Writing which lives as performance | Sunday Observer

Writing which lives as performance

16 September, 2018
Casella (seated in centre) with the original Off-Broadway cast of The Irish Curse.
Casella (seated in centre) with the original Off-Broadway cast of The Irish Curse.

In August 2015 the Sri Lankan theatre company Identities Inc. produced The Irish Curse which enjoyed a three day show run that packed the Lionel Wendt with theatregoers who encountered a contemporary western play for adult audiences the likes of which was surely a novelty in Sri Lanka. (My review Forging Past an Incurable Curse - Sunday Observer, August 16, 2015).

Martin Casella, the playwright who authored The Irish Curse, and who has a multitude of experience working in the fields of cinema and theatre in the United States, which includes acting in the 1982 Hollywood supernatural horror movie Poltergeist, his roles in Raiders of the Lost Ark and RoboCop 2 talks to the Sunday Observer about his work as a writer, with emphasis on the play that gripped audiences in Colombo with shock and thrills – The Irish Curse.

Q. You joined cinema and theatre intending to become an actor. Growing up, what kind of influences made you want to pursue a career in the performing arts?

A. I loved going to movies as a child. Mostly Disney-ish films from the 1960s: Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music, The Nine Lives Of Thomasina, etc. Then, when I was about 10 or 11, I started seeing grown-up, dramatic films like Bonnie And Clyde, The Graduate, A Man For All Seasons and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. I loved all of those serious films, even if they were too “grown-up” for me at the time. (My mother, bless her, used to sneak me into movies like The Lion In Winter and Midnight Cowboy.) I didn’t see much theatre as a child growing up in Los Angeles, but when I was 14, I saw a dramatic play called, The Trial Of The Catonsville Nine; it was about the Vietnam War and people from the Catholic clergy who fought back against the war and got arrested. I was entranced. Plus, I was Catholic, so I related to the story. After that, I tried to see as much theatre as I could. This, along with going to Mass every Sunday, helped developed my sense of ritual and drama. I also realized that words and actions could move people, make them care, make them cry, and make them laugh. So when I got to middle school (age 13), I was compelled to not only start writing plays, but acting in them, as well. I wrote my first play, about American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, when I was only 14! I knew that’s what I wanted to do – tell stories. I already had plenty of experience doing that: every time I saw a film, I would come home and tell my mom the whole story!

Q. What can you share with us about your experience as a screenwriter and being a playwright?

A. Writing screenplays is fun and exciting. You can just about do anything. Lately I have been asked to do rewrites on films. Which is even more fun… because all of the original material is there, and you get to help connect all the dots and make it better. Original screenplays are harder because you’re writing, often, out of thin air. And movies are so structured. The first event or heart-stopping drama has to happen by page five or you lose the audience. Then some other astonishing, enthralling thing has to happen on page 30. Then again on page 60. Then again on page 90… and then you must wind up the story in a way where the audience is in a state of constant suspense: what’s going to happen in the end? Movies are about pictures, images, and visual story-telling. Plays are about words, themes, and ideas. I love writing plays because you can write fifteen pages of dialogue and the audience is right there with you. Like in The Irish Curse. When you write a play, you can use words – the sound of words, the taste of words, the emotional weight of words – to tell the story and move it right along.

Q. How do you engage in our work? Is it a solitary process or do you discuss scenarios and scenes in the process of writing with artistes and creative collaborators?

A. I am not one of those writers who goes to writing groups or evenings where you share your work. I will occasionally talk to close friends about what I am writing. Spin the story, and see how it lands. Especially, with film projects, where you want to see how people instantly react to situations and actions. But even that can be dangerous, because you’re “looking down from the tightrope or high wire” instead of just moving forward. Other people’s opinions, while you’re writing a first draft, can screw with your head; i.e. – you can fall if you lose your momentum. Once I read the first few scenes of a new play to a friend of mine who is not in the theatre. She didn’t respond well and asked questions that were not helpful.

