Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lesllie Powell: No rest for the weary

Port playwright Leslie Powell.
If you see Leslie Powell and she seems somewhat, um, unresponsive, don’t jump to the conclusion that she’s suffering from, you know, that well-known affliction of playwrights. Chances are that she’s not even lightly toasted, whatever a comfort that might be, no matter how loud a martini might be calling her name. No, she’s probably just taking a nap, whether her body agrees or not. The Port playwright hasn’t been sleeping well, hasn’t been sleeping through the night. She keeps waking up to deal with crises involving the new production of “The Way Life Should Be.” Whether they have actually happened or not. Stress. Everything that could go wrong, plus everything that has gone wrong. Like having two actors from the original production, people who know the work, pull out at the last minute. When she was 2,500 miles away, in Tucson, her winter hide-away. And the dreams — sleep-shattering nightmares about everything that could possibly go wrong. All these things banging around her brains. She’s thinking about hypnosis to help calm her down. She's not joking.  Stress: It’s a monster. You’d think the she would be used to it by now. After all, the Merrimac Street resident isn't exactly a rookie. She’s the one of the founders of North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative and Readers and Writers, INK. She’s a playwright who always seems to have something going on. Later this year, for example, she going to be attending a production of her play “Backfire,” about a young woman who seeks revenge on a man who bullied her in high school, at the Inspiration Festival in Toronto. Then she and her hubby, Ron Pullins, also a playwright — and owner of Focus Publishing in Newburyport — will be checking out “Ice Dancing” at the Last Frontier Conference’s New Play Lab in Valdez, Alaska.  But that’s different. Sitting in the audience, watching a play you wrote, the only real worry in the world is not being too deep in the wine line for intermission. That’s not exactly true, says Powell. She recalls Port playwright Gregory S. Moss fielding a question during a talkback session, someone asking what it’s like sitting in the audience watching someone do one of  your own plays. His response? “It’s like having your skin flayed off ... while you’re alive.”

 But this is different. She’s producing “The Way Life Should Be,” which runs May 4 to 13 at the Actors Studio, and that’s a whole different thing. She’s responsible for everything on the tech side, from lights and sound, to the human side, keeping the actors involved and on point (and, like the playwright, sober, hopefully) to managing the publicity machine: Not just getting together press releases and calendar listings for what remains of the ink-soaked wretches and pain-in-the-ass bloggers, but also for the modern kind of publicity humping, from tweet to status update, from online videos and email blasts, to strategies to secure additional funding because everyone knows that even if you fill every seat every day, you still won’t be able to pay all the bills. (If you want to donate to “The Way Life Should Be,” click here.) Something that up to this point Powell, as a playwright, not a producer, has been spared. “I’m kind of spoiled, I guess,” she says. “I’m a very bad self-promoter. It’s the last thing I want to do.” Ergo, stress. Ergo zombie Leslie. “This is not the way life should be,” says the playwright, joking. “It should be smooth and a lot less stressful.”

“The Way Life Should Be” has been kicking around, in one form or another, since being staged as a short at the 2004 New Works Festival. This time out, it’s a Stage Three Workshop Production, basically the last stop before a full-fledged production. premiere of everything that’s been done, with sets, costumes, lighting, and staging, but, at least in theory, a work in progress, allowing the playwright to see what works and what doesn’t work on the stage. It’s a collaborative process. Directors have their own take on the work, actors, who have to speak the lines people write, usually bring their own insights. “It’s an odd thing,” says Powell, the co-founder, with Hailey Klein, of Random Acts, the play-in-a-day series, as well as  Writers and Actors, INK, a workshop for cold readings of scripts in various stages of development, and the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative, which brings out new works from local playwrights as staged readings. “It’s yours and it’s not yours,” she says.

There are no significant changes to the script since its off-book staged reading last year during a session of the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative. The reading was a big success. The audience laughed, cried and and gasped in all the right places. The audience feedback at the end was fairly gushing. Powell had obviously dug pretty deep with this one. It’s a thought-provoking play focusing on a much-delayed, much-anticipated reunion, a get-together Elaine has played out in her head thousands of times over the years. She has not seen Grady since he was a little boy  — 19 inches to be exact — when she gave him up for adoption. He’s 27 years old now. She knows it was the “right” thing to do, but that decision has cast a shadow over the rest of her life, which has been shrouded in doubt and guilt for as long as she can remember, although the emotional ramifications have mostly simmered below the surface. He is the “ghost baby” who has been haunting her all his life. Wherever that played out. She has waited for the call for years, not expecting to get it, because in her heart she feels guilty, she feels like she is being — and maybe should be — punished because, after all, what kind of monster would willingly give away her child. Nobody ever said it — to her face. But she has felt the scorn of icy imagined stares through most of her adult life. No amount of comfort, reassurance from Jess, her lovie-dovie, long-time live-in will change that. And, boy, does she have a surprise coming her way. Grady is all grown-up, 27 years old, and a member of a dour, finger-pointing fundamentalist sect. And he isn’t alone. He’s with his girlfriend, another fundie, supposedly celibate — with missionary parents to boot. Who is pregnant. It’s an edgy, funny, poignant piece that explores limits of love.  It’s a complicated story told easily and with a very light touch. It does not offer any easy answers. That this production will be staged on Mother’s Day is strictly a coincidence. 

And a post-script: Powell is back from a long day of rehearsal. But, the playwright says, she thinks she will I'll sleep well: the rehearsal went well, the cast is great and hitting their marks. And, she adds, "seeing my play come to life ... Wow! That's why we go through the hell."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: “The Way Life Should Be” by Leslie Powell will be staged May 4 to 13 at 50 Water St., The Tannery, Mill #1, Suite 5, Newburyport.  Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18, or $15 for students and seniors. There will be a $5 discount on May 5 for all members of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston (STAB). For reservations and information call 978-465-1229. Tickets are also available online through For reservations call 978-465-1229 or purchase from

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