ANCHORS, TALK SHOWS, LOVE AND POETRY WITHOUT MOTION is a story about two pen pals who grow up together communicating through handwritten letters, and how the repetitive exposure to sensationalized news programs and talk shows infiltrates their lives and turns their innocent relationship into a ratings-war casualty.
Written in 1991, ANCHORS takes a trip back to a simpler time, but also serves as a prescient warning of what’s to come in the future.
GENRE: Heartfelt comedy
LENGTH: 60-90 minutes
CAST SIZE: 6
CHARACTERS: 1 Male, 1 Female (both early 20s); Remaining roles may be any age, sex, or gender
Script is free to read. Permission is required for any and all public performances or readings. To inquire about about obtaining rights, please use the contact form.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
In January of 1991, I was finishing the first draft of another play, Water Signs, when the idea for Anchors, Talk Shows, Love and Poetry Without Motion entered my creative thoughts. I was 22-years old, had graduated seven months earlier from Montclair State College (now a university), and languishing in what felt like a long case of the now-whats, as in now what do I do with my life?
It’s not like I didn’t have a job. In fact, I had been working and earning money since I turned 12 in 1980. My first job was helping my older brother Joe and my sister Linda deliver newspapers. When they surrendered their paper routes, my younger brother Matt and I inherited them. In addition to being a paperboy, I also mowed neighbors’ lawns for a quick buck.
Every Sunday morning during the 1980s, I attended mass, and not the stain-glassed, Roman Catholic kind my parents dragged us to Saturday evenings “to get it over with.” No, on Sundays I found a different church, and I willingly sat in the first pew to hear the real preacher of my youth and FM-radio Jesus, Casey Kasem, sermonize about popular music on American Top 40. I listened intently and took notes about the songs and stories behind the music.
Despite earning money at a young age, I was also spending it. The week following American Top 40, I had a shopping list for songs on 45 I needed to own. After school and after my paper route, I’d ride my bicycle into town and gobble up vinyl from either Music Merchant or
Town & Country Music, the two record stores in my hometown, then race home to slide the records out of their sleeves, and carefully place them under the needle.
I wish I could remember my first 45. It could’ve been any one of these: Elton John’s “Little Jeannie,” Oliva Newton-John’s “Magic,” Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts,” The Commodores’ “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” Marty Balin’s “Hearts,” Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love A Rainy Night,” John Lennon’s “Watching The Wheels,” or the very apropos Songs on 45’s “Songs on 45 Medley.” My first album, I believe, was either The Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” which came out when I was three, or The Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today,” which came out two years before I was born. These purchases were completely influenced by my older brother Joe, who, in our shared childhood bedroom, always listened to The Doors, The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin on headphones while singing out loud. For a long time, I only knew these songs as he sang them in a pitchy, tone-deaf acapella that could strip lead paint off a radiator.
If I had any money left after the vinyl shopping spree, I’d sometimes grab a split fried hot dog and fries with my friend Scott at Jolly Nick’s, a greasy spoon joint shaped like an old railroad car, or I’d meet up with other friends at the Seville Diner for a toasted and buttered bagel with grape jelly. Most weeks, I even contributed a little to a Christmas Club so I could buy my parents and friends gifts at the end of the year.
Although my hometown record stores carried almost everything I desired, they were mere roadside chapels compared to the glorious cathedral called Tower Records in the city. When I was old enough, 14, I’d take the Red & Tan Line bus for the pilgrimage into Manhattan. Guarding my wallet, I’d walk south from The Port Authority Bus Terminal to Tower Records on the corner of East 4th Street and Broadway. Once there, I’d explore the 45 slots and LP bins for hours until I had made my final selections, get in line, and proudly leave with the yellow, red-lettered bag. Those city trips meant sacrificing the hot dogs, bagels, and Christmas Club contributions for the week. But a smokey, over-salted, half-burnt pretzel from a sidewalk cart more than made up for it.
