For this post, I had intended to briefly mention the 10-year anniversary of the Two Spoons world premiere in St. Petersburg, Florida, include a couple of pictures from the production, then hit publish. But as I continued writing, it became clear I had more to say, some demons to exorcise. And then the stream of consciousness, or subconsciousness, made me think about some of my experiences as a writer and producer. Below is the result.
Ten years ago, the first production of my play, Two Spoons, was produced by Gypsy Productions at the Suncoast Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. I had originally submitted a different play, Andrew Reaches the Other Side, to Gypsy a year earlier. Since Gypsy produced gay-themed plays, and the lead character in Andrew was a gay Buccaneers fan, I thought the play would go over well in the Tampa/St. Pete area.
After he read the play, Gypsy’s artistic director Trevor Keller emailed to say he liked the play and was considering it for future production. Shortly thereafter he went to my web site and saw that I had just posted news about finishing a draft of Two Spoons. He asked if he could read that. A few weeks later, he said both plays were under consideration for their upcoming season.
Until then, I had received nothing but rejections for full-length play submissions. (A couple of short plays had been selected and produced in festivals.) In the late 1990s, Andrew got close. At least I think it got close to a production at Rattlestick Theatre in NYC. At the time, one of Rattlestick’s co-artistic directors loved the play, but the other co-artistic director wasn’t so sure. For over a year and a half they held three developmental readings. After each I made changes to improve the chances of winning over the reluctant co-artistic director. In the end, nothing I did satisfied him, and they opted to fill out their season with a different “gay”-themed play. (Which, by the way, was written by someone on their board and was awful.)
Endless developmental hell—and seeing the play that had been selected over Andrew—lit a fire under me. Plays are meant to be seen, not just read over and over and over again. My experience with Rattlestick became the catalyst to form Other Side Productions. With the sole purpose of bringing Andrew to life, and with the help of my friend Jenn Skinner, we raised money and assembled a team. In March 2000, on a shoestring budget, Andrew opened at the Bank Street Theatre for a three-week run.
After opening weekend, word-of-mouth about the show spread fast—in a good way. (For the young ones out there, word-of-mouth is old school for going viral.) For the rest of the run, we played to sold-out houses and some standing ovations. I received the best review a playwright could get:
Peter Mercurio is a talented new playwright who has succeeded in writing a ‘different kind of coming-out story.’ He will make a substantial contribution to American culture in the 21st century. I look forward to following his progress over the next few years.
Seriously, the only direction from there is down.
Although we longed to extend the run, we couldn’t. The production ran under the Equity Showcase Code and could only continue under a different contract code with everyone involved getting a weekly salary. They deserved to get paid, but Other Side didn’t have the resources beyond providing a meager travel stipend. Even if we did, or found investors, we wouldn’t be able to stay at the Bank Street Theatre. Another company was loading in the same day we loaded out.
The production of Andrew remains the most magical theatre experience of my life. From pre-production to strike, every aspect of getting a show up seemed to effortlessly fall into place. Those involved liked each other; no offstage drama or tension. That’s rare in the real world, but almost unheard of in the theatre world. The cast and crew of Andrew became my family. Some later turned into actual family. Others became life-long friends.
I’ve never been able to replicate what happened with Andrew. At times, I’ve come close. I’ve had the fortune of being involved with some stellar productions, some good ones, and some disasters. And this brings me back to Two Spoons. In the span of three years, it was all three.
St. Petersburg, FL
I couldn’t take time off from work (and parenthood) to be in Florida for rehearsals, but I spoke with Trevor, who was directing, by phone almost every day. I felt like he understood the play and we were on the same page for how it could be staged. The play seemed to be in good hands, but without being physically present, I had to have faith in our conversations.
Much like Other Side, Gypsy was a small nonprofit company. So in exchange for them covering my travel and lodging expenses, I waived royalties. Trevor flew me down for tech week, dress rehearsal, and opening weekend. The day I arrived, he picked me up from the airport. Then before rehearsal, we had an early dinner with Daniel, one the actors in the show, at CiCi’s pizza. Okay, not New York-style pizza, but good enough.
I was excited to see the space and meet the rest of the cast and crew. I worried, would Gypsy do the world premiere justice? While the production wasn’t the most polished production I’d ever seen, the answer was a resounding yes. The actors embodied the characters with so much energy, heart, love, and desire to get it right. The production was scrappy and beautiful and just about perfect.
After dress rehearsal, I thanked everyone for their dedication with a corny baseball analogy, a rambling monologue about the thousands of baseball players who dream of making it to the pros, but never do. And that for those who do, how most of them will never get to the World Series. The baseball analogy was met with a few vacant stares. Then I made the comparison to being playwright, and how all playwrights dream of seeing their play(s) come to life on stage. And how grateful and lucky I was for this opportunity to be in the game with them. I rambled on a little more then simply said, “break a leg tomorrow night.”