I put the play aside for a while until I got her voice out of my head. That play, when finished, won several big awards, and had a professional production in Chicago. So I “saved” it from the discouraging voices in my head. As for the writing process itself with plays, I usually go into my room and just write every day. It’s a very solitary process, which I love. But it can also get lonely. When I go to dinner with friends, and they ask, “What are you working on?” I usually light up like a lantern and start talking about the story. Especially, if I’m stuck on a plot point, or an act break, or the ending. I’ve also written the scripts for several musicals, which is almost entirely a collaborative process – you have the composer, lyricist, maybe a director, maybe even the person who wrote the original material. Musicals are a never-ending set of collaborations, which is a blessing (less loneliness) and a curse (I want my solitary time back!)

Q. Do you listen to music while you write, or create any particular kind of conditions for an atmosphere conducive for your creative veins?

A. I love listening to music when I write. While writing my play, Directions For Restoring The Apparently Dead, (which was the play in Chicago!) I needed to feel a certain way, I needed romantic music that evoked a rural English countryside. So I listened to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” for days while I was writing. I so fell in love with the music that there are instructions in the script that during a long two person scene at the end of the play, one of them puts on the radio and Vaughan Williams’ piece underscores the final scene. With The Report, I needed a song for the entire company of actors to sing during a highly emotional moment at a World War II funeral.

I listened to many YouTube videos of the Albert Hall Proms in London over the years. I found a version of “Jerusalem” which moved me to tears. So that was the song that went into the script, plus, I continued listening to it until I finished the play. At the various readings we’ve had, particularly, the one we did in London last summer, audiences are usually a weeping mess by that moment on the play. The song speaks to them on a level that mere words just don’t. It’s the voices and the music.

As for conditions, I can write anywhere. It helps if it’s quiet, so sometimes a library is nice. But the most important part is no interruptions like mobile phones or email dings. That all gets turned off.

Q. Your play The Irish Curse was staged in Sri Lanka in August 2015. Unfortunately, it was revealed to me by the director of that production Gehan Blok, that the only video of that Sri Lankan production is irretrievable due to the device it was stored in now being unserviceable. Thereby denying you the chance to see that Sri Lankan performance of your play. But you saw a promotional trailer by that production on YouTube. What were your impressions about the actors in that trailer?

A. Loved the promotional trailers I saw and shared them on Facebook and other social media. I thought the work the actors did was wonderful, observant, detailed and witty. So, wish I could have seen it. Almost bought a ticket and flew to Colombo at the last minute. Work prevailed. O’ For That Lost Video!

Q. When you heard The Irish Curse had been staged in Sri Lanka, a place quite far removed from your part of the world, did any thoughts about ‘cultural congruity’ come up? Do you surmise that your play was staged in Colombo solely as a ‘contemporary western comedy’ with no guessable ‘cultural relevance’ to Sri Lanka?

A. All I can say was that I was utterly delighted. And that, I hoped it was being staged solely as a “contemporary western comedy.” When I finally saw a photo of the five Sri Lankan actors in their costumes on the set, I did a Macaulay Culkin/Home Alone fist thrust into the air with a loud “YES!” It made me happy because it was one more indication that the play works around the world when done properly. I was taught by my favourite writing teacher that “the more specific something is, the more universal it is.”

That’s why a production of Fiddler On The Roof, done by an all-Asian cast in Tokyo, can be just as powerful as the original production done on Broadway. Oddly enough, one of the few productions of The Irish Curse that didn’t work was in Brazil, where without my permission the play was rewritten and staged as if it was taking place in Rio.

I was able to find some reviews and translate them; apparently the play made absolutely no sense. There was also a production scheduled for Mexico where the producers wanted to adapt the play and set it in Mexico City. They could never find a way to make it work.

