For My Playwright Colleagues

By June August

I’m writing this for my playwright colleagues, but everyone is invited to read.  It may explain something about the creative process.    

Our musical, SEXY WIDOWS, is finishing a limited (6-performance) run at 24th Street Theater.  The story is about the recovery process after loss of a spouse.   We knew from previous readings  that audiences would respond with both laughter and tears.   We were thrilled when reviews called the script inspirational, the show vivacious, and the humor  “spot on.”   In fact, we were grateful even to receive reviews for a two-weekend run, and we’ll post them later.

Meet the Cast: (Back row, L to R): Larry Lederman, Bobbi Stamm, Derrel Maury, Robert Towers.

Meet the Cast: (Back row, L to R): Larry Lederman, Bobbi Stamm, Derrel Maury,
Robert Towers. (Front row): Kit Smythe, 
Hank Adams, Karen Culliver

We had a stellar cast:  Hank Adams, Karen Culliver, Larry Lederman, Derrell Maury, Kit Smythe, Bobbi Stamm, and Robert Towers.   Our talented director, Cate Caplin, is especially renowned for her choreography.   Our limited budget didn’t allocate for a dialogue coach.  Next time, we’ll prepare a more realistic budget, just in case.   With a director/choreographer at the helm, the break-out numbers added great entertainment value to a serious subject.  We were blessed with amazing sound and lighting for our almost-bare stage set, thanks to Bob Scales, Will Scheussler, and Tim Davis.

For subsequent theatrical productions, it will be an advantage to have a music director to work with the arranger, a vocal coach, and a separate accompanist.  I asked a lot from Sean Paxton, who did it all.  He was always there for me and the production.

If you choose to write a play—with or without music―about something as devastating as loss, here are a few suggestions:

1)      Make sure you’re healed before you begin the final draft.  

2)      Make sure you’re well-heeled before you decide to produce it yourself.

3)      Have skin-thickening treatments before you go into production―and booster shots during.

4)      Ask prospective directors how much experience they have with autobiographical material by a living playwright.  If the prospect has no or little experience, continue interviewing.   Otherwise you will spend rehearsals wondering whether you expressed your feelings authentically.    

5)      Accept in advance that your deepest emotions will not be portrayed exactly the way you experienced and subsequently wrote about them.   They will be skillfully acted, but not relived.

6)      Be prepared for what can be a painful script-pruning process.   Avoid making snap decisions (especially when the cast is within earshot) that you might live to regret.   Don’t be deferential unless you’ve given it a lot of thought.

As we know, real-life feelings are not well-organized.  Sometimes they come on like a steamroller and sometimes with pauses.   Sometimes they sneak up and leave you in tears.  Sometimes they hit like a sledge hammer and leave you breathless.   In spite of a magnificent cast and director, here’s a heads-up.  You wrote about loss, your emotions.   Expect bumps in the road.  You may clearly indicate a pause in the script, but the director will see it differently and allow or encourage an actor to take liberties.  Conversely, the feelings that you wanted delivered with sledge-hammer impact may end up with pauses wide enough to drive a truck through.   That’s show biz.

While you’re writing, bear in mind the actual sequence of events in your life might not work onstage or not leave time for costume changes.    You’re likely to hear, “I’d like to relocate (or cut, heaven forbid!) this scene.”  And you’re likely to say, “But that’s not the way it happened!”    

Since Sonny and I collaborated, the goal was to represent our experiences and those of our friends.   I did the physical work.  I wrote the book and lyrics (with contributions by Sonny) and composed the music.   I relived my loss over a six-year period through the words and music.   At times my guts were wrenched into knots and/or boiled into menudo―during rehearsals and performances as well.

 Said and done:  this is the life I choose.

                            June August

Why Two Widows Decided To Shoot The Moon

By June August

sonnyjuneContactWhy not? It was 2006. June August and Sonny Fox had just lost their husbands and, with them, the lives they had led for decades—everything they had taken for granted. What more did they have to lose? At first, adult children, family, friends, neighbors were caring and attentive. There was still energy in the house—and a bowl of soup, and a muffin to eat with a cup of tea or coffee. Once everyone returned to their own lives, they ate alone, went to sleep alone, woke up alone. Car keys and cell phones seemed to disappear. Everyday activities associated with their spouses—reading the morning paper or watching a favorite television show—produced sudden tearbursts. Life, in a word, sucked.

