Theater Camp with the Dream Team, or How the Hell Did I Ever Get Olympia Dukakis?

I know what you’re thinking: “Just three months ago his play was canceled in NY and now he’s got Olympia Dukakis directing. How the hell did that happen?” Here’s the Cliffs Notes version. Okay, the semi Cliffs Notes. After I returned fron NY, my general contractor, who was installing two new bathrooms, sidled up to me and asked, “So what are you going to do about the play now?” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe try to put it up in some time.”

”What’s involved?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Tell me, what’s involved?”

I wanted to be clear, so I said it clearly, “There’s no money in theater.”

Two days later, I was in his office, and I said to him and his son, “Repeat after me, ‘We’re now going to talk about theater and money, and therefore, that makes us (them) certifiably insane.’” That’s exactly what they did. Thirty minutes later I walked out with a significant check.

dreamteam

Dream Team

back row, left to right: Rachel Healey, Jim Leaming, Keith Pitts, Joe Foust

center row, left to right: Rita Pietraszek, Deya Friedman, Carmen Roman

front row: Olympia Dukakis, Todd Logan

missing: Lindsay Jones

Carmen Roman is a force of nature. She is also one of Chicago’s best actors. She’s won the best actor award for Wit and Master Class. Two years ago, she did a reading of BOTANIC GARDEN at American Theater Company. Her husband, Jim Leaming, was supposed to read with her. At the last minute, he bailed because he was just hired for a role in a Steppenwolf show.

After the reading, while we were at nearby joint, sucking down the obligatory post-reading beers, Jim stopped by. Very nice guy. Very good looking. Like Carmen, very tall. I’ve yet to make eye contact with either of them. I asked Carmen how the reading might have gone if she had read with Jim.

“I would have cried throughout.”

That was two years ago. That stuck with me. I tracked down Carmen and Jim at Peninsula Players, the oldest summer stock theater in the country, located in Door County Wisconsin. I made the four-hour drive to see them. They read the play aloud. Twice, Carmen cried. I offered them the roles, and they accepted. One catch: we had to mutually agree upon a director. Reasonable, I thought.The last five years, Carmen has spent most of her time in New York.

“I’m involved with a theater group in New York, and if you wouldn’t mind, there’s someone I’d like to ask to direct.”

Sounded reasonable.

“Olympia Dukakis.”

I kept a straight face. But, if the old Zapruder camera had been on me, I’m sure it would have seen every permutation of laughter, hilarity, incredulity, as in there’s no frigging way that will ever happen. I indulged Carmen.

“Sure, sure try Olympia.”

“She’d really sink her teeth into this material.”

I tried to picture Olympia’s teeth. I couldn’t.

“Carmen, if Olympia isn’t available, who are some Chicago directors you and Jim would consider?”

“Let’s just try Olympia.”

“Just for the hell of it, let’s think of a few names.”

“Let’s not.”

Since we were sitting down, we were able to look directly into each other’s eyes. I saw in Carmen a resolve and strength that, well, frankly, intimidated the hell out of me.

“Sure, let’s just try Olympia.”

I thought Carmen’s Olympia fantasy would last 24 hours — the time it would take Carmen to contact Olympia (assuming she really knew her) and have Olympia pass. It didn’t go that way. Olympia was in Russia. Olympia was here. Then there. Olympia this. Olympia that. With each Carmen update, I pressed for names of other directors. Carmen was steadfast.

“I’m just not thinking about anyone else.”

“You can’t throw out a name?”

“I’m only thinking about Olympia”

“You mean dreaming about Olympia.” I didn’t say that. I wanted to say that.

“I understand you’re concerned ,especially after what happened to you in New York.”

“That’s right, theater camp sucked.”

“You’ve said that many times before.”

“Didn’t you read my blog?”

“No. Did you know that I haven’t had one conversation with you where you haven’t been fretting about something?”

That hurt. Calling me a fretter. I told my older sister Holly that Carmen called me a “fretter.”

“That’s a good word for you.”

“Why?”

“That’s what we do (all of my sisters and me) when adults don’t behave in the way we expect.”

“Fret?”

“Fret.”

“How come no one has ever said it before?”

“Fretting isn’t a bad word.”

“It doesn’t sound manly.”

“It’s not.”

I get a call from Carmen. “Spoke to Olympia. She’s interested in reading the play. May I send it to her?”

“What do you think?”

“I’m just trying to be respectful.”

“Do you have a back up name?”

“Sorry, I’ve got another call.”

Click.

A quick digression. What’s your take at this point? Is it me or Carmen?

A week later, Carmen forwards me an email from Olympia, which says she really likes the play, but can’t direct because our dates conflict. “If things change,” she writes, “let me know.”

“So, now what?” I fretted.

“I’m going to be in New York next week,” Carmen replied. “Let me have a conversation with her.”

Let me have another name.