When I turned 16, I gave up my paper route for a job at CVS, where I worked as a stock boy, head cashier, and pharmacy technician for seven years. Making more money meant scooping up more vinyl. But little did I know, the compact disc would soon make the object of my desire obsolete. I had resisted switching over to cassettes and I planned to do the same with CDs. One day, my friend Ralph, the first person I knew to own a CD player, nudged in Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” My jaw dropped when I heard the crisp clarity during the piano opening. But the awe mixed with sadness and a sense of loss. I had meticulously curated a collection of music on vinyl that now seemed pointless and worthless. But I could see the writing on the wall. Vinyl was dying, and soon LPs and 45s would disappear entirely from all record stores. If I wanted new music, I had to cave in and buy a CD player. So, for the last few years of the 1980s, I made it my mission to get all my favorite LPs on compact disc. I started with Bryan Adam’s “Reckless” and 10,000 Maniac’s “In My Tribe.”
Most people, if lucky, look back on their youth as a time of innocence. I do, but I also know the haze of nostalgia has a way of polishing the scratches. Were my teen years during the 80s really all that innocent? Hardly. I had secrets to keep, and internal demons ready to pounce. Internally, I spent a tremendous amount of energy keeping my sexual desires in check. Externally, the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed over my entire childhood. And while I didn’t realize it, nor could I have conceptualized it at the time, I was losing so many possible future mentors to AIDS.
So this was where I was in 1991, wondering what the future held while reflecting on the “innocence” of my past. And not just my innocence, but those of my generation who watched a lot of television, especially MTV. When the buildup to the Gulf War (aka Operation Desert Storm because, you know, wars now needed branding) began, and then the actual shock and awe bombing campaign followed that January, everyone I knew was glued to CNN. The war scared me and my friends. Would it expand? Would it turn into a quagmire like Vietnam? Would the draft be reinstated?
Of course it scared us. The (Wolf) Blitzerized coverage was meant to scare us so we’d keep watching. CNN, with all the major broadcast news programs following suit, made their war coverage an amped-up movie trailer, complete with intros and outros that pulsated with bold graphics and ominous scoring. With sensationalized lead-ins like that, how could the talking heads and panel of “experts” live up to the hype? Most of them matched the energy with hyperbolic opinion diarrhea. Desert Storm media coverage had launched us into the absurd Too-Much-Information Age. (Not to be confused with the Too-Much-Disinformation Age Rupert Murdoch and social media would bring later.)
When I started writing Anchors, CNN was the only accessible 24-hour news channel, and the three main talks shows were Donahue, Oprah, and Sally Jesse Raphael. There were others, but the flood gates hadn’t completely opened. I imagined a world where no one could escape news or talk shows. The first characters I concocted were Philip Brenner, the anchorman, Gail Brenner, the talk show host, and her panel of experts. As a contrast to their looming, sensationalized, and soulless omnipresence, I wanted to tell a love story. This is where Danny and Melissa, two elementary school pen pals, entered. Plus, I had all this schmaltzy, juvenile poetry I had written in the 80s and I wanted to use it some way in the play, so I gave the poems to Danny so he could mail them to Melissa, who ate up every word.
I handwrote the first ten pages of Anchors then transcribed them into a computer in the Mac Lab at my alma mater, Montclair State. From there, I wrote the rest directly from my head onto a floppy disc. I made several more trips to the Mac Lab and completed a first draft in mid-February. Anchors remains, from first word to first draft, the fastest I’ve ever written a play.
In March, I gave a copy to a few friends for feedback. Pat and Jenn, fellow Montclair State alums who had just formed a theatre company called Life Rep (of which I was also a member), were the first people to read the play. Pat’s comments were extremely supportive, saying he thought Life Rep should produce it. Jenn made some helpful suggestions. I took notes but didn’t change a word. I wanted more feedback. As more Life Rep members and other friends read the play, the more I was able to see commonalities in the critiques. Throughout April, I focused on rewrites.
