I only know Owen really through his play Richard Parker and a brief hello afterwards, followed by emailing back and forth about doing a blog for me… I has seen his play as a part of my duties as reviewer for this past years Hollywood Fringe Festival. Now, I’ve done my fair share of Fringe producing, but mostly in the city that I lived in–which makes certain challenges a little easier. I couldn’t imagine taking a show across the ocean. In fact, the idea sorta totally scares the crap out of me. (Which means, I should absolutely do it. ) And so, to steel myself for the possibility of doing it someday, I wanted to get Owen’s perspective on that experience.
And if you ever get a chance to see the play, do it. I thought it was pretty great.
RICHARD PARKER AT THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE FESTIVAL 2012
by Owen Thomas
My name is Owen Thomas and I am a Playwright from South Wales. In case you’re not sure, it’s the bit that sticks out of England that isn’t Scotland – the nation that gave the world Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton and Rhys Ifans to name but a few – a country with song and culture running through to its very core. I have been honored to be asked by Larry to write a guest blog on my recent experiences at taking a show from Wales to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, so here goes. I hope you enjoy it. [Editor’s note: pictured L to R Owen Thomas, Gareth John Bale, and Alastair Sill]
Earlier this summer actors Alastair Sill, Gareth John Bale and I (writer, not actor) were fortunate enough to enjoy a ten date run of my play, Richard Parker, at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in Los Angeles. A play that began life as an idea I had when trying to get one of my twin baby daughters to sleep about 5 years ago had taken me from a 20 minute slot in a small Cardiff theatre to three weeks in California.
For those of you who didn’t see the play, some context. Richard Parker is a darkly comic two-hander that explores the themes of fate and coincidence. It focuses on the eponymous hero, setting foot on a boat for the first time in his life, and a stranger he meets who turns his world upside down. With one believing in fate and the other devoutly believing in coincidence, the scene is set for a confrontation. It is staged minimally, using only two benches and the physicality of the actors to create what I hope is a narrative driven piece of theatre.
The play began life at an evening of new writing called Zufall at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff. The commissioning company, 3D, invited me to expand the original 20-minute piece into an hour-long play in order to give them the experience of touring a show. The play then went on to tour Wales; the wider UK twice and subsequently had a successful run at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Whilst in Edinburgh an American producer called Mike Blaha from Fringe Management invited us to appear at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. And the rest, as they say…
Prior to this experience I had always thought I could only ever live in the UK; or, more specifically, Wales. I have now revised this, having spent 17 glorious days in the Californian sun and only seeing rain as the plane dropped though the clouds to land at Cardiff international Airport. To date it has rained almost every day since our return, with a brief respite for the much heralded Olympic Games. This did not give the world a true reflection of our climate, believe you me.
I feel I should offer you some of my reflections on the city itself. Los Angeles is a remarkable place. Friends of mine who had visited said it is like walking through a film set. I concur. Seen on foot, the size and scale of everything makes one feel like Frodo Baggins stumbling through the shires. And every day it seems that countless wide-eyed dreamers clamber off the buses and trains that snake their way into the city to seek the path to fame and glory. Actors, writers and directors are to be found in every corner; waiting tables, chatting over coffee, attending auditions, all of them hoping for that one big break. And every day countless jaded bleary-eyed realists admit defeat, dig out their return tickets and head for home. All the while the sign stares unblinkingly down:
Yes there were some things one would have to get used to. El Salvadorian gang tags on the flat we were sharing, occasional gun shots in the street, crap tea, (trust me, you don’t know tea. Coffee, yes, you really know coffee, but tea, oh dear) countless explanations of what part of England Wales is and regularly bursting the bubble of people who think that ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ was a piece of stark social realism.
And yet the positives loom large. A climate to die for; people friendly to a fault; relatively cheap living expenditure and food. Oh dear God, the wonderful food!
One of the real joys of the trip was getting to see the sights and sounds of LA between performances. Courtesy of our producer Mike we were given an insider’s view. The best Deli to have breakfast (Cantor’s on Fairfax apparently), trips to Venice Beach and Malibu, the chance to put my hands where Frank Sinatra’s (and about a million other tourists) hands had been outside Graumann’s Chinese Theatre.
A real highlight was a trip to watch the LA Dodgers play baseball, a game I now finally understand and, like coffee, actively enjoy. The combination of sporting passion and relentless patriotism was a sight to behold. The spectacle of the game being interrupted halfway through to allow a singer to emerge onto the field of play for a quick burst of an impeccably observed rendition of God Bless America was surreal but beautiful. As a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan, (soccer for the uninitiated) I can only recoil in horror at the thought of somebody interrupting the game in the 70th minute to give us all a quick burst of ‘God Save the Queen’. Judging by the warm and friendly atmosphere within the stadium perhaps it is something we would do well to learn!
We undertook pilgrimages to both the Hollywood sign and the Griffith observatory. We discovered to our delight that Griffith J Griffith was a Welshman who emigrated to the States in 1865. He promptly made a fortune in Mexican silver mines before settling in his adopted home of Los Angeles and ultimately bequeathing the city with many generous gifts: Griffith Park, the observatory and an open-air theatre. His provision of a theatre chimes well with how our nation prizes the arts and it is in part thanks to him that we Welsh enjoy such a warm reception as we make our way around this town.