Q. What was the story behind The Irish Curse? What made you write that play?

A. Well…. My agent kept telling me I needed to write a play with one act, one set, five characters, and with no costume changes. So as I was thinking and mulling that over, my late partner, as we were walking through New York City’s Broadway district one night, saw an acquaintance of his and whispered to me: “He has the Irish Curse.” I thought he meant a drinking problem, but it turned out that they both went to the same gym and shared a locker room, and… well, there are no secrets in the shower at the gym. I was intrigued by “The Irish Curse,” thought it would make a great title, and an interesting subject matter for a play. I did some research and lurked on a few online chat rooms for guys who believed they had “the Curse” (as one of the characters in the play remarks, “The internet is an AMAZING thing.”) One day, I suddenly envisioned five guys in a self-help group.

For a year or so I scribbled notes and ideas, basing the five guys on various men I knew. At some point I realized that the play couldn’t just be about five guys talking about their penises; it had to be about something more challenging and troubling. That’s when I decided it was going to be about masculinity, and what it means to be a man in today’s world. So I took out a big piece of paper and wrote on it “WHAT IS MASCULINITY? and put it over my writing desk. I also realized that everyone in the world has something that they don’t like about themselves. (I have a medical issue that causes lumpy fatty bumps to form on my arms; I’ve spent most of my life wearing long sleeve shirts to cover them up).

I also had a friend in Los Angeles who claimed he had the smallest penis in the world; that wasn’t true but he felt it was, and he had made so many life decisions based on the size of his penis! I used those thoughts as my way of relating to what the guys in the play were going through.

I started writing and a few months later the play was finished. I put it in a drawer and thought “Well nothing will ever come of that.” I was too embarrassed to show it to anyone. I finally shared it with a director I like working with. He wasn’t sure it was actually a play. So we had a reading in someone’s living room and when the reading was over, none of the actors or guests would leave. Every single one of them wanted to talk about the play and how they personally related to it.

The director turned to me and whispered: “This IS a play. And we have to do it IMMEDIATELY!” Now when the play is done and there are talkbacks after a performance, the audience does the same thing. Especially, women in the audience. Women tell me they hate their thighs, their nose or their hair. One woman told me every single piece of clothing she ever bought was to cover up her small breasts. Men do the same thing.

At one performance in Los Angeles, a tall, dignified man in his 70s stood up – while his wife kept trying to make him sit down – and talked about how he was haunted by a memory from his middle school years when he was on the swim team.

There was a boy on the team who had physically matured early, and he tormented the younger boys who hadn’t gone through puberty. He told they all had “baby dicks” and that they weren’t “men.” The older man said the play made him think about that, and how cruel the older boy was, and that now he could finally let go of the memory! So I guess, unconsciously, that is why I wrote the play. To exorcise those demons we all carry around inside us.

Q. What is on the cards? What are you working on at present?

A. Well, in addition to the play (Miss Maude) about the Black midwife and the Life Magazine photographer, I’m currently writing the book for a new musical called Mary Modern. It’s based on a novel about a woman scientist who cannot have a child, so she clones her grandmother. But instead of getting a baby, she gets a 22-year-old woman who not only remembers her long-ago life, but wants the scientist to clone her late husband as well. It’s crazy and sweet and very moving; it’s all about how we cannot “recreate” love – it just has to happen. (See the famous replay of “falling in love while boiling the lobster” scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.) I’m also waiting for my play The Report to get a production next year in London.

I’m working on an hour-long TV pilot with a collaborator, based on a true story about a wealthy Jewish family of Belgian industrialists who, during World War II, were secretly spies for the French Resistance.

Plus I’m doing rewrites on another new play called Black Tom Island, which opens in October at a regional theatre here in New Jersey, where I live. It’s another true story that takes place just before the U.S. entered The Great War, when German spies blew up a shipment of explosions bound for England in New York City’s harbour. It deals with how the U.S. government blamed immigrants for the terrorism, and despite its 1916 setting, it’s extremely topical. And maybe, just maybe, I’m working with a director on the screenplay for a film version of The Irish Curse!

 Pic DramaSriLanka