Chatter among company members soon turned to getting the play on its feet, and in May, Life Rep voted to produce Anchors that fall. It would take just ten months for the play to go from an idea in my head to opening night in front of an audience. This quick time frame did not prepare me well for the future. It created a false impression that anything else I wrote would also go from idea to stage within months. It’s not how anything worked after Anchors. Developmental hell is real. And I’ll always be grateful my friends at Life Rep never put me through that process.
In between the play being selected and the October production, another group of Montclair State alums and I produced two one-acts at a small theatre in downtown Brooklyn. Water Signs was one of the showcased plays. We rehearsed in June for three performances in July. The rehearsals took place at my friend Scooter and Lisa’s apartment, and without air conditioning, the process was more than hot and bothered. Well, I was bothered by the end of it. Every person involved wanted rewrites specific to their characters. I tried to oblige everyone, but in doing so I lost sight of why I wrote the play in the first place and what it was about. After that experience with Water Signs, I vowed not to repeat the same mistakes for Anchors.
Several Life Rep members submitted proposals to direct Anchors, including Jenn and Cathi. They would end up co-directing, which for this play worked well. Jenn would direct the love story between the pen pals, and Cathi would direct the news and talk show segments. At our first meeting, just us three, I told them about my experience with Water Signs, and asked them to direct as if the playwright was dead and therefore not a word could be changed. Not only that, I asked that no one involved be able to ask the playwright a question. Why? Because he/I was dead. In other words, I challenged them to figure out meaning, motivation, intent, and to get creative with solutions. They agreed, and as you will read later, rose to the occasion.
We placed an ad in Backstage for talent and were overwhelmed by the response. Hundreds of actors mailed us their headshots and resumes. Auditions took place on August 27th with callbacks the next night. After callbacks, we made offers, and most were accepted immediately. We had a read-thru and rehearsals started soon after.
Jenn, Cathi, and I lived in New Jersey and had full-time jobs. After work, we’d often meet at Jenn’s house in Teaneck and carpool into the city for rehearsals. For some reason one particular evening, we didn’t meet at Jenn’s and traveled separately. Traffic entering the Lincoln tunnel was brutal, but somehow we arrived to the helix entering the tunnel around the same time. I was in the far left lane when I passed Jenn’s car in the middle. I slowed down and waved. She looked frantic, and started mouthing something and gesturing with her arms. I didn’t know what she’s trying to tell me, but I couldn’t stop, and pulled ahead. A few moments later, her lane started moving faster and she caught up to me, this time with her window rolled down. She screamed she didn’t have any money to pay the toll as she passed. Then, a few cars later, Cathi passed me. Their lane came to a stop. In the middle of the helix, Jenn put her car in park, got out, and walked back toward me. Cathi called out to her, so Jenn went to her car. Cathi handed Jenn some cash. Jenn ran back to her car just in time for traffic to start moving again.
During rehearsals, I often stepped out of the room so the directors and cast could work unimpeded. (Despite what collaborators tell you, no one really wants the writer there anyway.) Jenn and Cathi handled all questions and concerns and, together with the cast, they figured it out. The show opened on October 25th at the Ernie Martin Studio Theatre on West 43rd Street. For the last performance, we lost one of our leads, Betsy, due to a death in her family. We had no understudies, so Jenn stepped in to play Melissa, and she was pure magic in the role.
Here’s something I wrote after the show closed: “This was the greatest single experience I’ve had in theatre to date. The cast gave everything, the directors gave everything, and I will never ever forget any one of them for their belief in and dedication to the play. My life has been changed by this wonderful and indescribable experience. It is said that some things happen only once in a lifetime, but I hope not because I would be honored to work with any one of these people again. The ups and downs, the nervousness, the laughter and tears and the memories were all worth it. If given the chance to go back and do it over, I would change only one thing. I would savor every second.”
