Sunday, March 6, 2011

Theater feature: Playwright sees spirit of art in 'Ghost-Writer'

J.‭ ‬Fred Shiffman and Kate Eastwood Norris
in Ghost-Writer, at Florida Stage.‭
(‬Photo by Ken Jacques‭)

By Hap Erstein

If you knew that a book called‭ ‬The Iron Whim describes itself as‭ “‬a fragmented history of typewriting,‭” ‬you may not bother to pick it up.‭ ‬But you will be glad that Michael Hollinger did,‭ ‬for it led him to create‭ ‬Ghost-Writer,‭ ‬his latest work to be produced by‭ ‬West Palm Beach’s Florida Stage.

For as dry as the book sounds,‭ ‬it is full of juicy literary anecdotes.‭ “‬A couple of them dealt with Henry James,‭ ‬how the beginning of his dictating to his secretary really altered his writing style a great deal,‭” ‬says Hollinger,‭ ‬who teaches theater at Philadephia’s Villanova University.‭ “‬Most notably,‭ ‬after he died his secretary claimed to continue to receive dictation from him.‭”

That suggestion of supernatural communication from beyond the grave,‭ ‬or perhaps a good old-fashioned con game,‭ ‬was enough to get Hollinger studying James and the early‭ ‬20th century as research for his play.

Ultimately,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬he decided not to use James as a character.‭ “‬I quickly jettisoned James,‭ ‬because for me I was really interested in the relationship between the late writer and the secretary,‭ ‬particularly any romantic or sexual overtones that might be there,‭” ‬he explains.‭ “‬James was unmarried and probably homosexual anyway,‭ ‬so it didn’t have the same kind of charge I was looking for.‭”

Instead he invented Franklin Woolsey and his loyal,‭ ‬unattached secretary Myra Babbage,‭ ‬as well as Woolsey’s understandably jealous widow,‭ ‬making a three-character drama.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬there is an unseen interrogator,‭ ‬sort of a stand-in for the audience,‭ ‬sent by Mrs.‭ ‬Woolsey to debunk Myra’s far-fetched account of the words she hears from the next life.

While‭ ‬Ghost-Writer has a supernatural component,‭ ‬Hollinger suggests that it could also be seen as a play about artistic inspiration.‭ “‬It was kind of the last place I got to in the play,‭ ‬the rumination about where do the words come from anyway,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬And is there not a mystical quality to that‭? ‬If words come to me inexplicably from some unknown place,‭ ‬why can’t the same words come to Myra and she consider them hers‭?”

Kate Eastwood Norris and Lourelene Snedeker
in Ghost-Writer, at Florida Stage.‭
(‬Photo by Ken Jacques‭)

He set his play very deliberately in‭ ‬1919.‭ “‬I actually dabbled with the‭ ‘‬30s for a while,‭ ‬a romantic era in some respects.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬one of the things that didn’t work about that period is that it was post the sexual revolution of the‭ ‘‬20s,‭” ‬explains Hollinger.‭ “‬I felt that‭ (‬for‭) ‬the particular social restraint required for a man and woman working in the same room for hours on end,‭ ‬unsupervised,‭ ‬it really needed to be pre-‭‘‬20s.

‭“‬And particularly just post-war.‭ ‬Just after World War I,‭ ‬there was a real surge in spiritualism.‭ ‬So for all kinds of reasons,‭ ‬that year just felt right.‭”

Ghost-Writer‭ ‬is the fourth play of Hollinger’s to be produced at Florida Stage over the past‭ ‬14‭ ‬years,‭ ‬after‭ ‬Incorruptible,‭ ‬Red Herring and‭ ‬Opus.‭ ‬All seem wildly different,‭ ‬though the playwright says,‭ “‬I do think that rhythm is something they share.‭ ‬A sensitivity to the sound that they make.‭ ‬The sound is very different in all cases,‭ ‬but I’m very attentive to the sounds.‭ ‬And I think that they all,‭ ‬to some degree,‭ ‬try to tease out a spiritual dimension or value out of the chaff of life.‭”

In recent years,‭ ‬Hollinger has been trying to bring a subtlety to his work that did not exist previously.‭ “‬In‭ ‬‘Opus,‭’‬ one of the things I was trying to do was write something more austere and spare and focused on human interaction.‭ ‬It felt like as I was maturing as a writer,‭ ‬I didn’t want to tap dance quite as much as I did when I was younger,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬I wanted to see if the audience could be held with smaller gestures.‭”

With‭ ‬Ghost-Writer,‭ ‬he is trying to push that envelope further.‭ “‬I thought,‭ ‘‬All right,‭ ‬what if very little seems to happen,‭ ‬what if there’s a character who sits on the stage and says,‭ “‬Nothing may happen today,‭ ‬but you have to pay really close attention,‭ ‬because if you don’t,‭ ‬you’ll miss it.‭” ’ ‬I wanted to see how subtle the gestures could be and still compel an audience.‭”

The play,‭ ‬which opened Friday at the Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬had its world premiere last fall at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company,‭ ‬where many of his scripts first meet an audience.‭ ‬But Florida Stage is often a close second.‭

“Florida Stage is one of about three or four theaters only that will get the first look.‭ ‬It’s really because I know it’s OK if my underwear’s showing a little bit,‭” ‬he says sheepishly.‭ “‬That they’ll look through that and see what I’m getting at."

Producing director Lou Tyrell responded quickly and enthusiastically.‭ “‬I was so delighted,‭ ‬because the plays are so different,‭” ‬says Hollinger.‭ “‬I have such respect for a person and a company that really wants the next play to be the best version of whatever it is,‭ ‬not the last play you wrote.‭”

As with‭ ‬Opus,‭ ‬he hopes that‭ ‬Ghost-Writer‭ ‬makes its way to off-Broadway,‭ ‬though that is never his intention as he writes.‭ “‬I don’t write plays for New York,‭” ‬Hollinger insists.‭ “‬I write them for whoever will do them.‭ ‬But I do think it’s a play that would work very well there.‭ ‬It’s got a New York setting and being literary,‭ ‬I think it might appeal to a lot of people there.‭ ‬I think it has the potential to be commercial.‭” ‬

GHOST-WRITER,‭ ‬Florida Stage,‭ ‬Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬April‭ ‬3.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25-50.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬585-3433‭ ‬or‭ (‬800‭) ‬514-3837.

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