A few words from PTC Artistic Director and Laughing Stock playwright, Charles Morey:
“The world of the theatre is as closed a tribe and as removed from other civilian worlds as a gypsy encampment, and those who enter it are spoiled for anything else and are tainted with its insidious lure for the rest of their lives.
Moss Hart, Act One
I suppose the notion of writing a play set in a summer stock theatre had been drifting in and out of my consciousness for at least a decade before I actually set fingers to keyboard sometime in 1999. It surely swam into the forefront at the time I first directed Noises Off simply because there was a little too much in that play that was distinctly and uncomfortably familiar to someone who had, at that point, spent close to twenty summers doing summer stock.
As long-time PTC subscribers know, several years after my first outing with Noises Off I found myself in the business of adapting nineteenth century novels to the stage. The second of those was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which PTC premiered in 1990. It was apparent from the first reading that the material was so melodramatically over-heated that it tottered dangerously on the precipice of self-parody and with just the slightest push the material could become very, very funny indeed whether I wanted it to be so or not. It was clear that anything less than a pretty polished production of the play would almost certainly lose its balance.
After Dracula’s successful run at PTC, I received a call from my old friend and then producer of the Peterborough Players, the summer theatre in New Hampshire I had formerly served as artistic director and where I had started my career as an actor in the late 1960s. She asked if my Dracula script might be appropriate and available. Without giving it a great deal of thought, I said, “Of course.” What the producer didn’t realize and what I didn’t think through was how enormous a project this was for a small theatre in a New Hampshire barn.
Predictably, the opening night of Dracula at the Peterborough Players was one of those excruciating experiences that finally become funny as the years put some distance on it. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It was Dracula meets Noises Off. And the germ of an idea was planted. But I certainly didn’t have a play.
I had a comic pay-off perhaps, but not a play. Then, a few years later, I was working with a young actor who seemed to have not only the talent and skill, but the charm, looks, and unique personality that hold promise for a successful career in the theatre. Much to my surprise, this young actor asked me to write a letter of recommendation in support of an application to law school. I agreed to write the reference, but I found myself doing so grudgingly. I was strangely angered by the decision of this young actor of real promise to leave the profession. The actor’s decision affected me neither personally nor professionally in the least, yet I had this nagging feeling of betrayal. Ultimately I realized that what disturbed me was not the young actor’s reasonable, in fact eminently sensible decision to leave a profession that is absurdly competitive and shockingly non-remunerative; what disturbed me was the light that decision shone on my own choices over the past thirty years. And out of that realization came an idea upon which I could build my “summer stock” play.
As the play developed, however, I found it opening up in all sorts of different ways. It didn’t really begin to flower until I let it become a true ensemble piece. The comedy grew out of the dynamic of the group trying to accomplish a goal against all odds. Having read thus far, your next question might be, “How much of this play is true?” Well, none actually. The characters are mostly composites, fragments of personalities fit together into one character. None of the events in the play ever really happened. Some elements of events are drawn from reality and exaggerated into a comedic shape. (And, no! The Director is not me!)
At the center of this play, however, is a very real place. It doesn’t exist anymore. Oh, the theatre itself still exists and in fact thrives, but it has grown as an institution and as a physical plant far beyond “The Playhouse” I depict in Laughing Stock. “The Playhouse” is firmly based in my memories of The Peterborough Players of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. It was the classic New England Barn theatre. The barn itself was a post-and-beam structure close to two hundred years old set on a two-hundred-acre former cabbage farm. The barn served as performing space, rehearsal hall, and scene shop rolled into one. There was no air conditioning. Big barn doors with screens provided the only ventilation. The screens served as minimal protection against omnipresent mosquitoes the size of sparrows. The dressing rooms were in the old cow tie-up; the box office and business office in the old woodshed. The theatre accommodated one hundred and forty nine patrons on uncomfortable folding chairs. Every night all the chairs were struck so we could rehearse on the barn floor the next day and in the afternoon the chairs were reset for the evening performance. But despite the meager resources, when everybody cooperated and found a way to tell a story honestly at its simplest level — and the temperature humidity index and the mosquitoes cooperated — there was some work to be proud of.
Everyone in the theatre has their own “Playhouse.” The place where there was never enough of anything: time, staff, money, and sometimes simply not enough talent or skill – where sometimes the doors fell off their hinges and the sound cues ran backwards, but where you gave yourself over wholly to the making of plays, to telling stories in the dark on a summer night – and along the way made a little family as well for a few months. It is those places, and especially those people, this play celebrates. I hope what finally comes through Laughing Stock is a genuine affection and respect for the mostly honorable and sometimes inspired fools who inhabit this profession.
Since Laughing Stock premiered at PTC in 2001, it has received close to a hundred productions across the U.S. and Canada at theatres ranging from some of the larger professional regional theatres to summer stock, community theatres, colleges and high schools; and, in 2004 returned to its “native soil” for a very successful production at the Peterborough Players. It is an enormous pleasure to bring Laughing Stock back to where it began, here at PTC, in my last season as Artistic Director.”
~ Charles Morey