The backstory to Anchors doesn’t end there. Life Rep was taken off life support after the production. Jenn and I, having grown close, formed a new company with two other friends. We called ourselves Seven Seal Ensemble, and we raised money to produce a series of 12 ten-minute plays at the William Redfield Theatre on West 45th Street in 1992. We called the series “Language of Love.” I wrote one, directed one, and performed in two. My play stunk. I should have never allowed it to be included. I cringed every time it started. I learned not everything I write deserves to be staged. Also during this run, I realized I didn’t like acting all that much. I wasn’t good at it either. I enjoyed directing, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about pursuing, like writing.
I wrote every chance I could, finishing three drafts of three full-length plays within the span of a year. All three became spectacular trunk plays, meaning they were so bad I put them in a trunk where they’d never see daylight. But heck, I was writing and honing the craft. No doubt, those crappy trunk plays helped me become a better writer.
In 1993, Seventh Seal raised money to produce another series of one-acts called
‘til death do us part.” Jenn, having directed the previous production and getting a taste for playing Melissa, insisted we produce Anchors. And this time we weren’t messing around. Instead of holding auditions, we sent flattering letters to soap actors offering them roles. It was an audacious ask considering we weren’t offering any payment. We received interest from several actors, including Christopher Lawford, whom we had asked to play Anchorman Philip Brenner. He was interested but wanted to meet us first. Jenn and I, knowing we were out of our league, met him at the Westside Diner on 69th and Broadway one evening. We talked about the play and our vision for the production. He liked the play and role, but unfortunately declined to accept a few days later. (Jenn remembers him telling us he couldn’t accept the role because his storyline on All My Children was about to get big, which meant his character was about to shag Erica Kayne.)
In the end, four soap actors signed on to perform with us. Chris Bruno and Alicia Coppola were cast in Jenn’s play, The House With Nobody In It, and Felicia Dyer and Lonnie Quinn (currently the lead weather anchor on WCBS-TV in New York City) were cast in Anchors. Lonnie as Danny and Felicia as talk show host Gail Danbury. We couldn’t believe these four accomplished soap actors would volunteer their time and energy to our little production. The desire and allure of performing in front of a live audience is strong. Knowing we’d probably get coverage in soap magazines; we hired a publicist. The publicist handled all the press inquiries and tried to bring in reviewers. Since it’s nearly impossible to get a reviewer to cover a short 2-week run, we doubted any reviewer would attend.
“til death do us part” opened on April 13, 1993 at the William Redfield Theater. For various reasons, the magic of Anchor’s first production with Life Rep didn’t carry over. I began to question if being a playwright was something I should continue pursuing. Then, after a performance, I was backstage when Jenn told me a reviewer was waiting in the lobby to speak with me. Peter Filichia, at the time a writer for American Theatre Magazine, had come as a favor to our publicist. I had never met a critic or theater writer before, so my nerves flared up and fired on all cylinders. But Peter put me at ease immediately with gentle and generous feedback about the play. He even singled out one scene as the the off-off-Broadway scene of the year for him.
Was I about to get my first published review? No, just his verbal praise in the lobby. Peter said he didn’t have the space or couldn’t write up an official review for the magazine. Instead, he introduced me to his friend Jeffrey Sweet, a playwright and teacher, who ran a playwrights group. At Peter’s urging, Jeffrey invited me to join. And I did. I now belonged to my first writer’s group, with deadlines to bring in pages of new material. Because of Peter’s kind words, I continued to write. It was the encouragement I needed at the time to keep going. Now, truth be told, over the years, especially during the blocks, struggles, rejections, and heartbreaks, there may have been a few times I cursed the fact that he waited for me.
I left Seventh Seal Ensemble for personal reasons after the run. My co-artistic directors brought in someone new to replace me, and eventually took up residence at the Bank Street Theatre in the West Village. The space had been abandoned for years and was filled with all kinds of junk, large and small. They cleaned-out and renovated the space, installed a new lighting grid, and updated the consoles in the tech booth. Living nearby, I often showed up unannounced to sand, paint, or do whatever was needed. Jenn tried getting me to reconsider my involvement, but I no longer wanted to worry about being a producer. I just wanted to write. And hoped that when I had something new they would allow me to use the space for rehearsals or a possible production.
