Out of character - Our gadfly's belated foray into theatah

I'm a Queen Anne guy, Lower Queen Anne (Uptown?), that is.

I like an urban neighborhood that, except for when the visiting suburban yos come screaming drunkenly out of the clubs late on Friday and Saturday nights, feels bustling but not crazy.

As a younger guy, my first year in Seattle after my divorce, 20 years ago, I lived in the University District.

We had nothing like it in Cincinnati, where my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, was trapped smack dab against a couple of rough neighborhoods. As the night grew later, students and clubgoers in Cincinnati walked more and more gingerly.

On the other hand, the Ave in 1985 felt like a private entertainment center and circus rolled into one just to open this Midwestern boy' eyes, and I loved it.

But by the time I returned in 1993, from Idaho, I preferred Lower Queen Anne. Ditto for 2002 when I returned from Hawaii.

All that said, I like to occasionally go up to Capitol Hill, which despite some gentrification is still Seattle's most urban space, conventionally un-conventional. Broadway may be the only street in Seattle that stays awake more than 16 hours most days and not just on weekends.


So, when somebody who works for the Seattle Rep volunteered my name as a writer to the world's quickest theater festival, 14-48, held this year at the Capitol Hill Arts Center, on 12th near Pine, I took a couple of buses up to the hill and did something I've never done before: I wrote a play that very night.

You see, 14/48, begun in 1997, has seven playwrights write two one-act plays on two consecutive nights: 14 plays in 48 hours.

The way it worked was, I showed up at CHAC at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 5, and met my six fellow writers, three of whom, were, like myself, 14/48 virgins. We had the nametags to prove it, too.

We were greeted by Sean Belyea, a stocky, smiling man in a porkpie hat who has been with 14/48 since its inception nine years ago. Belyea gave us a brief history of 14/48 and explained what we had to do.

Now I've written five novels (three agented, but none published), 60 short stories (20-plus published), 200 poems (30-plus published) and thousands of newspaper columns, news articles and features (almost all published).

But, except for two tentative, overly talky attempts to be Tennessee Williams 25 years ago, I've never written a play. And I took almost a year to pen my two failures.

This time, I had about 12 hours.

A theme was drawn out of a hat filled with one- and two-word themes. False Assurance was it. Then each writer drew a pole position and the size of his or her cast. I drew a sheet that said: play number three; cast one man, one woman.

I walked a few blocks in the rain, nearly oblivious to a couple guys in dresses, and a shimmy-dressed girl under a shock of hair so pink, the curly mane could very well have been atop a bunny rabbit.

I didn't have the time or urge to do even a little social gawking.

Instead, I was busy thanking the theater gods for two pieces of beginner's luck.

First, the theme false assurance screamed George "Pinhead" Bush Jr. to me. Who in the modern world seems more falsely assured? Not even Jessica Simpson can say so many inane, inaccurate things, and all while never losing his perpetual fratboy smirk.

The other character had to be the lovely Laura Bush.

I sat down at my computer at 9:30 p.m. and had a finished six-page play by 11.

I e-mailed "Two Hearts, One Thought" to Belyea and went to sleep thinking, Hey, this playwright thing is easy.

In the morning it was the 2-bus-in-the-rain routine again.

At 9 a.m. Belyea and local actor and 14-48 artists' liaison Tim Hyland were in their tiny office talking about me. They hadn't gotten my play.

I felt my first flutter of panic. But before I could start begging for a Xanax from somebody, Belyea found my effort in the 14-48 computer's Spam folder.

Egad, my first critic was a damned machine.

Next, we seven wordy folk went out onto the space where the "magic" would happen in a mere 11 hours and met our directors. They picked us by grabbing one of seven manila envelopes full of brand-new plays.

My draw was Sarah Shipley, a pretty 27-year-old blonde whose fresh demeanor hides the fact that she's been involved with 14/48 for eight years, first as an actor and then a director.

Shipley sat next to me reading my play, while I played with her terrier puppy Sarge. I kept peeking at her, pride of ownership vying with concern, since she wasn't laughing out loud at a play I thought was funny.

But when she finished, she said, "It's funny. I like it. I am going to sexualize it a little, though."

I have always been a fan of sexualizing things, so I left without even meeting my actors. Evidently, some writers try to not let go of their babies. But Belyea had told us the night before that once the cast was chosen by the director, the writer had to leave the theater.

