TERRY AND THE PIRATESWHY DOES EVERYONE MAKE A BIG PRODUCTION OUT OF THIS WOMAN'S PLAYS?
When writers write books, they're published as they've written them. Photographers' photographs are displayed as they've printed them. But playwrights and their plays, which require middlemen, are at the mercy of the actors and directors who produce them.
The Terry Earp Festival at the 7th Street Theatre complex features five different works and provides an interesting demonstration of what can happen to a play from the time it leaves the playwright's hands to the moment the curtain rises on opening night. Forty-three-year-old Terry Tafoya Earp says she came to playwriting only recently as a result of what she termed "a midlife crisis." During the past four years, she has written a number of one-acts and full-length plays, and several have been produced by small groups around the Valley.
She is one of a very few people in the Valley--or anywhere--to get plays produced. It's a hard thing to do, and she's been lucky. But that luck is a double-edged sword because the productions of her work have been almost uniformly poor.
Earp has a sharp sense of humor and an uncanny ear for dialogue. She has taught herself to use them in creating imaginative plots, employing such unlikely elements from popular culture as standup comedy and female impersonation as vehicles for storytelling. Her characters have an unmistakable humanity and speak straight from the heart.
But in production, her Skimpies and A Touch of Tortilla were afflicted with music; the latter was also expanded from one act to two, a length it was unable to carry.
When it comes to her plays, Earp becomes a girl who can't say no. Understandably eager to see her work produced, she displays a flexibility befitting a sideshow contortionist. No one can deny that the process of developing a play for the stage requires collaboration. This playwright, though, is far too amenable to the suggestions of directors and producers hell-bent on improving her scripts. She allows revisions and additions that cloud her original vision and weaken--rather than strengthen--it. It was Peter Cirino, then-artistic director for Teatro del Valle, who suggested expanding Tortilla into a full-length play. After the rewrite, only five pages of the original script survived. "I didn't even want to rewrite the damned thing," Earp says.
Cirino also suggested the addition of music. "He said, 'You know, if there were music, I think it could be really marketable because there are very few Hispanic plays with music in them.' So I said, 'Okay,' and that's how it happened." While it would be wrong to imply that Earp and her lambs have been set upon by wolves, what she and others have done to her plays is a testament to the battle of egos waged in any theatrical production and the kind of compromises playwrights must sometimes make in order to see their works on the stage.
Playwright's Workshop Theatre, a group that specializes in developing new works, and Teatro del Valle, the Valley's only Hispanic theatre group, have been Earp's primary outlets, and are collaborating on the festival. Joining them is Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, a new group begun by former Teatro artistic director Cirino. All are small, struggling outfits with tiny budgets and minimal facilities. In addition to Skimpies and Tortilla, the festival is offering a set of previously unseen one-acts about marital dissolution under the title A Friendly Divorce. In the festival, both Skimpies and Tortilla are being presented in their revised forms. The problem is that the musical grafts shifted the focus away from the original stories but gave nothing in return. Even though I still don't like the play in its present form, I love the idea of Skimpies: A postmodern Aphrodite, facing eviction from Mount Olympus, goes slumming in the mortal plane. She attracts new followers by dispensing lingerie made from miracle fibers that can make fat women thin, plain women pretty and sexless women sexy. Earp drags ancient mythology into the modern world and creates an extravagant fantasy that contrasts nicely with the play's simple message that true beauty comes from within. Further, the story's darker side--the goddess's greed, her son Cupid's cupidity, a straight man cross-dressing to romance a nun--adds a welcome edge. What's the fatal flaw? By shoehorning in several songs that were written after the basic script was completed, Skimpies became a play trying to be a musical. In the end it's neither fish nor fowl.
In this current edition, directed by Ramona Richards, the actors seem to have confused fantasy with farce. The characters are reduced to a set of physical and vocal clichs, so broadly and badly acted that they're offensive. A Touch of Tortilla, on the other hand, is much more down-to-earth and mines the playwright's bicultural background to tell a simple story about self-acceptance, honesty and family loyalty that brims with affection--but without whitewashing what must be bitter memories. In its first go-round, however, this play was so badly done as to be nearly unwatchable. After weeks of production problems and setbacks, Tortilla still wasn't ready when opening night rolled around. But time constraints dictated that, ill-prepared as it was, it had to go on. And though it did improve with time, that first performance was a horror.
