An ambivalent vehicle owner sits in the parking lot of a used car dealership panicking over which direction to turn. (There are only two.) Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, a British voice comes to his aid lauding his eventual directional choice with a, “Good show, good show. Jolly show!” then abruptly abandons him to go and have tea. A temperamental, Teutonic taskmaster takes over at full tilt triumphantly trumpeting, “Schnell, schnell, shnell!” in an all too tangibly totalitarian tone. A kindly old Rabbi then remedially chimes in contemplatively suggesting a right-hand turn but not before meeting “a nice Jewish girl”. Marilyn Monroe subsequently intercedes answering half that equation, whispering seductive, yet sensible directions, at the same time trumping any attempted rabbinical matchmaking until she is squeezed out by a Samurai warrior whose only vehicular advice is, “Stop sign is an illusion. Stop sign only in mind!” –CRASH—SIREN SOUNDS—Driver: No officer! You don’t understand. You only think you see a stop sign. It’s only in your mind!”
So commences the second hour of the second day of the 27th year of FirstStage’s annual short play marathon, Playwright’s Express. As Josh Lazar’s 15 minute play I’m Going my Way , starring Dan Roth and Arnold Weiss,draws to a close, the audience can only wonder whether the driver is rendered schizophrenic at the expense of his car’s multiple personality disorder or vice versa. Little does the audience know, however, that such a scenario is the exact paradox they, themselves will be experiencing within the next eight hours.–Yes I said *eight*!
Over the years, the world over, there have been entertainment marathons: Sci-fi movie marathons, James Bond marathons, Seinfeld marathons, but none so singularly unique as First Stage’s annual Playwright’s Express. Scripts in hand, minimal rehearsal time and near non-existent sets, the audience barely notices as the company’s seasoned actors wend their way through all manner of worlds, existences, stories and scenarios. From a neighborhood bar frequented by old theatre ghosts, to the sterile hospital room of a swiftly dying comatose driver, to the platform of a train station, to a broken down aging hippie’s van, to a tropical island as part of a balding, middle-aged man’s near death experience, the sparse details hardly seem to thwart any playgoer’s suspension of disbelief.
Each play lasts just about 15 minutes with a 5 minute break in between. Roughly 25 plays are mounted per day and each daily marathon lasts approximately 9 hours (between 1 pm – 10 pm). If the performers get behind or if the plays read a little longer in the spoken word than they do on paper, “We’ve been known to be here ‘til 11 pm or 12 midnight…sometimes 1 am!”, according to one of Firststage’s most senior members.
Playwright’s Express began as a fundraising model for FirstStage. Founded in 1983, the group chose to dedicate itself to staged readings of emerging works for stage and screen. Dues paying members were given the opportunity to submit a script that they were working on and, once approved by majority member readership, have their work read on Monday nights in front of an audience. The Monday night performances consisted of staged readings of full length plays and sit down or partially staged readings of feature length screenplays. Dues, however, were not always enough to foot the bill for the rising cost of rent. Therefore, three years after their inception they chose to extend the opportunity to writers the world over via the short play marathon that would eventually be dubbed, “Playwright’s Express”. The cost per 15 minute script time allotment is $40.00 to produce and an extra $30.00 if the writer would like a DVD copy mailed to them. Audience admission is a mere suggested $10.00 donation for the entire day! According to actor and literary manager Dennis Safren, “We’ve received plays from all over the world; as far as Greece. Some writers have even come to see their plays performed, from as far away as New Jersey.” No play is ever turned away no matter how brilliant or dull, weird, controversial or unsavory.
The most memorable scripts play out like detailed, elaborate jokes or sophisticated SNL sketches.
In Life is a Feast by longtime Firststage member Jacob Edelman of La Crescenta, CA, a father sits at what looks like a table, ravenously eating plates and plates of a brown, cakey substance. His son sits across from him and watches in perceived disgust as he exclaims, “Dad, I’m not like you… I don’t like meat.”