They produced a few shows over two years at what they called The Hamlet of Bank Street Theatre. Until it was all over. Something happened. I still don’t know exactly what because I wasn’t involved or privy to the inner workings anymore. All I know is that due to some shady dealings and mismanagement, the remaining producers were forced to forfeit the space. I was so glad not be involved in the messy end, but I also lamented losing the space as a future home for my work.
Jenn still loved Anchors, and in 1996 she suggested we mount it one more time for a scaled-back production with just her and me in charge. Even though I had moved on to writing other stuff and had joined another writer’s group, Playwrights Gallery, I agreed to produce Anchors again with her. In fact, I was thrilled. Here was an opportunity to undo some of the things I didn’t like about the 1993 production. We rented a very small theatre on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building on West 23rd Street and ran for one weekend in April 1996.
After that production, I began working on another play, Andrew Reaches the Other Side, with Playwrights Gallery and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. I’ve written a separate piece about Andrew’s backstory, but long story short here: Rattlestick had three readings of Andrew, but never slotted it for production. In 1999, tired of endless readings, I decided to raise money to produce Andrew on my own, forming Other Side Productions (with Jenn) in the process. Ironically, we rented the Bank Street Theatre, which was now under new management. Andrew opened in March 2000, and word of mouth about the show quickly spread. The show sold out many performances and, in the end, remarkably, made money, which allowed us to put down a deposit for four weeks in October 2000.
As the weeks and months passed and we couldn’t find or settle on what original play we wanted to stage, Jenn suggested we do Anchors. I wasn’t gung-ho about producing it again, but we were running out of time and didn’t want to lose the deposit money. Besides, both of us knew every word and all the previous production pitfalls, so we were hopeful we could make this production shine brighter than the others. I decided to make some updates and gave it a snappier title, Yesterday’s News.
On August 28th, a few days before rehearsals were to begin, my boyfriend and future husband Danny found an abandoned baby at a New York City subway station. We had no idea at the time, especially during the rehearsals and run of Yesterday’s News, that a family court judge would ask us in December to become that baby’s parents.
Also, since we couldn’t find a director, I had to take on that role, something I had no desire to do. Then we couldn’t find a light and sound board operator, so I ended up filling those roles, too. In addition to my responsibilities for the production, along with holding down a regular job, I was also a congressional campaign advisor for the November 2000 elections. If I wasn’t in a cube at work, at a rehearsal studio or theatre, I was canvassing New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District trying to get my sister Linda elected to the US House of Representatives. I will always remember the fall of 2000 as the busiest and craziest time of my life. And I wasn’t even a father yet.
By the time Yesterday’s News opened, I was more than ready for it to close. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent, I was tempted to close the show early just to get some sleep. I had spread myself so thin that I couldn’t give the production my undivided attention. And, unlike with the run of Andrew a few months earlier, there was no word-of-mouth excitement for Yesterday’s News. After a performance with no audience, I wanted to escape to a place where no one could find me. When the show finally closed, I exhaled for a month.
A few years ago, I picked up Yesterday’s News to read. I changed the title back to Anchors, Talk Shows, Love and Poetry Without Motion, and removed some of my attempts to modernize certain aspects, mostly those related to technology and language. I still like the play. Like me, it’s dated, yet oddly remains relevant. Anchors, I suppose after all these years, could now be considered a period piece. And I’m okay with that.
As a side note relating to my vinyl collection mentioned above:
In 1986, as part of high school graduation, Seniors were asked to predict where they thought they would be in 10 years for the Class Prophecy. Here’s mine:
I didn’t quite make it to owning a radio station, and my ’64 Ford Falcon caught fire and I eventually gave it to a junkyard, but so many other unpredictably wonderful things happened instead. I still play Stevie Nicks records any chance I get.