The following is an article from the Winter, 2002 Marquee newsletter published by StageSource in Boston. It is edited by Kate Kelly.
E-FORUM (with Boston-area playwrights RUSSELL LEES and JACK NEARY)
Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and where we may have seen your work.
Russell Lees: I'm originally from Salt Lake City, where my father was the entire theatre department at a small liberal arts college. Boston audiences may have seen my work at Boston Playwrights Theatre, Merrimack Rep or Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. I occasionally direct as well and was lucky to direct The Silver Coast at Boston Playwrights with some of Boston's best actors. I also directed ImprovBoston for a year or so in the early 90's.
Jack Neary: I've been working in theatre since the mid-seventies, as an actor, director, producer and playwright. I've been Artistic Director of the Summer Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, and I co-founded New Century Theatre in Northampton. My plays have been produced all over the country, including locally at the MRT, the Foothills Theatre, Theatre Lobby, and many community theatres. My plays FIRST NIGHT, TO FORGIVE, DIVINE and JERRY FINNEGAN'S SISTER might be recognizable to a few folks.
How did you become a part of the Boston Theatre Community?
RL: I landed here by chance and started taking classes in directing and playwrighting at Harvard Extension School from David Wheeler and Kate Snodgrass. Kate encouraged me to apply for Derek Walcott's playwriting program at BU and there you have it.
JN: By being born and raised in Lowell, and by pretty much staying close by, even though I've done a couple of stints in New York and in western Massachusetts.
Where do you find the most support as a playwright?
RL: It's a lonely, lonely job. Kate Snodgrass and the resources at Boston Playwrights have been a big support.
JN: Interesting question. I think I find the most support from my audience and my friends in the business. Yes, I have a couple of agents, and my work gets done relatively frequently, but the reason I'm still writing (without having scored that one big mega-blast success that those of us who do this crave) is because when I write a joke the audience laughs, and my friends encourage me to write more. I think some (not all) literary managers and dramaturgs find their noses tilting upwards in pain when they read scripts about non-dysfunctional people who happen to be funny. They call it "TV" and chuck it in the out-basket. I know, this makes me sound whiny, but I've always found literary managers and dramaturgs far more accessible after they've seen my stuff in front of an audience. And it's tough to get my stuff in front of an audience without the support of literary managers and dramaturgs who "get it" when they read it. Survival, then, becomes a bit of a challenge.
What was the first theatre piece you ever had produced? First piece in this area?
RL: My first play, Monday Night Football, was produced in a 70 seat theatre in Salt Lake City many, many years ago. It was back when it was hip to have lots of foul language and drug use on stage, and I actually did get some people to walk out. My first local production was The Case of the Blue Narcissus at Boston Playwrights in 1992. Cyndi Freeman, who's gone on to fame with her one-woman shows, was featured in that production.
JN: My very first play was called THE THICKEST PLOT and it was produced at Smith College when I was a graduate student there. My play FIRST NIGHT was produced in one-act form at a festival at the Foothills Theatre in Worcester in 1985, featuring Mark Cartier, Donna Asali, and directed by Nancy Kindelan, all Boston theatre veterans.
What do you think about the concept that one must go to New York to be taken seriously as a theatre professional?
RL: It's certainly not true for playwrights. It may be that to be taken seriously, a playwright needs a New York production at some point, but there's no big advantage to actually living there.
JN: Well, it depends on the individual professional's definition of being taken seriously. Of course, anyone can be taken seriously anywhere if he or she is serious and is willing to be taken. However, my experience as a writer is that you can have all the plays you want published and produced, but until one script is given the NYC imprimatur, it remains an uphill struggle. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it's harder and faster than most rules I know.
How do you feel about the efforts made to produce new works in the local theatre community?
RL: There's quite a bit of activity in support of new works in this town. A local playwright who's determined has opportunities at the venues at the BCA, Centastage, Boston Playwrights, and other places as well. It also seems like local audience interest in new works is finally growing. I think the tricky bit in Boston is that, once you get a production in a smallish space, what do you do then? There's no clear path to getting other productions or to moving a production to a larger, more commercial space. I've always thought that it would be of enormous benefit if some of the local companies who produce new work were able to develop relationships with off-off-Broadway companies. In this way, successful local productions and plays would have some path to the greater exposure of a New York production.
JN: Unfortunately, I've not taken advantage of the seemingly growing opportunities being made available by some of the local theatres. I've tended to introduce my new plays in western Massachusetts theatres where I've worked for many years. I have, however, been very fortunate to have been part of the Boston Theater Marathon of ten-minute plays every year so far, and I find it an exhilarating experience. I don't know how many writers have been approached by producers and artistic directors who have seen work at the Marathon, but it seems to me to be a great place for A.D.s to find local playwrights they might want to work with, and perhaps even commission. There's always the possibility that the new sentimental two-character romantic comedy commissioned will make a big splash and pay a sponsoring theatre's rent for many years to come. End of commercial.
What are your thoughts on the Boston Theatre Marathon? Have you ever seen anything like it anywhere else?
RL: It's unique. Other places have 10-minute play evenings and the like, but as far as I know, a play marathon that brings together a city's entire theatre community in all its reaches exists nowhere else.
JN: See above.
Do you get to see much local theatre?
RL: I do get to pretty much local theatre. I like theatre in small venues, and have lots of friends involved in productions at Boston Playwrights. I live in the building that houses the Threshold Theatre, which often has good productions. Also, I can walk from my place to the BCA in about 20 minutes, so I go there a lot. I get to the Peabody House in Somerville with some regularity as well.
JN: Not as much as I should. And I apologize.
Do you have a "wish list" of services or opportunities that you think might be realistic in Boston with some help (from StageSource or anyone else)?
RL: You know, I really don't.
JN: Not really. I think StageSource has already contributed greatly to the dialogue. Bottom line, though, is that writers have to write and hope that producers and artistic directors continue to allow the occasional non-NYC-ordained piece to be born in Boston. I know it does happen, and I trust it will happen even more often. I also trust that the traditional script, the well-made-play as it's been called, will not dismissed out of hand without serious consideration. Just because a play has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a few good jokes, and nobody dies or has cancer or is a serial killer, doesn't mean it's not worth putting in front of an audience.
Russell Lees’ play NIXON’S NIXON will be performed at the Huntington Theatre Company March 1 - March 31, 2002.
Jack Neary will direct LEND ME A TENOR for the Lyric Stage Company of Boston with performances running April 19 - May 18, 2002.