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.

 

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Encore: What I Learned as a #RRBC Book of the Month

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I had the distinct honor and pleasure of my novel Bravura being selected as a Book of the Month by the Rave Reviews Book Club (RRBC) in October.

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It was a tremendous month. I saw sales of the book increase. More reviews of the book came in on Amazon and other sites. Increased attention on Twitter came in the form of new followers, retweets, and so on.

But more than gaining numbers, I also learned a great deal from the Book of the Month process. The lessons will stay with me far beyond the month of October 2015:

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Five Ways a Writer Can Recharge

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Yes, of course we should write every day, if we’re serious about our profession. But there may be times where we are absolutely depleted. Perhaps we’ve been writing consistently for months or just completed a major deadline with some all-nighters. Perhaps other areas of life are so burdensome that we can’t eke out another word. Whatever might be the circumstances at our desks, or in our lives or hearts, we writers need to recharge once in a while!

Here are five ways a writer can recharge before bounding back into that next big project:

1. STOP.

Stop writing. Yes, it seems risky. Will we ever get back into the groove? I suggest identifying a set amount of time to stop writing. Decide it ahead of time: I’m not going to write today. Or for three days, so I can go away for the weekend. I’m going to take a one-week break. A one-month break. Or whatever you think best for your situation. Whatever you decide, stick to it. Calendar the start and end dates. When that period is over, start writing again.

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2. READ.

I am always more prolific as a writer when I’m reading. Even when I’m not writing, my daily reading encourages and motivates me by spurring new ideas, jolting me into a new world or line of thinking, taking me out of myself and my life circumstances. As an additional recharge, read a completely new type of work rather than your normal nightstand fare. If you read novels, try a book of short stories. If you love biography or nonfiction, try reading a play or book of poems instead. If you’re into graphic novels, try historical fiction, and so on. Mix it up. Your brain will be ready for so much more and you will take more creative risks when it’s time to return to the writer’s chair.

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3. TRY VISUAL ART.

Our textually-focused writer’s brain gets a breath of fresh air when we get up from the laptop and look at something else — namely, a bit of visual art. Visiting a museum, seeing a film, painting a canvas, taking photographs or sketching a drawing of our own — any of these can keep us in a creative zone while giving us a mental break. When we do something else with our eyes and hands besides being at the computer, new light bulbs can flash on in our heads. I’ve gotten some of my best story ideas while strolling museums.

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