Though the festival production has been amply rehearsed and competently directed (again by Peter Cirino), it nevertheless wears its pasted-on tunes about as gracefully as a person who has suddenly been given a third arm. The songs are stylistically incompatible and interrupt the action at key moments, each time bringing the play's momentum to a halt. A bluesy hymn to Santa Rita is clever, but, like the other songs, unnecessary.
The balance of the festival's offerings, the three short duets that make up A Friendly Divorce, are being produced for the first time. They focus on the way couples from three different generations split their blankets. Brody vs. Brody presents the breakup of two Generation X-style standup comics. Heavier in tone, The Big D follows a pair of grown-apart yups as they attempt to shore up their crumbling marriage through counseling. The strongest of the three, Cora Lee's Epiphany, documents the give-and-take between a couple of aging middle-Americans whose decision to divorce comes on the eve of their 50th wedding anniversary. The epiphany of the title refers to the night Cora Lee happened to see a squadron of flare-bearing Elvis impersonators descending from the night sky into a Las Vegas casino parking lot, a moment that changed her life.
Of this group, Brody really takes it in the shorts. There are currently two different casts and, according to the playwright, none of the actors involved is capable of presenting the work as written. Much to the author's dismay, whole chunks of material were changed--without her knowledge--to compensate for the fact that the actors couldn't handle it.
Interestingly, Brody vs. Brody has been selected to be part of the first annual Doubleday One-Act Play Festival in Los Angeles this September. Regarding the event, Earp said, "It will be really interesting to see it with people who have strong standup skills. That's the biggest problem with the piece: It can't be done everywhere by anybody. The actor's sense of humor has to match mine."
Among the two full-length and three one-act plays that make up the festival's offerings, only two of the shorter pieces survived the development process unscathed. The Big D and Cora Lee's Epiphany are presented in a straightahead fashion, without any musical transplants, extraneous dancing or gratuitous mugging. It's amazing how far a little simplicity will go.
Good productions also show how strong Terry Earp's playwriting skills are. Among other Arizona playwrights, she gets high marks.
"The best part about her is that she's hardworking," says Gus Edwards, a teacher of playwriting and multiethnic theatre at ASU. "A lot of people that write plays, they want it to be finished with the first draft."
Edwards, who has been a mentor to the playwriting workshop at PWT, read early versions of both Skimpies and Tortilla. "I have a saying that plays aren't written, they're developed," he says, "and that's what Terry does. She works on them and works on them, and as far as I'm concerned that is the hallmark of a true playwright. I'm enthusiastic about her."
Equally enthusiastic is Michael Grady, Phoenix-based author of Yesterday's Hero and Comes the Revolution, whose writing has garnered national attention. Grady recently saw a staged reading of Brody vs. Brody at the 1992 Arizona Theatre Conference. "I liked it," he said. "I think she's got a wonderful sense of humor and she doesn't take a whole lot of time to set up a joke. She can be funny fast and move on." He goes on to say, "I think she has a talent that she's just beginning to explore. Brody is the first and only thing I've seen of her work, but I've seen ability there also to explore the darker side and balance that."
Born in Pueblo, Colorado, Terry Earp came to Phoenix in 1971, but didn't start writing plays until the late 1980s.
"I spent ten years as an insurance and investment person--a certified financial planner--and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing it. So I said, 'If money were no object and I could do absolutely anything in the world I wanted, what would I do?'
"I've been a member of Toastmasters for 14 years, and 99 percent of everything I've ever written has been humorous--it's just what comes out. I had an idea for a story, only I'd never written a story in my entire life, and had no idea how to do that. So I bought a book and looked under the chapter on playwriting. That's how I wrote Dinner at the Last Chance Cafe." Six months later it was produced at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
Earp is philosophical about the travails her plays have suffered on their way to the stage. "Initially it didn't bother me because I was just happy to have them up there," she says. "And that's true to a degree now, because at least if they're up then I can see where they're working and where they're not working and make changes before I send them out of state. So I'm really using them all as a workshop. "Thing is, I want a higher quality workshop to really see what I can do. I've learned that in the future I'm going to be very careful about who directs and I want to have a bigger say in the casting."
On balance, though, she's grateful--if embarrassed--for the attention the festival has brought her so early in her career. "They usually do these things when you're dead--or dying," she says. "I even had a full physical--just in case someone knew something I didn't. But I'm okay."
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