Carmen calls me. “I just met with Olympia for three hours. She really loves the play. She’s given me two sets of alternative dates –”

“We don’t have a theater.”

“I spoke to Marcy at Victory Gardens. Their upstairs mainstage is available.”

No shit.

“I should meet Olympia, don’t you think? I am the playwright.”

Silence.

“I am the playwright.”

“You’re also a fretter. That’s not going to play well with Olympia.”

“No fretting?”

“No fretting.”

And, no jokes. That came from my children.

“Dad, very few people find you funny,” my daughter Nina told me over and over and over.

No fretting. No Jokes. What’s a guy going to do?

Two nights later, I met Carmen in New York for a pre-Olympia dinner. Before we sat down, I looked her straight in the collarbone and said, “Carmen, you’re going to tell me your story, and I’m going to tell you my story. By the end of dinner, we’re going to be good buddies.” She said, “You go first.” This thing about fretting was new to me. But, I was aware of my reputation for being long-winded and having the ability to suck the oxygen out of the room. I calculated the square footage of the restaurant and then divided that by the number of patrons and figured I had 28 minutes to tell my story. Think about it; you try telling your story in just 28 minutes. Think about the pressure of trying to tell that story knowing that each patron was the equivalent of a canary in a coal mine.

Shit, if I didn’t pull it off. Full disclosure, Carmen downed three glasses of wine. But, she did look genuinely interested. True, she is an actor, and a damn good one to boot, so what does looking genuinely interested really mean?

“Okay, your turn.”

Carmen made a mouth flapping gesture with her fingers and said, “Sorry, I really don’t like to talk about myself.”

“Not fair!”

“Sorry.”

“You’ve got to give me something.”

“Not going to happen.”

“C’mon, I’m a writer.”

Again, is it me or Carmen? The next night I had dinner with Carmen and Olympia. Olympia was great. Down to earth. Eager to roll up her sleeves to find the characters beneath the words. As for me, I was on model behavior. No fretting. No jokes…. Okay, there was a moment when Olympia caught me glancing at my watch. What she didn’t know was I felt the stem sticking out. When I changed the time from Chicago to New York time, I had probably forgotten to push the stem all the way back in. I knew this. Olympia didn’t. I glanced. She caught it. She spoke.

“I’m sorry, do you need to be somewhere? Are we keeping you?”

She said it in such a way I knew she wasn’t insulted, but genuinely concerned. Actually how the hell did I really know? The woman did win the Oscar for Moonstruck. But, in that moment, I believed she was being sincere.

“Are you keeping me,” I repeated. I stood up, pushed in my chair, and said, “That’s right, you are. I flew 1000 miles to talk to you about directing my play, but there’s also a movie I’ve been dying to see, and it starts in 15 minutes. So, if you don’t mind…”

Olympia laughed. Carmen gave a distressed courtesy laugh. I eventually confessed I was under family orders not to try any jokes.

“You have a droll sense of humor,” Olympia said. “You don’t make people feel compelled to laugh.”

I thought that was sort of a compliment, but I’m not so sure because Carmen has repeated it like a thousand times.

Here’s the bottom line. Olympia Dukakis told me she liked my play. Olympia Dukakis told me she’s offered two plays a week to direct. Olympia Dukakis told me she wanted to direct mine. The closer was when she asked what the weather was like in Chicago in January and February. I said, “balmy.”

The genesis for BOTANIC GARDEN was a story my mother-in-law told me five years ago about going on a first date after my father-in-law died. She was dressed and ready to go 45 minutes before her date arrived. She says that while she sat there waiting, for the very first time, she became angry with her husband for dying. If he were alive, she wouldn’t be in that situation. I loved that story. I spent the next year writing a play inspired by that story. I finished it in November of 2004. The play has had readings at the Workshop Theater in New York, the Algonquin Theater in New York, Chicago Dramatists, Victory Gardens, and American Theater Company in Chicago. It had five days of rehearsal at the 78th Street Theatre Lab in New York (see Theater Camp Sucked).

Now… now it’s opening January 30 at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse. Even more incredible, I’ve got the Dream Team. Not just the amazing, incomparable Olympia Dukakis directing, but thanks to that force of nature, Carmen Roman, we’ve got Deya Friedman, one of Chicago’s very best stage managers, and a design team to die for: Lindsay Jones, Keith Pitts, Rachel Healey, and Rita Pietraszek. And, the incomparable Joe Foust. If you’re in Chicago theater, you’re smiling at the mention of Joe. He’s that kind of guy.

So, yes, it’s theater camp all over again.

To be completely honest, my happiest moment will be when Carmen and Jim take their final bows after our last show on March 9th.

Finally, the dream will have been a reality.

So, once again, it’s about butts in the seats. For tickets, just click here. Also, check out the nights Olympia will be doing a post-show Q & A.

Look forward to seeing you at the theater…

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