-“Whaddaya mean? We’re flesh eating bacteria?…are you serious?”
-“As Penicillin… Can’t you tell by the way I move?…the way I talk?”
-“I thought you were just trying to be sophisticated. I thought you were confused.”
-“(Well I wasn’t)…I’m going to live with my own kind now, intestinal flora!”
Another such script explores a husband and wife first as Turbulence is commences: “Aaand this is your captain speaking. I’d like to welcome you all to our history making flight as this is the first time a husband and wife will be copiloting a plane. (Turns off cabin mic.) Ready to go Honey?”
-Roger. …Do you really have to fly so fast? Are you trying to show off for the passengers or something?
-Not here Sharon. Can you leave it on the ground?
-I am the copilot. It is my duty to say something.
Life is a Dream, also by Edelman, explores the long lasting bonds of matrimony between Wayne and Sylvia in the most Woody Allenesque of fashions:
Wayne: You just had your teeth cleaned and now you wanna get ‘em smelly and dirty again with a tuna fish sandwich?
Sylvia: You know I get lightheaded after the dentist.
Wayne: Who gets lightheaded from a teeth cleaning?
Sylvia: You know I have sensitive gums!
Wayne: Why not? You sure flap ‘em enough!
The argumentative conversation continues on the car ride home. Their vehicle crashes and Wayne ends up in the hospital in a vegetative state leaving the doctor to muse to an ever-so-distraught Sylvia, “He has the brainwaves of an eggplant, but maybe eggplants dream…” Meanwhile on the other side of the stage Wayne has been transported to his own fantastical after life in the guise of a tropical island upon which the beautiful Tantalaya caters to his every whim in stodgily broken but seductive monosyllables. Just as Wayne has decided he enjoys this place, in the grand tradition of the old saying, “If you die I’m going to kill you.” Sylvia crosses into Wayne’s little world, replacing poor Tantalaya. In a decided attempt to finish the job of ironically killing him in his own afterlife, one senses they will argue in this purgo-dise for the rest of eternity.
Other plays evoke more slice-of-life tableaus. Broadway I’ve Got Your Back by Don Corbin-Smith from Dallas TX explores the comeback of fictitious Drag Queen, Anita Mann who believes in showing up fashionably late for her own performances—roughly three hours to be exact. Funnily enough, the audience is even more trendy than that as they all file into the theatre invisibly and uneventually.
In Derailed by Dorothy Weston Stauch of Rossmoor, CA, a rich business woman is dumped on a train platform by the man she thinks she is going to marry. He is notably threatened by her success. She observes a homeless woman, having taken up residence on the platform bench, as she muses from afar, “I’ve often wondered if that homeless person was a man or a woman.” While the two ladies reversibly mirror each other in materialistic circumstance, it is their shared isolation, due to said circumstances, that will eventually fuel their divined commonality.
Here We Almost Are by Joel Murray from El Paso, TX explores an old friendship between two aging hippies. Listening to the dialogue one would think they were back at Woodstock as the two chums rekindle their friendship whilst driving across country in a VW van. Their respective nostalgia and disenchantment are palpable as they voice their enthusiastic wistfulness for a time wherein they felt most at home and wonder what kind of tornado blew it away. It isn’t until the end of the play that they are whisked out of their melancholy by the discovery of a piano that has landed on their van preventing it from moving. “(No sound or feel to it or nuthin’!) That piano made a quantum leap!” “That’s fucked up Kool Aid Man!”
All in all it is a day of dashed hopes for cross dressing divas, discoveries of used automobiles that could give Kit from “Knightrider” a run for his money, lifestyle choices for flesh eating bacteria and near death experiences for dead and undead bickering middle-aged couples…just another ordinary, average mélange at FirstStage’s Playwright’s Express.
Playwright’s Express takes place every year in late spring. To attend next year’s festival or submit your own work, please check their website for all related and ongoing events at www.firststagela.org. (323) 850-6271, Missing Piece Theatre, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505