BWW Interview: Playwright WILLARD MANUS Discusses His New Play About MM
Local Playwright Willard Manus' Joe & Marilyn: A Love Story, a new play about the troubled relationship between baseball great Joe DiMaggio and Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe, debuts this Saturday, April 23rd at 8:00 pm, runs April 23 - May 22, produced by John Lant and Anne Mesa, directed by T.J. Castronovo and starring Rico Simonini and Emily Elicia Low, produced by Write Act Rep@TheBrickhouse Theatre in North Hollywood. The play was developed at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit (West Coast), where Manus and Castronovo are fellow-members. He shared with us a bit about the play and quite a bit about his life.
Written by Steve Peterson
When did you first become interested in writing as a profession?
I started writing back in high school, writing a so-called humor column for the Columbus Explorers newspaper. That was back in the horse and buggy days. I have continued to write ever since.
What was your first paying job and what did you learn from that experience?
My first paying job was as a reporter on the Yonkers Daily News. I should have known something was a bit fishy about the paper when the publisher said I could write whatever I wanted, including editorials. A few months later I learned why he was so cavalier about this. The paper was Mafia owned and owed its fairly large daily readership to the fact that it published the gambling line on all major sports. It also published the winning "numbers" every day (also known as "policy numbers"). Gamblers could also place a bet by calling the newspaper which in turn relayed the information to bookies in New Jersey. Right after that, the newspaper was investigated by the police and was then mentioned by the Kefauver Committee when it held hearings on organized crime in the USA. The Yonkers Daily Times was punished by having all its telephones removed, making it the only newspaper in the world without a working telephone.
When did start writing plays? Do you have any favorites in the more than 40 plays you've penned?
I wrote a play or two in the 1950s, and a few more in the 60 & 70s, when I was living on a Greek island (see below). But I did not begin to write seriously for the theatre until I moved to Los Angeles in 1979.
Did you have mentors and muses along the way, and if so who?
My first mentor was Joseph J. Friedman, who headed a writers workshop in New York, of which I was a member for the next decade (we published a literary magazine called "Venture" by the way). In Los Angeles in the early 80s, I joined the Los Angeles Playwrights Group, headed by Joseph Scott Kierland. A playwright and screenwriter himself (who now writes fiction), Kierland had a unique and remarkable grasp of playwriting structure and development. Most of what I know about playwriting I learned from him. I still go to Joe for third-eye advice and help.
You've led what might be called an adventurous life - - I am referring to you and your wife Mavis visiting Greece for a few weeks and ending up living there for 35 years. What kept you there? Were you able to write while you there?
My wife and I went to the island of Rhodes (village of Lindos) in 1961, on our honeymoon. Our original intention was to stay three days. Thirty-five years later we were still there. Our love affair with Lindos and a description of our life there forms the basis of my book THIS WAY TO PARADISE--DANCING ON THE TABLES. This memoir of Greek island life can be found on Amazon.com. It goes without saying that I was able to write there; several novels and a ton of journalism came out of those years. (I served as the Mediterranean Correspondent for the Financial Post of Canada for much of that time).
Aristotle's advice to fellow writers was "write about kings and queens." Since MM was one of the closest things we have to a queen, I decided she would make a good subject for a play. I began with a 70-minute monologue which had this off-beat premise: what if MM came back to life when she was in her 50s. What would she make of this second chance, not only as an actress but as a woman? "MM at 58" was performed at the Zephyr Theatre (was it the late 80s?) by Claire Sinnett, directed by Gary Guidinger. Because MM was such a fascinating, vibrant, complicated and of course tragic figure, I have continued to explore her different sides in other plays about her, which includes "Marilyn--My Secret" (co-written with Odalys Nanin), which ran at the Macha Theatre for more than a year.
Tell us a bit about JOE & MARILYN: A Love Story.
This play focuses on Marilyn's relationship to Joe DiMaggio. Although these two opposites were married for only nine months, they remained in love with each other for the rest of their lives. They had a tempestuous, passion-filled, ultimately heart-breaking relationship which makes for good drama.
What was the development process like with the play at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors unit and how did the process there lend itself to fleshing out the play (or concept of the play)?
My director TJ Castronovo is a fellow-member of the unit. We read the first draft of the play--with actors, of course--in front of the unit. That draft, by the way, was first written as a play that could be performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival (one-hour length, simple set and production values). In feedback from the unit we learned that the play did not work well at that length, and needed to be expanded and deepened. I then sat down and wrote a second draft, which with further refinements is the one people will see at Write Act Rep.
How did the play come to be produced by John Lant and Anne Mesa for Write Act Rep?
Thanks to the interest of John Lant (artistic director of Write Act Rep), I have found a home as playwright at his company. Many of my plays have been produced by John there and he has continued to encourage me to write for him. For that he has my undying gratitude. As for Anne Mesa, she has been a longtime member of Write Act and has helped produce many of my plays. She also helped choreograph a musical of mine, BLUES FOR CENTRAL AVENUE, which was done at Write Act about ten years ago.
You recently had the world premiere of PREZ running at the Chromolume Theatre. What's up next for you after JOE & MARILYN: A Love Story?
John Lant is holding two or three new plays of mine which he says he'd like to produce in the near future. I also have written some other new plays which are under consideration at other theaters in town. More on those when and if the projects become realities.
Is there anything you wished had been asked about you or the play?
I'd like to mention my solo play about Charlie Parker, BIRD LIVES!, which was produced at the Attic Theatre in 2015. Actor Montae Russell will perform the play on May 1st at the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center (in Leimert Park) as part of Jazz History Month, as well as in NYC in the next solo-play festival there.
JOE & MARILYN: A Love Story runs April 23 - May 22, 2016. To buy tickets or for more information please visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2533139
1-800-838-3006 (ext. 1).