Walking “On Air” – Journey of a Play

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Sometimes our life and work synergize in ways that we don’t expect.

In writing my new play, On Air, that certainly happened, with the added synergy of such dedicated theater artists who brought it to life at San Diego’s Scripps Ranch Theatre (SRT) and its new play festival, “Out on a Limb,” which concluded yesterday.

In On Air, a young, principled professor at a San Diego community college navigates his family obligations and professional ambitions against the backdrop of a campus in crisis from the Vietnam War.

The one-act version of On Air premiered in the inaugural year of SRT’s Out on a Limb New Play Festival in 2012, with the outstanding cast (shown clockwise, below) of lead actor Jeffrey Jones, Vimel Sephus, Charles Peters, Joshua Jones, Steven Smith, and Tyler Jones, directed by Antonio TJ Johnson.

(All Photos by Darren Scott)

That original one-act version focused only on the professor, Gary Gordian, and four students who come to him in various stages of crisis — amid being drafted to Vietnam, family dysfunction, relationships. Gary’s dedication to his ideals, amid campus politics and pressures, results in his job and future being at risk.

When the play drew such a strong response from audiences, SRT Artistic Director and festival producer Robert May asked me to expand the play to fill out the picture of Gary, to include his personal life and challenges.

Four years and much soul-searching later, the full length version of On Air premiered this past week, with the spectacular cast of Fran Gercke, Mariel Shaw, Charles Peters, Carlos Angel Barajas, Michelle Marie Trester, Robert Bradvica, Chris Torborg, Michael Crosby, and directed by Liz Shipman.

My heart and mind are still spinning. Why?

Because On Air and Gary’s story are loosely based on the life of my own father, a retired and courageous literature professor, who endured much of what is chronicled in the play.

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Fran Gercke as Gary

And in the full length, I introduced the character of Gary’s wife, Siran, loosely based on my mother.

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Mariel Shaw as Siran

Their life together, amid Vietnam, family challenges, and the early days of the tumultuous San Diego Armenian community, are my main expansions to the play.

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Writing about family, about personal events, is never easy. I don’t do it often. Of course I poured over old letters, photos, articles, recordings. But how can one do the subject matter justice, truly? How can a writer be objective in these situations? Or maintain a workable balance between fact and fictionalizing? These challenges, among others, are why it took me so long to complete.

And of course I eventually had to show my family the script. I was braced for the worst, because I could only imagine what my parents, nearly 50 years later, would feel as they revisit one of the hardest times in their young lives. But they couldn’t have been more supportive. A few requests for changes, sure, but just when I was expecting a full-throated veto or a boot out the door, I instead got a thank you. “Thank you for acknowledging that it was such a difficult time in our lives,” my father said. It was a time in their lives that pre-dated me and yet which they always mentioned as I grew up, hence my desire to explore it in writing. I wanted to show them coming through, victoriously.

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With the remarkable dedication of Robert May, SRT and actors who sat to table read the working versions of the script so many times over the past four years (Thank you!), as well as the heartfelt new cast of the full-length version, I saw the story come to life in ways I did not expect.

Even with the fictionalizing I felt necessary in various portions of the play, the fact was that I saw the spirit of my parents, and I saw the spirits of all the students my father used to talk about, even years after their interactions…

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I saw the dilemmas relived of a young married couple facing difficult family choices and pressures, community politics and dynamics.

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Carlos Angel Barajas as Van

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L-R Michael Crosby, Carlos Angel Barajas, Robert Bradvica, Michelle Marie Trester, Chris Torborg, Sarah David, Morgan Kirby

I saw how seminal events and interactions in our lives can stay with us for decades, for a lifetime, and remain as vivid as the day we first experienced them.

IMG_3686L-R: Robert Bradvica, Chris Torborg, Charles Peters, Michelle Marie Trester

The production had its challenges — a key last minute cast change due to illness, and even an accidental campus lockdown where students spotted rehearsal of a tense scene involving a (fake) gun and called the police, fearing the worst, only to be told it was a play. In the very same scene, on opening night of the earlier one-act version, the power went out in the theater, and audience members thought the darkness was part of the scene as stage managers quickly shined flashlights on the actors. The unexpected should always be expected in theater…

But I’m grateful for all of it — and for the conversations the play is generating among audiences, artists, family members, everyone. My father, after watching a period of his life pass before him onstage, thanked me for the play and the “love letter” that it is. Not sure if he even knew that those are the words I always govern my writing by, to make my words a love letter to the story and characters I create. So I was beyond grateful, and at peace, after that.

It seems that the play will have a life beyond this lovely first production, which is encouraging. Because once again as a writer I’ve experienced first-hand that facing our biggest fears and challenges in our life and work yields the deepest meaning in both, a combination of inspiration and release that our souls never get enough of.

As I always say, yet with more conviction every time:

Onward.