purim shpiel in it, in the form of a folk tale about Vashti, the first wife of  Persian King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther. Most of the plays characters are Eastern European and unsubtly coded as Jewish, and there is even an armadillo who repeatedly cries out phrases I lifted from Yiddish plays.

I was even more explicit in my next play, "Kishinev," a retelling of the Kishinev pogrom in the form of a Jewish folk tale about a Hasidic woman who marries a rebbe and takes charge of his followers when he dies. This is loosely based on my own family history, as my mother's family came from Kishinev and from an important Hasidic line. There is a lot of Yiddish in the play, and a lot of folklore, and a lot of dramatic scenes I lifted from actual Jewish history.

Neither of these plays have ever been produced, although "The Substitute Bride" had a reading in Hollywood that featured a lot of television actors, and "Kishinev" has a public reading in Manhattan a couple of years ago. Both plays are, by modern standards, largely unproducable, as they feature massive casts and expensive stage action. It took me years to learn how to write a play that can be produced on the cheap.

I did learn, though, writing small plays for tiny casts set in single locations. These shows were not Jewish; my most successful play retold the true and awful story of the lynching of an African-American man in Omaha in 1919. I have written plays inspired by the lives of Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, and Oscar Wilde. I worked at a historical society for three years and this led to writing plays based in local history about Chief Standing Bear and Buffalo Bill Cody.

And, for my own amusement, I wrote a series of plays about performers who have lost their minds attempting to appear in productions that are falling apart around them. These have been really tiny shows, and and have had appropriately tiny productions: One, called "A Stage Reading," was produced in someone's backyard. One, called "NSFW," was produced at the back of a bar. And one, called "Basement Porn Party," was actually produced in a basement.

About a year ago I decided I wanted to start writing Jewish plays again. I had started studying Yiddish, and had also been reading about the various odd forms that Yiddish performance took in the mid-20th century, and so I wrote a play called "Shaina" that, like my other plays, was about a performance falling apart.

The play is somewhat hard to describe. The main character, Shaina, comes from a long career on the margins of Yiddish performance. She has been in Yiddish plays at vegetarian Communist theaters, appeared on a Yiddish radio soap opera about pickle millionaires called "Who Thinks They're Hoitsy Toitsy Now," and wound up performing Yiddish bawdy songs in bathhouses. (This last detail is inspired by Bette Midler, who actually did perform in bathhouses.)

The play climaxes with Shaina hired by Jerry Lewis to write and appear in a Yiddish version of his notorious Holocaust film "The Day the Clown Cried," which somehow she manages to make worse. Now, for the sake of establishing this early on to avoid litigation: I have never seen "The Day the Clown Cried" (nobody has), and the version of the film that appears in my play is both invented and parodic. I also think it ends up being unexpectedly respectful of Jerry Lewis, even considering that his appearance in the play is limited to Shaina doing a terrible impression of him.

So anyway, a few months ago I entered the local Fringe Festival, which happens to be the largest non-juried festival in America, and wound up getting a slot. So I am producing "Shaina."

I am not normally a theater producer. I usually prefer to write plays and then  have nothing to do with them, except for showing up a few times to see them. But I have produced plays, or, more often, small theatrical events, and I had a large hand in producing my first play. I will also be directing this production, which I have done a little of, although I might request some assistance on this. And I will be appearing in it, although my role is small and mostly limited to playing a few songs on ukulele.

Oh, did I mention this is a musical? It's a musical. I've written the lyrics for the songs but have not written the melodies yet, but all of my plays are musicals and I have written an awful lot of songs in the past. (If you really dig, you can also find some albums I put out.)

This means that there is an awful lot of work ahead of me before the play actually debuts in August. So I will be keeping a diary of the production of the play, in part just to keep me on track. First, I need to make a list of what I need to do for the show, and that's my moment to shine.

I may not be good at much, but boy can I make a list.