I’m spending the week in Orlando, Florida, having flown down from New York last Saturday to attend the final rehearsals of Satchmo at the Waldorf, my first play, which opens on Thursday. I’ve spent fourteen of the past forty-eight hours sitting in a rehearsal room, watching Dennis Neal and Rus Blackwell, the star and director, pull the script off the page and put it on the stage.
I’m staying in the same Rollins College-owned condo where I wrote the first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf a year and a half ago during my first stint as a scholar-in-residence at the Winter Park Institute. Except for the (temporary) absence of Mrs. T, it felt like home as soon as I unlocked the front door. Indeed, I know my way around Winter Park so well that I drove to the grocery store two nights ago without benefit of GPS. No sooner did I roll my shopping cart into the store than I heard somebody calling out to me. “Hey, you’re Terry Teachout!” he said. “How’s the play going? I’ll be there on opening night!” That felt good.
Rehearsing a play is a fascinating process, at once grueling and exhilarating—and, in my case, instructive. I already knew how good Dennis was, but Rus’ directorial gifts have proved to be illuminating. He has an uncanny sense of the show’s visual line, and I’m learning something new each time he tinkers with the blocking or gives Dennis a note about his performance.
Tomorrow we load the show into the theater and hang the set. I have to spend the whole morning writing Friday’s Wall Street Journal column, but I’m going to head over and join the crew as soon as the column is filed. I don’t want to miss any of the fun. Needless to say, it’s going to be a busy week, but I’ll do my best to blog between now and then about the process of putting the show on stage. (I’ll also be be tweeting about the rehearsals at @terryteachout and in the “Terry’s Twitters” module of the right-hand column.)
In the meantime, here’s the author’s note that will appear in the printed program:
Louis Armstrong, the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century, was a deeply happy, fundamentally optimistic man who was rarely seen without a smile—in public. But there was more to him than met the eye. Between 1947 and his death in 1971, Armstrong taped hundreds of after-hours conversations with his wife, friends, and colleagues in which he revealed a very different side of his personality. Some of these tapes are startlingly intimate, and many of them contain language that Armstrong never used on stage. I made use of the tapes in writing Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, my 2009 biography, and they later inspired me to write this play, in which Dennis Neal portrays both Armstrong and Joe Glaser, the trumpeter’s longtime manager, who was as complex a character as Armstrong himself.
Satchmo at the Waldorf is a work of fiction, but it is based on and informed by the facts of both men’s lives, and though I made up most of the dialogue, it closely resembles the way that Armstrong and Glaser talked in private.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do….
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To hear a radio interview in which Dennis Neal and Rus Blackwell talk about Satchmo at the Waldorf, go here.