Performing to an American audience is a genuinely fascinating experience. They seem to be so much more open and giving with their laughter and applause. The inhibitions that sometimes a British audience will demonstrate are casually swept away. Genuine interest in the process from audience members with some arguing the finer points of the text in the foyer afterwards was hugely enjoyable as a writer. Normally you shuffle in, sit near the back, hope people will enjoy it and then shuffle away unnoticed. A real moment that stood out for me was on the day we were performing when we learnt that a Welsh actor we all admired called Brian Hibbard had died. We asked our announcer to dedicate the show in his memory and the warmth that came back from the audience who I think were unaware of his work (and if you aren’t, then check out Twin Town) was very moving.
I think the festival has modeled itself successfully on Edinburgh, but there is one key thing that will need to change as the festival builds and grows. There seemed to be not much of a culture in the way of flyering for audiences. For those of you who have had the pleasure of experiencing a walk through Edinburgh in peak festival time you will understand that it is possible to literally drown in flyers on Princes Street alone. Might I suggest encouraging interested theatre students from local schools to flyer the local area in exchange for stroller tickets to attend fringe shows perhaps, a way of paying them with cultural experiences for helping to spread the word of what is an excellent program of events?
I loved the enthusiasm of the organisers. In Edinburgh it is so busy that sometimes requesting a poster to be put up in a venue can take the best part of a week of non-stop badgering. The Hollywood experience was that nothing was too much trouble for anyone. Posters put up, sure. Press Comp, no problem. A technician (me alas) who can’t actually switch the lighting board on, there you go. There was clearly a passion for fringe theatre and new writing that I am sure will carry this Festival on bigger and better things.
The icing on the cake for us was leaving the city with the award for Best International Show. We discovered that we had been nominated whilst travelling on a bus from Santa Monica having just watched England exit yet another (soccer) tournament on penalties. We hurried back to the flat, dug out what clean clothes we had left, and headed down to Fringe Central. The award ceremony was wonderfully done. I tried to avoid cliché, but caught myself uttering the classic ’to be nominated is honour enough’, a lie that has passed the lips of countless hopeful nominees who then promptly destroy the bathroom in a hunt for cocaine to numb the gnawing disappointment. But when our turn came, and the words ‘Richard Parker’ were announced, it felt like watching somebody else. The blur of the moment, the pats on the back, the begrudging handshakes from fellow nominees and the realisation that you actually had to make a speech. ‘Keep it simple’, we agreed. So I stepped forward and simply said ‘Diolch Hollywood’. Leaving them to ponder what it meant as we were ushered away for photographs and cider. It is a moment I will never, ever forget.
In some ways winning the award feels like it has changed things for us. Offers to return and perform at next year’s festival, a run in San Francisco, and the possibility of the New York Fringe mean that the whole gamble was worth it. Sometimes you need to do that: take a chance, see what happens. But if nothing had happened, it still would have been one of the best things I have ever done.
The flight back was long and yet curiously passed quickly – like a box set of The Killing or Christmas Day with loved ones. When we finally landed in Cardiff (16C and raining) it was with a feeling that something had changed for us. Gareth told us a story one night of how the members of a British Lions rugby tour spoke of the fact that after winning a series, there would be no need to speak of it afterwards as you passed each other on the street. A look would be enough. A twinkle that said ‘we did it; we went, we saw, we conquered’. The feel of the award knocking around with two weeks of dirty washing confirmed this as it throbbed within like a tell-tale heart.
And so, what next for Richard Parker?
He has been very kind to me, taking me to some wonderful places, introducing me to some wonderful people and giving me memories that I am sure I shall reflect on as and when my own journey ends. And yet I feel he needs to rest, to sleep a while. He may resurface for one welcome home, but then he will push himself away on his raft until the day comes when we decide he needs rescuing once more.
I am currently working on a sequel, which picks up five years after the play has finished. The working title of this piece is Robert Golding and 8000 words in he seems to be going strong. But it’s a curious thing; it feels a bit like cheating. And so I prefer to think of myself as a Frankenstein-like figure, creating and nurturing a brother to walk hand in hand with my most celebrated creation, and watch as they stalk the Welsh countryside, frightening all who cross their path before heading out once more, hopefully, across the pond.
Oh, and by the way, ‘Diolch Hollywood’ means ‘Thank you Hollywood’.
I really mean it.
Owen Thomas has long been fascinated by dark stories and the recurring motif in his work is the question, ‘What If?’ Writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King and Roald Dahl have long fired his imagination. His playwriting career began a decade ago with The Visitors at the Circus Theatre, Stratford, London. His next play, The Dead of Night enjoyed a short run in London, and its follow up, Meat, (nominated for Best New Play at the Theatre in Wales Awards 2005) was performed in both London and Cardiff. Cuckoo, Behind Closed Doors (Co-Writer) and 16 Northcott Avenue (Co-Writer) were performed at Sherman Cymru in Cardiff who also commissioned him to write Coldstone Station. Owen also occasionally writes for stand up comedian Alun Cochrane and has had material submitted to British TV Comedy shows including 8 out of 10 Cats and Mock the Week. Owen Thomas is most known for writing Richard Parker which has been performed over 50 times in the United Kingdom. He is currently working on its follow up…