It was December 2011, at a local holiday party, that Peggy and I ran into Lisa Welch. Lisa and her husband Paul have long attended CATF and are two of our most ardent supporters. Over the previous fall, Ed had been receiving pitches from agents and playwrights for a new CATF commission, which was possible due to a gift from Shepherd University in honor of our 20th anniversary season in 2010. Ed was committed to an idea from Mark St. Germain, who wanted to write a play about the complicated friendship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. That play would go on to be last summer’s Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah.
But then something else exciting occurred. We received a written pitch from the highly secretive Jane Martin. It read:
In H2O (in this case, meaning Hamlet to Ophelia), a young man who aimlessly arrives in LA becomes a giant movie star with little acting background. Because of his sudden eminence he is invited to do a Hamlet on Broadway. He has no internal structure to deal with or understand his success and takes the Hamlet in the hopes it will make him understand his relationship to acting and thus provide his scattershot life with a meaning. He has complete casting approval and holds the Ophelia auditions in a sublet arranged through a construction worker he grew up with. A young woman who has not yet succeeded in NYC has a callback. When she arrives she finds him in bed with another auditioner and while she sleeps he has cut his wrists (yes, it’s also a comedy). Our heroine gets him to the hospital and gets the part. Turns out she’s an evangelical Christian. And the play concerns structures of meaning and lack of meaning and how meaning is achieved. It’s a dramacomedylovestory.
We had the chance to commission a new Jane Martin play, to be directed by theater legend Jon Jory (who founded the Humana Festival of New American Plays while Artistic Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville). Plus, it sounded great. But what to do? Commissioning is not only a leap of faith on part of a theater company to believe in a playwright’s ability to produce a quality piece of art based squarely on a seed of an idea, but it also has financial considerations. In addition to the regular royalty payments CATF authors receive, there would be an upfront commission fee.
We were already on board with Mark St. Germain and excited about that project. How could we afford another? And then we ran into Lisa and Paul, explained what had landed in our laps, and asked if they had any interest in bringing a new play to life, from scratch, 18 months from then. Not only did they say yes, they even sought out another local couple–Larry Dean and Mina Goodrich–to partner with them in the endeavor.
So, we had the ability to have two commissions, both set to premiere during the 2013 season–the year we marked our 100th play produced.
Not quite a year after the initial pitch, in November 2012, we received the first draft of the play from Jane’s agent, Bruce Ostler at Bret Adams, Ltd. A few weeks later it was read for the first time with Mr. Jory in St. Louis and then we did a private reading, with its eventual cast, in New York City in April 2013 at the home of Doug Moss (the architect behind the Center for Contemporary Arts) with many special guests in attendance. The show went into rehearsals in June.
The end result was the world premiere of “H2O” last summer, with Mr. Jory at the helm, and two extraordinary actors (Diane Mair and Alex Podulke) tearing up our intimate 90 seat theater, with a 10-person crew seamlessly shifting from scene to scene to (countless) scene.
The show sold-out its run, garnered critical affection from all over, and–most recently–is a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award (to be announced next month at Jory’s Humana Festival).
[Click here for the story, as printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with a listing of the other finalists.]
The Steinberg/ATCA is the largest prize of its kind in the United States. It honors plays that make their premieres outside of New York City, as considered by the ATCA membership. “Gidion’s Knot” was the citation winner last year and, in fact, “H2O” marks CATF’s fourth play in four years to be considered (“Breadcrumbs” by Jennifer Haley and “Lidless” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig are the others, both from 2010).
“H2O” is where it is because Lisa, Paul, Larry, and Mina believed in an idea and allowed us the opportunity to dream about its possibility. They gave us the chance to commission a new Jane Martin play and work with Jon Jory. Most importantly, a new American play was born and will forever have a home in our collective theatrical canon. And hopefully, in April, it will be honored on the national stage. Those of us who saw it, know it is more than worthy.
Here’s Jon Jory talking about Jane Martin’s “H2O”:
And here are some never-before-released production photos with Diane Mair as “Deborah” and Alex Podulke as “Jake” (all taken by Seth Freeman):