Lanie robertson

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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To begin this section, I wanted to include a segment on Lanie Robertson's play, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, the first solo show I ever saw. I remember how impressed I was that one person (with a back-up band) on a stage could hold an audience's attention just as powerfully as a play with full cast of actors.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill has had legendary success in the solo play world. There have been countless productions over the last twenty years or so. There are still many productions each year, all around the world.

Lanie Robertson is a playwright, not a performer, who wrote this material first and found an actress to perform it once it was completed. Other interviews are with performers, who either shaped material for themselves or created it in collaboration with a co-writer or director. The questions I put to Robertson were somewhat different from the ones I asked the performers; therefore, the format of this interview is somewhat different from the format used in the chapters that follow.

Lanie Robertson began his playwriting career in Philadelphia with his first play, The Insanity of Mary Girard. His plays have been performed at many regional theaters through out the United States and the world. His New York City productions include Back County Crimes at Playwrights Horizons, Nasty Little Secrets at Primary Stages, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill at both the Vineyard Theatre and the West Side Arts Theater, and Bringing Mother Down and Cannibal's Waltz at the Abingdon Theatre.

In 1987 he won the Outer Critics Circle Award for his off-Broadway hit, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, which starred

Lanie Robertson Pictures

Lonette McKee as Billie Holiday, a role later assumed by Eartha Kitt, S. Epatha Merkerson, Loretta Divine, and Jackee Harry. He was awarded the prestigious Kleban Award as best librettist for Stringbean. His play A Penny for the Guy has been produced by the Virginia Stage Co., the Geva Theatre, Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre, and the Manitoba Theatre Centre. His play Alfred Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe toured with Stacey Keach and Margot Kidder in the title roles. It was later produced in Paris and Warsaw.

For television, Mr. Robertson wrote the Diana Ross special Red Hot 'n' Blue for ABC, and Journey Into Genius, which aired on PBS's American Playhouse and starred Matthew Modine.

His latest solo play, Woman Before a Glass, starring Mercedes Ruehl as Peggy Guggenheim, recently opened in New York.

What prompted you to start writing your Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill?

The inspiration for the play came from someone else's personal experience. A lover of mine had seen Billie Holiday at a dive in North Philly. He said there were only five or six others there. She had come in "high as a kite," carrying her little dog, tripped on the wire to the mike, and sang. He said there was a water glass of booze atop the upright piano, but she never touched it. She sang thirteen or fourteen songs, then staggered out.

The incongruity of a major American artist performing for so few at the end of her magnificent career haunted me. How could this have happened? What in our society causes us to so undervalue the artist?

The figure of her standing there, performing in a dump, remained a strongly vibrating dramatic symbol on many levels. I couldn't forget what he'd described. But it was totally static, i.e., a nondramatic image. How and when did you first start?

A few years later I saw a play on Broadway about Edith Piaf. The only part of that play that interested me was a moment when the character learns of the death of her lover, crosses to a mike, and sings "Mon Homme." At that moment, I knew that if I could find a way to make Billie's songs an extension of an internal monologue, rather than a stop/start songfest, I would have a play. It was then I decided to try to write Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

When starting out, did you have any specific things that you wanted to say or did you just allow yourself to explore freely on the subject? When I began the actual writing, I knew Billie Holiday's bio so well that I thought the most important stories needed to be told. But the reason I wanted to write the play didn't really have anything to do with those events or experiences. I wanted to deal with something elusive, something I wasn't aware of consciously. So though I had a sense of where I wanted to go, the ground I wanted to cover, there was a sense or feeling that was somewhere between triumph and tragedy, failure and enormous success, that I hoped to find. I only felt I'd done so once "the voice" spoke to me.

GA: How did you technically begin working on the piece (notes, yellow pads, etc.)?

LR: I wrote everything out in longhand at first. I plotted the "stories" she would recount and I was clear about their order because I felt the selection of the songs determined (through lyrics or sound) the mood swings necessary for the play. I did much research, listening to her recordings, reading everything I could, and speaking with people who'd known her. Once I'd done that, however, I had to await the "arrival" of the text. Then I rapidly typed, typing as fast as I could without thought, just feeling to guide me. I tried to be the character so I could work it through my own consciousness.

GA: As you developed the play, how did you shape it?