Shipley had told me she had seen directors rewrite entire plays.

"That doesn't always go over too well," she added.

I needn't have worried. Shipley only cut a few lines from "Two Hearts," although she did add a little sexy stage business for Mark Boecker and Teri Lazzara, my presidential couple, to show off their acting chops.

Boecker was a wonderful choice. Even though he doesn't look much like Pinhead, he perfectly captured the bluster and sort of fey confusion Bush presents to the public whenever he hasn't had time to rehearse his lines. Lazzara was regal and funny as the girl who has to take charge.

The audience - which included Jim Jewell, the writer who had thrown me to this particular band of wolves, and my youngest daughter, Vanessa - laughed uproarishly and gave Shipley and my effort a rousing hand.


After the seven plays were concluded, we seven now-blooded scribes once again convened with Belyea, in front of the audience, as he picked a theme chosen out of the hat by an audience member.

This time our theme was Misunderstanding, and my cast was four male actors.

As my daughter drove me home, I kicked around a couple of ideas with her - her degree from the University of Washington is in theater arts - but I think I knew I was whistling past the theatrical graveyard.

I took three passes at misunderstanding, drinking Guinness and smoking Camels (my New Year's resolution literally up in smoke). Finally, a little before midnight, I gave up and e-mailed something to Belyea.

The next morning, back at CHAC, I noticed some of my fellow writers looked almost as raggedy as I felt. One guy said he hadn't gotten to bed until almost 4 a.m.

I drew Beth Raas, another 27-year-old theater veteran, as my second director. Raas is directing the revival of a Sam Shepard play next month on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately for Raas, she didn't have Sam in early January - she had Dennis.

Watching Raas read my play was almost as painful as writing it had been.

"Settlin' the Differences" was a meeting between Osama bin Laden, Dick Cheney and rapper Eminem. The event was moderated by William Shakespeare, back from the dead for the first time.

"What is Greg Nickels doing in this thing?" Raas asked.

Your faithful correspondent, drifting in a fog of cigarette smoke and treading the surface of a sea of Irish stout, had somehow let Seattle's ever-more-corpulent mayor sneak into a four-actor play.

"Can we get another actor?" yours truly asked Raas.

Having been married for 12 years once long ago, I immediately recognized Raas' look as a mixture of surprise (Can he really be this dumb?) and frustration.

For the second day in a row I left without meeting my actors. But I didn't leave confident this time.

Returning at 8 Saturday night, I said hello to three friends and retired to the balcony above the audience and the stage, where 14/48ers could watch the proceedings without rubbing elbows with the audience.

It was another full house, approximately 180 folks each night for both shows (there was also a 10:30 show). Raas, also on the balcony, didn't rush over to say howdy. She looked harried.

I learned later that she and the cast - Anthony Winkler, Seanjohn Walsh, John Barkely and Alex Samuels as one heck of a hyper Shakespeare - spent much of the day rewriting my sophomore theatrical effort.

The play was recognizable to its author, but barely.

When in doubt, theater folks tend to do a lot of stage business. My play was no longer an attempt to do social commentary. It was slapstick, sort of a grownup Punch-and-Judy show. Some of my funny lines did survive, though, and the acting was inspired lunacy. The audience seemed to love it.

Later, on seattleperforms.com, a critic noted that although he liked other plays more, the audience "buzz" was for "Settlin' the Differences." "To each his own," Joe Boling wrote, probably unaware that his opinion of "Set-tlin'" was pretty close to its author's.

All in all, I had a heck of a good time.

I wrote a successful little play, and I wrote a play that without directorial revision would have been an even bigger mess than it ended up being.

Later, Anthony Winkler, who in addition to being a fine Dick Cheney is a luminary at Seattle Children's Theater and a 14/48 steering committee member, sat with me over beers and explained what had happened.

"The first night your play had an arc. Beginning, middle and a funny ending. The second night was more commentary than theater. And you didn't give the actors enough to do."

I feel like I learned my lesson, and I've already e-mailed Belyea to let him know, like Barkis in "David Copper-field," that I am willin' to do it again sometime.

14/48 repeats this summer, with some of the same folks and with some of that up-and-down new virgin blood.

Even if they don't ask me back to write again, I'll be in the audience watching.

There's nothing quite like 14/48, about as instant as theater ever gets.

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