Monday, April 5, 2010

The Not-So-Lonesome Travelers: How Psittacus Came to Be

By Chas LiBretto

It began somewhere in the desert. We’d stayed at a motel located in a hard-hit industrial town called Deming, NM, whose apparent claim to fame is an event held in August called the Great American Duck Race, an event that is evidently exactly what it sounds like. As we drove through Wile E. Coyote country in our 26-foot Penske truck, containing just about every worldly belonging we owned, and nursed the grotesque cup of coffee, we began to discuss just what it was we’d really be doing when we arrived in Los Angeles.

For grins, we decided to name some plays we’d like to do. Shows with something to say, that we’d want to be in, that we’d want to have our names attached to. Not just endless Noel Coward revivals, or collections of ill-conceived sketch comedy routines, but things that spoke to us. Would they be new? Would they be Classics? Would they be somewhere in between? I thought Lou would be excellent as the titular character of Brecht’s "Schweyk in the Second World War," he thought I ought to dust off one of my several abandoned, half-completed scripts. We talked about Howard Brenton’s "Paul," a relatively recent play by an English socialist playwright whose work has rarely made it to these shores, a radical portrayal of St. Paul the Apostle. We proposed an SF epic that riffed on the works of Jack Vance, Mervyn Peake and Gene Wolfe, set in a far future where everything we know of life today has been forgotten into the annals of myth.

Okay, we were driving through desolate hellscapes, with no phone signals, no CD player, and needed something aside from conservative talk-radio to curtail the inevitable boredom. But really, it wasn’t such a surprise that this was where the conversation went after all those days “finding America.” My own fondest memories of working in the theater involved collective groups of artists working together as an ensemble, and most of Lou’s were as well. That one need not venture into this absurd industry on one’s own, but as a team of people who actually like each other, creating work with a common aesthetic.

But then, we’d danced around this idea for far longer than just the trip out west. We’d sat at bars, outlining a screenplay that reflected our experiences in conservatories, both as students and as teachers. I recall another time, sitting on a bench in Central Park discussing his previous company’s fallout, and being dumbfounded that a group of actors, writers, and directors as talented as those who were left jobless after all that didn’t just dust themselves off and regroup as a new collective.

And then, months later in Los Angeles, we did just that, and realized why more people don't do this. It’s easy, trapped in a truck with only one’s destination as an objective to say “we ought to start a company,” blinded to the realities of what that actually means: the endless hours of writing legal lingo, persuasive language, and budgets.

But then, there’s the occasional moment, buried in all of that hard work, that reminds one that this had to happen, didn’t it? The collective is the idea; the company is the process. It’s as much the words on form 1023 as it is the first day of rehearsal, as it is the fantasy in the truck’s cabin, looking through the road salt-encrusted windshield, at the road ahead.

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