Things That Go “Click” in the Night // By Adam R. Perlman
Writer Adam R. Perlman describes the elusive trade of dramaturgy – and midnight pancakes are to thank.
Theatre starts at 8. That’s what I was always told. What I thought I knew. Until Transport Group. There, for me, theatre started at 11. Or midnight. After rehearsal, exhausted, when our work would truly begin.
Let me back up. I was 24 and in law school when Artistic Director Jack Cummings III hired me as his assistant. (Why was I studying to be a lawyer and looking for work off-Broadway? We can save the early life existential crises for another piece.) I’d studied dramaturgy in college (also, neurobiology—crises wherever you looked), and, after a few months, Jack asked me to become Transport Group’s first Literary Manager and Dramaturg. Now what is the job of a dramaturg? To explain what the job of a dramaturg is. For me, that meant the advocate of the play. The person who helped it become itself.
That was the work we were doing every night, when we were supposed to be sleeping, recharging, approximating health. I understand that Transport Group now has a proper process for developing new material. For the love of David Merrick, donate some bitcoin to building it out even further. Back in those days, we didn’t have developmental readings or labs—we had the small hours. In theatres and diners across the city, fueled by grease and corn syrup, we pulled apart what we had just seen. We dissected and diagrammed. We thought and felt and argued—with each other and the work—until it started to take new shape. The next day we would try out that shape…and wonder how we had convinced ourselves this was the thing. In retrospect, sleep deprivation wasn’t always our friend. But sometimes, it was. Sometimes that collision of deadline, desperation, and adrenaline got the synapses firing in unexpected new patterns (thank you, neurobio) and the next day we would get that peaceful click. And the play would start becoming more confident, more…itself.
I shared this experience with Jack on several pieces, but the one that bonded us for life was Marcy in the Galaxy, an original musical by Nancy Shayne. The premise was deceptively simple—a woman, alone in a diner on New Year’s Day, has a breakdown that brings her to confront, well…all of it. A stifling day job, unfulfilled artistic dreams, family, and sexual trauma, all the love she still has for her mom and twin sister…oh, and did I mention, it’s a comedy?
By the time Transport Group agreed to produce it, the brilliant material had been through several incarnations. The latest version was wonderful—and not right. As was every previous iteration. Bringing those elements into clear, hilarious, heart-wrenching alignment had been elusive. The trunk had hundreds of pages of dialogue, dozens of songs, and we had to learn all of it—not just to potentially use it, but to understand the process Nancy had been through. If we were going to get her and guide her, we had to be in it with her.
But there was an early hiccup. Nancy didn’t trust me. Actually, she kind of hated me. Who was this child to stick his hands in a musical partly based on her own life and start performing surgery? I don’t know if being gentler or more deferential would have helped, but why the hell didn’t I try?
Then came the odd night we didn’t stay out after rehearsal. When the spectacular cast (led by the pre-TV but insanely talented Donna Lynne Champlin) went home, so did me and Jack. Nancy knew what she had to write before the next day and was off to write it. The call came at 1 a.m. It wasn’t going well. It was full “Loveland” sequence musical meltdown. Jack wasn’t available—I think he was home being a husband or a human being or something—or maybe, like all great directors, he engineered the right situation and then stayed out of it. I headed over to Nancy’s one room mansion and while I did some work on the show, I did more work on our relationship. Feeling with her, sharing with her. I’m pretty sure we sang together. That night I finally figured out how to help the show become itself.
To this day, Jack and Nancy are two of the most important people in my life—closer than family. And the work we did together is where I started to learn real collaboration. I’ve carried it with me on every project since.
Transport Group was the place where this all happened. Maybe the only place where it could have. And I don’t know if they’re actually set up to accept bitcoin, but it would be hysterical to watch Jack try to figure it out.
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