I arrived at my New York apartment last night after a longish stretch of time on the road and found a pile of unopened mail on the dining-room table. Most of it was instantaneously disposable—catalogues, uninteresting press releases, unwanted review copies—but no sooner did I see an inch-thick package from my theatrical agent than I pushed everything else aside and tore it open. It contained, as I expected, ten finished copies of the newly released acting edition of Satchmo at the Waldorf, my first play, forwarded to me from the publisher, the illustrous Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
The fourth page of the script tells the improbable story of Satchmo in three paragraphs whose just-the-facts-ma’am language conceals as much as it reveals:
The world premiere of SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF was presented by Shakespeare & Company (Tony Simotes, Artistic Director; Nicholas J. Puma, Jr., Managing Director) in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Long Wharf Theatre (Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Joshua Borenstein, Managing Director) in New Haven, Connecticut.
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF premiered Off-Broadway at the Westside Theater Upstairs, New York, NY, on March 4, 2014. It was produced by Long Wharf Theatre and Shakespeare & Company; and Scott & Roxanne Bok, Roz & Jerry Meyer, Karen Pritzker, Ronald Guttman, Shadowcatcher Entertainment, John LaMattina, Joey Parnes, S.D. Wagner, and John Johnson. It was directed by Gordon Edelstein; the set design was by Lee Savage; the costume design was by Ilona Somogyi; the lighting design was by Kevin Adams; the sound design was by John Gromada; and the production stage manager was Linda Marvel. It starred John Douglas Thompson.
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF was written at the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College in 2010 and extensively revised at the MacDowell Colony in 2012. A workshop performance of the first version of the play was presented by Rollins College in 2011, directed by the author and starring Dennis Neal. The first full production of this version was presented at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre in 2011, directed by Rus Blackwell and starring Dennis Neal.
What it reveals, to be sure, is significant enough. In addition to DPS, everyone mentioned in those three paragraphs—every person and every institution—dared to take a costly chance on an untested playwright whose “credentials” were dubious in the extreme. A new play by a drama critic? Who was I trying to kid? But I was serious, and so were they…and now I hold the proof in my hands. Not only has Satchmo at the Waldorf been published, but it’s been staged in Orlando, Lenox, New Haven, Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, with more stagings set for this season in Chicago, San Francisco, Colorado Springs, and West Palm Beach—the last of which, even more improbably, I’ll be directing myself.
What does that dry language conceal? Vast amounts of hope, fear, trembling, ecstasy, and—above all—unremitting work. It’s true that I wrote the first draft of Satchmo in less than a week, but that was in 2010, and I did it for a lark. And what happened between now and then? A week’s worth of fun turned into a five-year stretch of hard labor. Joyful, too: I wouldn’t trade an hour of it for anything in the world. But it’s an understatement to say that I had no idea what I was getting into when I sat down in Winter Park one January morning and typed the first words of the first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf.
So how do I feel today? Grateful without limit—and ready to start kicking the can down the road again.
I spent the week just past in Chicago, reviewing four shows for The Wall Street Journal and meeting with Charles Newell, the artistic director of the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre, who will be staging a new production of Satchmo in July. We talked about casting, looked at a preliminary model of the set, and discussed his ideas in detail. Rehearsals start on December 8. I’ll be there, fully prepared to roll up my sleeves and immerse myself yet again in the endless but blissful work that goes into getting the curtain up come opening night.
I can’t wait.