- See more at: http://www.bloggerhow.com/2012/07/implement-open-graph-in-blogger-blogs.html#sthash.xZkXNjhB.dpuf W. Simmons & Associates: Talking Woman: the official record

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Talking Woman: the official record

By Kevin Six

The Hollywood Theatre.
Amazing things often happen without there being a definitive record, making the subsequent history report of these amazing things all the more difficult.  This was the case with the Hollywood Theatre, a vaudeville house that spanned the time from the end of San Diego's Wild West origins to its tourtist- destination and military-readiness state of the late forties and early fifties.

Mark Hiss's play Talking Woman takes place in this precarious place, and, by doing so, honors and blesses this odd time in San Diego's history.  But it is not the definitive work of reporting on this time; it is a work of art and, as such, asks as many questions as it answers.

This is good, because that is what art is designed to do -- send us scurrying to the library, the archives, to find an older person who lived in those days...

So the play Talking Woman is not the report of the times and this post is not either.  It is only a faithful reporting of the history of the early development of the play -- from the first draft to the end of the first staged reading.  I believe this is as odd, as explosive, as dangerous, and as dramatic as the art of playwriting gets.  Writers of plays are called playwrights for a reason.

Plays are more wrought than written.  Some playwrights say plays write themselves but I believe that well-wrought characters take on a life of their own.  I also believe that the balance of power has its first tip during the showcase process.  I had the dubious distinction of being the early champion of this piece and, as it turns out, the second person to whom Mark sent the play.

This is the only hint you get.
In his frenzy of creation, in the euphoria that comes from completing a piece, Mark sent it to the artistic leader of a local regional theatre -- well before it was ready to be seen.  The good news is that this artistic leader is ill equipped to answer unsolicited e-mails, even from loyal former employees.  So no harm, no foul.

When I got the play it was too long by two thirds.  It was three plays.  One, a tale of love against the seedy backdrop of a city coming of age; the second, a period musical about 40s burlesque (you think I'm joking but there's more to support this later); and the third a history lesson about San Diego through the eyes of the labor movement.  There is also a bunch of San Diego history, from the tuna fleets, to the desecration wrought upon Little Italy by the coming of the freeway; to Barrio Logan, to the goings on in the canneries; to the problems of soldiers returning from World War II.

The Sexy Read.
It became my job to suggest changes and the first change was that the three four-page monologues had to be trimmed.  I told Mark to make some choices.  "Kill your children," I told him after reading the play the first time.  Now, as the outsider, my job is only to make suggestions.  The emperor of the world created in this play is Mark Hiss and all decisions are his.

We did come up with the idea of a table read, an excellent way to tip the balance of power yet again.  The table read is where you bring in actors, who read the play, obtain a certain level of ownership of their characters, and asking the playwright questions about those characters that he might not have considered.  We chose to do this once in private and once in public.  We also came up with a date by which Mark would have a leaner, trimmer, more manageable play.  A deadline for him to make Sophie's choice.

The excellent cast.
I brought a cast together. The lead, Esmeralda, was a no brainer.  Elsa Martinez, Mark's friend and an excellent actress was actually the person he had in mind while writing much of the play.  She readily agreed.  Then Tom Hall, an actor I've worked with many times, came to mind as the troubled photographer Joe.  Tiffany Tang was an equally easy choice as that of veteran showgirl Betty Spengler.  Don Loper had borrowed a surfboard of mine for a prop in a recent play and, when I picked it up, he became perfect for the comedian/theater operator Curran.  I auditioned with Philip John and he became the perfect former Hollywood cowboy, Shanty.  My friend Tim Carr got to play "all the assholes," as he called them, and Jason Rogers played all the younger roles and the haunting soldier.

Then we got on the radio.  This is because Mark has been involved in PR and editorial content in San Diego for so long.  Listen to the radio broadcast.

Elsa Martinez and Tom Hall.
Mark came down and we had the table read.  Mark realized something that I knew and I realized something that I didn't.  The characters were so well-wrought that the actors didn't have any questions about them.  They knew who these people were.  Mark then realized that the play was too long, something I knew, indicated and advocated for changing.  Then, finally, the audience became the last and most important part of the equation -- and the power dynamic changed yet again.

Mark and I met after the reading and did some surgery to the play.  Here's a delightful video about the first read and the last cuts made before the performance.  Mark was distraught.

The loving audience.
 He thought the cuts decimated the history, that the audience wouldn't be able follow the story and that it might be too soon for an audience anyway.  I countered with a) a more loving audience would never be brought together and b) more cuts, please.  The trouble was the intricacy of the stories and how they were woven.  That and the now-two-page monologues were as thin as Mark was comfortable with.  So we went to war with the army we had.

And the audience loved it.  The heat, the late start and the longish first act did take its toll.  We lost a few audience members after intermission.  The second act started late as the people who left at intermission all had to tell Mark, "It's not the play; the play is excellent.  It's the heat."

One of the casualties of the heat was a party that included my theatre mentor Ole Kittleson and his niece, Dee Ann Johnston, whose father actually owned the Hollywood Theatre.  Mark heaved a sigh of relief that she wouldn't have to see the character based on her father become the heavy in Act II.  Dee Ann brought some great photos of the Hollywood and the dancers from her family's collection.  There are included at the end of this post.

I spoke to a friend who had to leave at intermission.  This great reviewer in San Diego told me, "It's great but too talky.  I love it I feel like I'm back in school."

Moderating a talk-back at 80 degrees.
A great discussion followed the play and the lovingest-of the loving stayed.  Also in attendance were a few theatre lovers who heard the story on KPBS radio.  A great time was had by all.  Many people had comments and both playwright and director had their time to feel justified.  The upshot was that the play was too long -- and that's not counting the two burlesque numbers that we left out.

The audience didn't need as much history, or more information as to why Joe was troubled, and they wanted the talking to get out of the way of the love scene and the ending.  The audience's favorite character was Curran, the good-hearted huckster who sells Esme down river and hen gives her severance pay.

We wrapped up there and repaired to City Deli where actors, director, playwright and close friends talked more about the play.  The upshot there was that Mark realized that because he'd gone so into the history, it would resonate no matter how much he cut it; that the play should continue as a novel; that I really want to make a musical out of the play or the novel.

Elsa also chastised Mark for giving her too long a monologue.  Actors NEVER ask for cuts so this was big.  It was also something I had asked for thrice so there's that. I got home at 1:00 a.m. and was alight with the glow of the event until about two a.m.  Mark was up until 4:00 a.m.

This is the drug that is theatre.  We're all hopelessly addicted and cannot wait until our next fix.  What will it be?  A workshop production?  Will mark take his next draft to a theatre conference for more feedback?  Do I finally get to choreograph a burlesque number with trench coats and hats covering various gadgets?  Will there be a Kickstarter campaign and a backer's audition followed by a national tour?

Yes?  You can weigh in below.  I need a nap.

Here is a slide show of all the photos I have so far on the project.

With love and thanks to all!



  1. Mr. Olson, I couldn't agree more with the last six (no pun) paragraphs here. Theatre is a kind of drug, but a therapeutic one, for those of involved with theatre.

    As to the reading, yes, I spotted some rookie mistakes, some which I committed myself, and others which I didn't know existed. But it all comes with experience.

    For Mr. Hess, I would add, less is more, and as to the burlesque numbers and the large cast of characters, I would advise, don't give them a reason to say "no." "Them" being the Artistic Directors and the readers. It's a good idea, so don't give it up.

  2. Thanks for that comment. It means the world to us that you made it!