Mae from Page to Stage
• • For decades my imagination was embracing an armful of women’s history attached to the crooked elbow of 10th Street west of Sixth Avenue. A 19th century Iandmark [that now houses a public library] used to be a busy courthouse with a prison annex. The notable dames who passed through here included Evelyn Nesbit, Texas Guinan, Polly Adler, Margaret Sanger, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg, Starr Faithfull, Dorothy Day, Mae West [1893—1980], and many others.
• • Unfortunately, the only sign on this High Victorian Gothic wonder is a plaque about the two male architects: Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux.
• • Each time I passed this structure — — which resembles a quirky castle — — I pondered how to bring its cultural history out of hiding. Since I'm a journalist and an historian, I had a lot of opportunities to write about the former Jefferson Market Judicial Complex. And I did. I wrote several articles that were published in newspapers and magazines. I also blogged about Jefferson Market and began collecting rare images and vintage photos. None of this did the subject justice, I felt, so I began writing a play. But I had amassed too much material; too many noisy narratives clanged in my head. By process of elimination, one woman's battle and her censorship trials inside Jefferson Market Court came into focus. As a journalist, I feel a strong kinship with the First Amendment. Here was soul food.
• • "COURTING MAE WEST" • •
• • When I wrote the first draft of my play "COURTING MAE WEST" during October 2003, I knew a great deal about the courthouse and very little about the controversial actress. But the theatre company I was then attached to was quite enthusiastic about it, and a Staged Reading was organized for February 2004.
• • In early January 2004, The New York Law Journal did an interview with me. Immediately, other articles about my play followed. The New York Sun wrote about "COURTING MAE WEST" and then The Villager, The Forward, The New York Times, The Brooklyn Eagle, etc. On the day of the first Staged Reading, over 250 people had to be turned away for lack of room.
• • Hearing the dialogue spoken by trained actors helps a dramatist develop the play. After this first public reading, I would revise these 100 pages numerous times. Simultaneously, I was reading biographies about Mae West as well as 1920s newspapers. My play is set during the lively Prohibition Era [specifically from December 1926 — December 1932] when Mae West was arrested and jailed for writing two gay plays and staging them on Broadway.
• • By February 2005 the play was ready for its second Staged Reading, which was held in Proshansky Auditorium [396 seats] on Fifth Avenue across from The Empire State Building. Again there was a full house and the audience loved it. By then I began to know Mae West much better but I continued researching and revising. Eventually, I rewrote this play EIGHTEEN TIMES, adding scenes, deleting material, trimming, polishing until I was satisfied.
• • Mae West was a comedienne who wrote her own material. I did not want to use any of her famous one-liners from her motion pictures since my play ends in December 1932 before she became a movie star. And this presented another challenge: could I be funnier than Mae West?
• • After the seventeenth revision, I gave the manuscript to Steve Rossi, an entertainer who had worked with Mae West during the 1950s. Steve Rossi said it was the funniest thing he ever read. "And," he added, "it sounds exactly like her. You got her speech and tempo to a T!"
• • So I began submitting my play to competitions and sending it to producers and theatre companies. The play was a semi-finalist for the Stanley Drama Award at Hofstra University. Then the play came in as a finalist in another contest — — but, unfortunately, this non-profit theatre group lost their funding and disbanded. Every day I found more places to submit to.
• • Based on true events . . . • •
• • The play meant a lot to me and so did the true events I based the story on: how an unsuccessful but determined vaudevillian wrangled with City Hall and tangled with the moguls behind male-dominated Broadway. The theatre world has not changed that much since Mae West trod the boards; most plays that are produced are written by men and are focused on male characters. In contrast, "COURTING MAE WEST" has powerful, determined women at its heart: Mae West, Beverly West, Texas Guinan, Starr Faithfull, etc. The play is filled with strong roles for actresses.
• • As luck would have it, in January 2008 a New York City theatre group that I had not submitted to heard about the play and asked if they could do a production as part of an annual two-week arts festival in Manhattan.
• • On July 11th, 2008, the cast was invited to give a free mini-performance at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble.
• • Saturday July 19th is the play's opening night.
• • Moving from the first draft in October 2003 to a fully-cooked final draft by October 2007 was an a-MAE-zing journey. Along the way I was invited by The Biography Channel to do an episode on Mae West; that episode was broadcast in 2006. Recently [last month, in fact], I was filmed for a TV documentary on the Prohibition Era. Footage from a dress rehearsal of my play will be part of this 90-minute film that will be broadcast in 2009.
• • More information and showtimes are here — — and we invite you to come up and see Mae.
• • "COURTING MAE WEST" opens at 6 o'clock on Saturday night July 19, 2008 at the Algonquin Theatre [East 24th Street and Park Avenue South].
• • "COURTING MAE WEST" — — showtimes
• • July 19th, 2008 — — 6:00 PM
• • July 20th, 2008 — — 2:00 PM matinee
• • July 21st, 2008 — — 6:00 PM
• • July 22nd, 2008 — — 9:00 PM
• • Tickets to "COURTING MAE WEST" are $18 per adult.
• • Theatermania.com sells the tickets — — http://www.theatermania.com/content/show.cfm/show/144297
• • Questions? Phone 212-779-3051.
• • The play is 95 minutes.
• • Get ready to come up and see Mae West, Texas Guinan, and the gang onstage in mid-July 2008.
Courting Mae West
• • Photo: Mae West • • dramatist • •