My husband Danny flew down to be with me for opening night. We loved every second of watching the cast and crew bring the story and characters to life. Their hard work and devotion paid off:
And now, with Peter Mercurio’s Two Spoons, Gypsy is offering us a tightly staged production that’s as professional as anything you’ll find at American Stage, Stageworks or Jobsite.
The script is wonderfully literate; the acting is superb; the design is attractive. Director (and artistic director) Trevor Keller is finally demanding top quality from his fellow artists.
Mercurio’s dialogue is so polished that you can’t help but enjoy it for its efficiency and intelligence. You also have to like his many story-telling devices…
Trevor Keller’s direction is kinetic, as fluid as Mercurio’s script…
Everyone in St. Pete, at Gypsy and in the supportive gay community, treated me like a star. The respect and attention was a little discomforting but also humbling. I hadn’t planned to return for the show’s closing three weeks later, but I had to see it and my new Gypsy family one more time. Besides, like Andrew Reaches the Other Side, Two Spoons couldn’t extend at the Suncoast. The resort in which the theatre resided was about to be bulldozed for a rumored Home Depot. I believe Two Spoons brought the final curtain down on the Suncoast Theatre.
St. Pete in a word: CHARMING
New York City
Because I wanted my family and friends to see the play, I began the process of putting together a NYC production. Like Andrew, pre-production and rehearsals ran as smooth as could be. We opened on September 5, 2008, with a few very minor glitches in timing and pace, but nothing disastrous. Everyone felt good about the production. A couple of days later, our first online review came out.
In compiling this post, I couldn’t find the review that slammed the show otherwise I would have posted a quote, but let’s just say at the time after I read it I crumpled into a fetal position in Danny’s arms and heaved tears all night until exhaustion finally put me to sleep.
So much time and energy goes into getting a play produced and for our first review to stink so bad was devastating. Maybe the play should have been leveled with the Suncoast Theatre a year earlier. The next day, I flipped out even more, feverishly made script changes and demanded my friend Chuck, the show’s director, make changes as well. Of course, in hindsight, I know this was a mistake. The review was just one person’s opinion. Luckily, our second review was an rave:
Peter Mercurio’s splendid new comedy about a soon-to-be-wed gay couple shows us that with a little ingenuity, even the aphorisms of the old American sage Ben Franklin can avail us!
Two Spoons puts gay love into perspective as it poses poignant questions while delivering non-stop laughs and penetrating social commentary; besides a skillful examination into the psychology of same-sex relationships, the play is replete with throwbacks to Benjamin Franklin, his maxims and his rather unique way of living.
I give Two Spoons two thumbs way up!
Here’s the thing, both reviewers had attended the same performance. Go figure. It’s all a crapshoot. All subsequent reviews were mixed. From one of those other reviews, I learned a valuable lesson: if you’re going to portray a gay pickup scene in a steam room, you had better show some full frontal. At least for one horny reviewer.*
*Not to be confused with the features reporter I threw out of an Andrew Reaches the Other Side rehearsal for coming on to one of the actors.
For the rest of the run, I ignored the official reviews and paid attention to the audience. They are always the true barometer. You can tell a lot by the way they react during and respond after the show. Some of the best feedback came via email from complete strangers days or weeks later:
Just a note to say how much my partner & I enjoyed Two Spoons, which we caught this past Sunday. We were extremely impressed by the credibility of the characters, dialogue, and situations… and we laughed (and identified 100%) with Steve’s horror at the thought of his relationship with Larry labeled as “an open relationship,” regardless of his interest and openness to a 3-way. I also loved the way you worked in the element of the inner thoughts of the characters. It’s something that’s easy to do in a novel, but very tricky to pull off in a play without compromising the theatricality. Yet you do it magnificently. Truly a riveting experience, touching and funny. We’ll watch for future productions of your works. And of course feel free to add my email address to your mailings.
New York City in a word: STEADY
I hadn’t submitted the play to Bailiwick Rep. Someone involved with the company had seen or heard about the NYC production and contacted me about staging the play in Chicago. Wow, Chicago! My first thought was, this is going to be great, there is so much talent in Chicago. I believed the play would receive a top notch production, which then would lead to more productions across the country. Oh, the folly of a daydream believer. Cheer up sleepy Jean, it gets worse.
While I was grateful to have another staging of the play, the Chicago production turned out to be a disaster. Once again, I was unable to be there in person for casting or rehearsals. I spoke with the director regularly, and he seemed to understand the play. I arrived the day of dress rehearsal. Two seconds in, I realized he didn’t and the play was in trouble. The performance was flatter than flat. I thought I had written an edgy comedy, but it felt more like an interminable funeral procession. Every aspect lacked energy, except for the vibrant lighting, which of course illuminated the flaws. I prayed the lights would somehow permanently blow an irreplaceable fuse.