LR: At the beginning, I thought the character herself would be haunted by the question I myself couldn't resolve. How did she wind up a few months before her death performing for a handful of patrons in a down-and-out dive in a city she hated, a city that had sent her cold turkey to prison? From research about her, I knew the stories, the events in her life I wanted her to tell, important segments of the "Rosebud" question, and so I listened endlessly to her recordings in order to find the songs that would provide the structural basis of the play. I shaped its structure by means of those songs because they were to function as extensions of the "inner" monologue.

GA: Did you have readings of segments of the play as you were writing it?

LR: No. The major problem for me was a failure to find the voice of the character. I'm not an African American, and the "voice" remained mine no matter what I did. After listening for eighteen months to a tape recording I'd made of her songs, I dreamt I was hearing Billie Holiday speaking to me. I also dreamt that I was at my typewriter (remember those?), typing what she said. I awoke enough to realize I was in bed. I ran to my typewriter and began writing . . . somewhere in the middle of the play, but it didn't matter. What mattered was I'd found the voice. I couldn't prove it was her, but the important thing for me is that it was!

GA: How did you know when the piece was ready for a first complete read-through?

LR: When I finished the first draft, I knew the play was "done." I'd lived with it for so long that I just knew. It was all I'd wanted to do in terms

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of dealing with the artistic struggle of the singer on stage. For me, she was Casey at the bat, desperately trying not to strike out. I couldn't do any more.

How did those early readings go and how did that affect your rewrites?

The readings went well, but mainly as a confirmation of what I'd done, not as a reason to do otherwise. Usually I gain greatly from asking actors to participate in readings or simply to read for me alone. But in this case it was all too immediate, too personal for me to gain much from the objective experience of hearing it read. I didn't rewrite. How did you find the actor for the original production (workshop, showcase)?

The theater held auditions, and it came down to someone who could do the workshop but not move should the production go on, and someone who was free to do both. Fortunately, we went for the latter. The hit that resulted from that production provides about half my income twenty years later.

Did the play evolve much from the showcase (workshop, readings) to the actual first production?

No. It was one of those seldom-in-a-lifetime experiences where . . . once it happened . . . it was as finished as I was able to make it once the words "Curtain, end of play" were reached.

Describe your relationship with the director of the first major production. Where was he or she most helpful?

The director was a European whose approach to directing was to prefer a dead playwright. I was persona non grata, and he wasn't at all interested in my ideas about the play. He threatened to quit when I asked if I could give him my comments.

The actor was an African American from Detroit who rehearsed the play in a British accent. My one success was my appeal to the producer to convince the director to allow the actor to try performing the play in her native Detroitese. The producer, who also hadn't wanted to hear from me, heard the difference, and the play was allowed to come alive for the first time.

Any playwright knows dialogue is like music. It has its own rhythm, tone, and mood. An actor "singing" out of key can ruin a play. Happily for me and my play, this was avoided—barely so, but it was. How did those first performance(s) go?

Excellently. The first performances were in a showcase theater with fewer than ninety seats, but the New York Times came, saw, and gave it two rave reviews on the same day: one for the play and one for the jazz. The showcase production was sold out within two hours. Almost immediately, plans were made to move the production for a longer

GA: How is writing a one-person play different from writing a regular play?

LR: Not at all different. The conflict consists simply of pitting one part of the character against another part of that character. Or it may be pitting the character against his/her world. The answer is always conflict, conflict, conflict. Character is the embodiment of that conflict.

GA: What advice do you have for other actors/playwrights just starting out who want to develop one-person shows?

LR: Know the character well enough to look for the point in his/her life that is the key or can be used as the key to unlock the demons within. We all have them—we all try our best to avoid acknowledging them. In writing a play, those demons must be made manifest both visually and verbally in order for an audience to glimpse their own.

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The interviews in the following chapters were with solo show writers/performers. These were the general questions asked:

What prompted you to start writing your own show? How and when did you first start?

Did you have any specific goals or things that you wanted to say, or did you just allow yourself to explore freely?

How did you begin working? What kinds of things did you do those first times?

As you developed your piece, how did you shape it or do rewrites to illuminate things?

How did you deal with self-censoring, doubts, etc.? How did you know when the piece was ready? How did you rehearse the piece?

Describe your relationship with your director. Where was he most helpful? What was it like performing the piece that first time up? How do you feel the performances have changed?

What's it like for you to perform your own work every night in front of an audience?

As you've worked on new material, how would you say your work process has changed?

What advice do you have for other actors just starting out who want to develop their own one-person shows?

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