Mae West Always Triumphs
• • And here's another question. Is there a DRAFT in here?
• • Dramatists realize that, frequently, the play they begin writing is not the play they wind up with. Usually, in the process of creating the scenes, the playwright will realize what the play is really about. When she was writing "Sex" and "Diamond Lil," Mae West probably came to this realization as well.
• • My first draft of "COURTING MAE WEST: Sex, Censorship and Secrets" was a double narrative focused on true events during the Prohibition Era in the life of MAE WEST [1893 — 1980] and the parallel storyline of the (fictional) reporter who is "courting" her. At the first Staged Reading [February 2004], the S.R.O. (standing room only) audience made it clear they wanted more Mae and less of him.
• • With the first revisions came a process called "re-centering." My goal was to make the beginning more like the ending, and to minimize his story while enhancing her story. The manuscript grew in complexity and possibility. It was also way too long.
• • More retooling, more trimming, more hand-wringing. The plot orbits around the legal woes of the actress and writer who was arrested and jailed for staging two gay plays during the 1920s. But Mae West never took the stand in her own defense, so creating those courtroom scenes — — with other individuals taking the witness stand but not Mae — — were a problem. My own dictates were also rebelling. I did not want to portray Mae as a passive listener, a silent spectator at her own trial. But after the second Staged Reading [February 2005], the feedback was clear: people expected to see Mae at her trial.
• • Courtroom scenes are predictable. Why? Because trials end in a verdict — — guilty or not guilty. Where's the suspense when the audience expects the scene to end in a verdict? And anyone who has read a biography of Mae West would know which trial ended with a guilty verdict and which trial ended with an acquittal. How do you create a surprising climax during a verdict when the Mae-mavens in the audience know to EXPECT a certain outcome?
• • A dramatist's dilemma, to be sure.
• • Break a leg . . .
• • To get some distance, I took a break to work on new plays and projects. Then a real BREAK occurred. I had an accident and broke several leg bones. And so I decided to regard this "wheelchair interval" as my lucky break.
• • I stacked every book I owned about Mae West on my bedside table and re-read them all. Each time I noticed something new I made notes in the margin. I played games with my brain and fed my conscious mind a "story question" before I slept. Sometimes my dreams formed a response.
• • Dramatic structure: In every two-act play, the end of act one is the precipitator — — which raises the question what will happen now?. Typically, this will be an event or incident involving the central character (Mae West), so that the question could become: "what will Mae do?" or "how will Mae get out of this?" or "what's going to happen to Mae now?".
• • This tension gives the audience a good reason to return after the Intermission for act two.
• • In "COURTING MAE WEST," the two trial scenes fall in critical places. The 1927 "Sex" trial concludes Act I — — where the stakes must be raised. HOW?
• • In "COURTING MAE WEST," the 1930 "Pleasure Man" trial is the penultimate scene in Act II — — and even though Mae was acquitted, the stakes must increase and the tension must mount. HOW?
• • In her autobiography and media interviews, Mae West refused to acknowledge her failures and disappointments. "Mae West always triumphs" is the message she claimed her fans wanted to hear. But "COURTING MAE WEST" reveals the humanity behind that bullet-proof facade and the struggles of a vaudevillian who got fairly dreadful reviews for 25 years before she had a hit. In the face of so much discouragement, why didn't Mae West give up? One buffer was that Mae knew how to surround herself with people with the right attitude. This reassurance and support helped sustain Mae West through decades of setbacks.
• • Saturday March 29, 2008 will be the first time I get to hear my drastically revised manuscript read aloud by professional actors. Under the guidance of director Louis Lopardi, the reading will take place at The Producer's Club on West 44th Street.
• • If the script meets our expectations, we will move to the next phase. If not, I've got some rapid rewriting to do.
• • "COURTING MAE WEST" opens at 7 o'clock on Saturday night July 19, 2008 at the Algonquin Theatre.
• • http://CourtingMaeWest.blogspot.com/
Courting Mae West
• • Photo: • • Mae West • • attorney Nathan Burkan • • 1930