But it wasn’t over. June and Sonny took the next step. Some call it a bereavement group. Some, a support group. To them, it was something to look forward to. The meetings sponsored by HOPE Foundation were a safe place to unburden themselves among simpatico companions. And maybe, just maybe, the group would help them find what they were looking for: Hope.

“I woke up and realized my life had changed 180 degrees,” Sonny said at one of the meetings. “I was now completely responsible for myself.” Then June shared, “I wanted to see my husband’s death not as an ending point, but as a starting point.”

Sonny is a realtor. June is a writer. The 5th edition of the music appreciation book she had co-authored with her husband had just been released. She was a ship without a sail—a writer without a current project. After several overtures, Sonny finally convinced June to meet her for lunch at Mo’s in Toluca Lake. Sonny proposed writing a book of uplifting poems for widows, but by the second lunch at Mo’s, the project had taken a new direction. “I’m not a poet,” June said. “I write books and plays and songs. Why don’t we write a musical? Maybe it’ll become a television series or a film.”

“Show business!?!” Sonny exclaimed. “Aren’t we a little old to get started in show business?” “The right time is the time left,” said June. “If we’re going to go for it, let’s go big.”

Over the next six months, poems poured out of Sonny, and June completed fifteen songs. It was time to try out the music for friends from our bereavement group. “They sat in Sonny’s living room and listened as if the songs had been written just for them,” June says. “And they were. They laughed at the humor and related to the sentiments because we were all at the same point in the healing process. Yet we knew we had the basis for a score.”

The next step was to make the music accessible to a wider audience and put it into a context. In 2008, thanks to a Dramatists Guild program called Friday Footlights Festival, June was offered a free performance venue in Noho. With Sonny’s input and only three weeks to make it happen, June cobbled together a script, completed the score, and found a cast and crew. Sonny quickly learned the knack of filling a theater. An enthusiastic audience of 80 friends, relatives, colleagues, and anyone else they could persuade to come out on a Friday night saw the debut performance of Sexy Widows.

“They loved it!” Sonny recalls. “They really loved it.”

When the Crescenta Valley Y scheduled a reading as a grief program before the December holidays, June wondered whether the title Sexy Widows be appropriate for the event? It became SEQUEL: Life Begins Again. An audience of 100 showered encouragement on the two widows. But the show was still evolving from personal experience. Sonny’s poems spoke to the early stages of grief and loss. June’s script was looking toward the future. It needed further character development and a clear story about life after grief.

“I interviewed dozens of widows and widowers, and I became a student of my own recovery process,” June says. “Whenever I sat down to write, I relived grief.” So she put the script aside and worked with Sonny to complete the book of poems, adding song lyrics taken out of the show.

“But the characters wouldn’t stop talking to me, even in my sleep. Who were these people—demanding that I breathe life into them as authentic human beings? I didn’t know them well enough to put words into their mouths.”

Sonny suggested that they offer to produce two performances as fund-raisers for HOPE Foundation, the non-profit that sponsors the group where they met. It would be a win-win—motivation to continue developing the show as well as an expression of appreciation. Negotiations began with the Board of Directors, and in September 2010, SEQUEL: Life Begins Again was mounted anew. The two sold-out performances garnered an excellent review from the Tolucan Times. More than 700 people had seen the show since its inception.

As the widow of a professor of music at USC Thornton School of Music, June was entitled to join the Emeriti Center of USC, an organization of retired faculty, staff, and surviving spouses. When a luncheon for widows and widowers was announced in late 2010, she invited Sonny to join her. “I don’t know why, but I brought the review and the program for the show with me,” June recalls.

Also at the luncheon was Bob Scales, Dean Emeritus of the USC School of Theater. She told the group about the show and gave Bob the program and review. He offered to help. Two widows found what they were looking for: Hope—now combined with Opportunity.

“It soon became apparent that anything is possible with Bob Scales on your team,” June says. Their association launched more than a year of intensive script revisions, with a final package under original title, Sexy Widows. It was no longer a question of whether the title was appropriate. To the two widows, sexy means “vibrant and alive.” And it inspired them to create a web site dedicated to people who are bouncing back from loss and seeking information, support, and an outlet for self-expression.

The musical Sexy Widow will have a 6-performance run during the first two weekends in June at the 24th Street Theater, Los Angeles. For more information, visit the Web site: TwoWidowsProductions.com or call: 818-203-1984.

Why did two widows decide to shoot the moon? Because they wanted to exercise the power to reclaim their lives.

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