Last week Barbara Ross posted some wonderful photos from the Portland Stage Company event on March 5th, where actors performed staged readings of work by Lea Wait, Dick Cass, Chris Holm, Barb and me.
As Barb said, it was a joy to have our work read by such skilled actors and to take the stage together for the post-performance audience discussion led by the terrific Bess Welden. Unfortunately, Lea was unable to be there in person. Her scene from Twisted Threads was the final piece of the night, and the audience ate it up.
This is the second year I’ve had the opportunity to participate in this Portland Stage collaboration, and both times I’ve come away with a deeper understanding of the characters I write. You might wonder how that could be. After all, I birthed Joe Gale and all my other literary babies. How could watching a bunch of actors read the words I put in my characters’ mouths give me greater insight into their hearts and minds? Because seeing other people interpret my work pries it from my strong fingers, and gives my imaginary friends an existence independent of me.
Like a mother watching her six-year-old get on the school bus, it’s a good thing.
The challenge inherent in the exercise is to identify a scene capable of standing alone, a ten-minute excerpt with a coherent beginning, middle and end, a narrative arc and an emotional one, too.
My scene was from Cover Story, the second book in my Joe Gale series, in which Joe goes to Machias in the dead of winter to cover a high-profile murder trial.
Rob Cameron took on the role of shaggy-haired Joe, who submits himself to a haircut at the barbershop operated by ex-Marine Claude LeClair. Three lines in, I nearly jumped out of my seat.
I’ve long held an image in my mind of my main character, not just his build and face, but his attitude as well. In Rob Cameron’s gestures and tone of voice, Joe Gale came alive—a bulldog reporter with a kind heart, protected by the sarcastic sense of humor that is a journalist’s armor.
As for mad barber Claude LeClair, actor Andrew Harris hit all the marks in his portrayal of the angry, opinionated father-in-law of the man on trial for murdering a DHHS caseworker.
A side benefit of re-tooling a scene from a book to be read on stage is the chance to add and subtract from the written page in order to make a performance fly. Last year the adapting process was a bit intimidating. This year it felt like freedom.
Starting from the assumption that many in the audience hadn’t read Cover Story, I transformed a low-key character from the book’s barbershop scene —Claude’s brother-in-law Lenny, a man of few words—into his sharp-tongued sister-in-law, Mary Lou.
Actor Moira Driscoll got what I was going for when I gave Lenny a literary sex change and attitude adjustment.
In fact, Moira did such a good job reading her part as Claude’s needling antagonist I wish I could go back in time and put Mary Lou in the book.
I hope the partnership between Portland Stage Company and Maine’s crime writers continues for a long time to come.
Huge props go to Director Eileen Phelan, who chooses the scenes, casts the parts and works with the writers and the actors to achieve collaborative success.
Creative and community-minded, she is the engine behind this effort. Thank you, Eileen, for your support and inspiration.
Readers of this blog should take note that every winter season, PSC stages a mystery, and these staged readings featuring the work of Maine crime writers grew out of that annual tradition. This year the crime-themed play is Red Herring, which runs through March 25.
Here’s the storyline: Maggie’s a tough, Boston cop, trying to get her finger on the one man who gave her the slip: a sly crime boss who worked his way into her heart. As she deals with murder, mystery, and intrigue in Boston Harbor, she also has to deal with Frank, an FBI gumshoe with a proposal more dangerous than commie spies, murderous mobs, and McCarthyism combined: marriage.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? There are twelve days left in its run. Here’s the link for tickets: https://portlandstage.secure.force.com/ticket#details_a0Sj00000051DQvEAM