I squirmed and cringed in the back row, wishing I could sneak out without having to meet anyone after. But there were post-dress rehearsal drinks planned. What could I do? And what could I say? “PULL THE PLUG!” came to mind. If only another great Chicago fire could sweep through just this part of the city to destroy the theatre, spare me the humiliation, and save the audiences from wasting their time and money. I didn’t know how things had gone so wrong. All I knew was nothing had gone right. And there was no time to fix it.
Now I’m no stranger to rough, shaky rehearsals, but witnessing something you wrote bomb, especially when you’ve seen it succeed in the past, is hard to bear. That dress rehearsal was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on stage. And I’ve seen some pretty bad shit.
Unfortunately, opening night didn’t get any better. Deadly. I think half the audience fell asleep. I made some excuse why I couldn’t stick around afterward and escaped as fast as I could. And that was it. I was in town for two more days and was supposed attend the next two performances, but I never returned.
The Chicago production deserved to be panned and the critics didn’t disappoint. The destructive Chicago fire, via reviews, came, but it burned just one person—me. Yes, the show was bland from start to finish, but the critics blamed the writing and raked me over the piping hot coals. Thanks Chicago for overlooking all the other flaws.
In contrast to the St. Pete and NYC reviews, here’s a taste of how Two Spoons was received in Chicago:
…this situation could be enough on which to base a full-length play, but not in the hands of Peter Mercurio, whose script keeps the stakes low and the characters static.
Mercurio has no idea how to write realistic dialogue…
Peter Mercurio’s very talky and sometimes meandering comedy Two Spoons.
Peter Mercurio’s sluggish comedy…makes some strained attempts to weave the aphorisms of Philadelphia native Ben Franklin into his script…
Static, meandering, sluggish, strained. Ouch! They sure fixed my wagon. Now, while it’s tempting to call the critics lazy for just blaming me, they weren’t wrong. I agreed with every word. The Chicago production truly was a confusing and lackluster shit show that didn’t make any sense. Still, it was hardly all my fault. (The play had worked twice before.) But, I suppose, when everyone else bails, the writer must go down with the ship. Silver lining: I learned the art of blurb revenge, that is, pulling quotes from reviews to make them seem like raves.
Danny, our son Kevin, and I were to return to Chicago a few weeks later. We had planned to see the show and make Chicago our summer vacation. Flights were booked. Hotel reserved. Cubs tickets scouted. Sightseeing destinations mapped out. Just one problem. I couldn’t go back. I had no desire to see the show again. And I didn’t want my family to see it either. Danny understood. We’d lose the money spent on airfare, but we agreed it was a small price to pay for avoiding torture.** (Mercifully for future audiences, the show closed early.)
**To make up for losing our summer vacation, I slapped together an impromptu trip to Niagara Falls (sans barrel). There’s nothing like crisp Canadian air to clear out the senses. We also cleansed ourselves behind the Canadian falls, under the American falls, and in a speed boat zipping around and plunging into the Niagara River rapids. We made it back to Chicago in July 2016.
Adding insult to injury, I never got paid. The contract read, “Producer shall pay six percent (6%) of the gross weekly box office receipts to Author(s) as royalty for the production.” So even if the show grossed only $100—it probably made more—I should have received at least $6. But wait, it gets better. Four years later in 2013, after my family’s Found story went viral, someone associated with the artistic director/producer, now at a different organization, expressed interest in reading a stage version of Found, reminding me that I had previously worked with said artistic director. As if I could forget. Um, how about asking him to cough up my royalties plus compensation for all the pain and suffering I endured for his hack job on my play? Okay, so the embers still smolder.
Chicago in a word: LISTLESS.
Writing is an emotional journey. Producing a play is a challenging puzzle with many moving parts. It’s a miracle when it all comes together like it did for Andrew Reaches the Other Side in 2000 and Two Spoons in 2007. Just one chip or broken notch can ruin the whole endeavor. All you can do is show up, give it your best effort, and hope others are doing the same. But no matter what happens in the end, you can’t control the outcome.
And as family and close friends can attest, I could run a Letting Go of Outcomes Boot Camp. My recent Zero Fucks Left To Give Certificate hangs proudly above my desk. Zero’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
There’s so much more I could say about a writer’s pain and suffering—cue the smallest violin in the world—but now’s not the time. I’ve got too many wagons to fix. But watch this space.
For now, enjoy one of the songs that inspired me while writing Two Spoons, Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated.” (And not because of its ties to the Spiderman movie.)