Charles Mee: Penning His Paradise

For any American playwright to debut new material with an acclaimed New York theatre company is a privilege. But to debut new material over an entire season is a paradise! Especially if your plays are as well-received as this season's Charles Mee series at The Signature Theatre Company.

Busting the door open with the critically acclaimed i2.0 and quickly followed by the invigorating new musical Queens Boulevard, playwright Charles Mee polishes off his 2007-2008 residency with another world premiere: Paradise Park.

Featuring an ensemble cast from Mee's previous pieces, directed by Daniel Fish and choreographed by Peter Pucci, Paradise Park introduces audiences to an amusement park that opens up into all of America and beyond. Meet the inhabitants of this bizarre and wild carnival life in a collage-like journey through the third and final play of the Charles Mee Series at The Signature.

Charles Mee (aka Chuck) chatted with BroadwayWorld News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, about his "nostalgic" Paradise Park, and its themes of the lost paradise of Americana…

Eugene Lovendusky: Thanks very much for finding time to chat with BroadwayWorld! Signature Theatre has been very good to you this year after the successful premiere of Iphigenia 2.0 and Queens Boulevard (the musical), so what do you have in store for audiences when Paradise Park opens in March?

Charles Mee (aka Chuck): Paradise Park is by far the most nostalgic of all these plays. It's about a guy who buys a ticket to an amusement park, and the amusement park has no walls – it just opens out into all America. 

Eugene: You say this piece is a bit nostalgic… Is there a message in your piece that represents an America that you want?

Chuck: I think it's a lost time we long for that actually never existed. That's silly to say about an amusement park, but an amusement park is not just a place of escape. Among other things, it's a terrifically democratic state. It's not like the aristocratic entertainments of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. This is all of America that wanders through Coney Island on equal footing and has a good time; meets strangers on pleasant ground. It sets us all loose in this universe of escapism into which reality can't help but intrude from time to time. All of those lovely things that we wish we had and kind of imagined once-existed in America and maybe never did perfectly. This is a longing for a paradise that was internally imperfect.

Eugene: There are quirky characters in your play…

Chuck: There's are lot of fabulous characters… an amazing ventriloquist and his dummy named Mortimer; a fruitcake tossing contest and singing and dancing; and a recent immigrant from India in a life-sized mouse costume.

Eugene: What role does music play in Paradise Park?

Chuck: I'm a guy who fell in love with Greek theatre years ago. Greek theatre is made up of music and movement and text. And then it turns out that is most of the theatre in most of the world since forever… The notion that a play is a piece of text placed on-stage is a sort of post-Ibsen aberration in the history of the theatre. I'm a guy who always loves to have movement and music with the text in a piece. In this one, naturally, there's a square-dance number along with some other singing and dancing.

Eugene: Cool! Looking at your cast list, many of the members of Paradise Park have been featured in your previous work. How do you benefit when you're working with the same group of creative people?

Chuck: I really love it. It's a bunch of old friends, a lot of them. Now this is a long story, but I graduated from college in 1960 and wrote plays and then got very involved in anti-Vietnam War activities. I got very involved in activism and writing about politics and American foreign policy and I had nothing to do with theatre for 25 years. Then when I came back, I didn't know anybody in the theatre. But around the corner from where I lived was a guy who worked in a Xerox shop who had something to do with the theatre. So when I wrote a play, I took it to him and asked if he knew of anything I could do with it. Of course, that guy turned out to be Wally Shawn; and he took it a few blocks away and gave it to Joe Papp; who wanted to do it at The Public Theatre; who introduced me to Martha Clark; and then Martha and I did a piece together. But that has been my model… whenever I write a play, I hand it to friends and I'm always working among them.

Eugene: How did you get involved with Signature Theatre in the first place?

Chuck: By this business of friends handing me to friends of friends, I've known James Houghton (Signature Theatre Founding Artistic Director) for some years.  He called one day and said: "We'd like to do a season of your plays at The Signature." After I picked myself off the floor, I said I'd love to. He asked what I'd like to do, and I said: "Well, I know you guys usually do some American master playwright's classic plays. But I don't feel like a classic playwright, I feel like a beginner. I'd love to do a new plays." And he said it was great! I told him who I wanted to direct them, and he said it was great! He's an amazing guy – the most open, adventurous, warm, supportive, smart guy there is. It's been a total pleasure.

Eugene: What a remarkable opportunity! What does it mean to be a Resident Playwright for The Signature?

Chuck: Superficially, it means that they devote their entire season to the work of a single playwright. They also bring back a former-playwright to do one legacy production. But it means you have a home theatre for a year, to not only present your body of work, but to see it yourself. I think to myself: "Okay, there's my life's work. Now I think I'm going to do my posthumous work." And I'm going to have the luck to actually see my posthumous work! It's a tremendous pleasure. This is what I've done, now what do I want to do now, to start over again? I love that.

Eugene: That's wonderful. I was looking on your website at whatever you've already tackled and what else you have under your belt. You have such a huge body of work; a collection of new and adapted material, and comedies and tragedies and romances. But why do you make the full-text of your plays free and accessible for the public?

Chuck: Years ago, I got involved in writing a new version of an ancient Greek play, and then I sampled and appropriated a lot of texts from today, that were evidence of who and how we are in American today, and stuck them into the play. When I finished it, I thought: "I don't think I'm going to steal everybody else's work and then copyright it and claim it for my own. I should somehow return it to the public domain from where I took it." This was before there was the internet; when there was just a computer at the University of Southern Illinois that was used at the Defense Department to share top-secret nuclear information (I honestly don't remember); but before there was an internet, I began putting my plays out there. The reality then is that theatres that have money get in-touch with me and pay me a royalty – but lots of young people who don't have any money and are doing a play in the back room of a bar somewhere, steal it and put it on for free, and I just love that. And sometimes they take stuff and they completely rewrite it and make it their own piece and often they email it to me. It's great fun for me.

Eugene: I'll bet. And it looks like some of your plays (other than being staged around the world from grabbing it online) seem to be waiting in the oven for the next perfect time to premiere. In fact, it was just announced that your play Fire Island is going to world premiere at 3LD Art and Technology Center this April. What are your plans with your work beyond Signature?

Chuck: Since this is the end of the Signature season, I'd love it if they were to do 15 more years of my work! But one of these days, I'd love to return with them. The piece at 3-Legged-Dog this spring that will be fun. I have another piece that I've written with Stephen Greenblad, who I guess is the world's greatest Shakespeare scholar at Harvard. We wrote a play based on a lost Shakespeare play that will premiere at ART this spring and will come to The Public Theatre this year. And when you called, I was sitting at my desk (with my obsessive-compulsive disorder), making notes on a new piece! It's a great life.

Eugene: And thanks so much for sharing it! Congratulations with your work at The Signature; you've created some great work for New York. Break a leg with Paradise Park!

Paradise Park begins performances on Tuesday, February 12 at Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space (555 West 42nd Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues).  Opening Night is Sunday, March 2. Visit www.signaturetheatre.org for more information.

Charles Mee




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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)