Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Ensemble helps develop a 'Glimmer'

Tony-winning playwright chooses Cincinnati troupe to launch project

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After Warren Leight won last year's Tony Award for best play for Side Man, the first big difference in his life was that he could hire a secretary.

        She fields phone calls, some from reporters, but more, he laughs, from old acquaintances who want references, and theaters who ask him to sign memorabilia. He's signing trumpets for a theater in San Jose, Calif., opening Side Man later this month.

[photo] Dennis Parlato plays Marty Glimmer and Tony Campisi his brother in Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        The next big difference in his life was what Side Man, a family drama with a jazz theme,did to his creative process.

        Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, another jazz-accented tale, is his new play, and it gets its first full production at Ensemble Theater tonight through Oct. 1.

        You might think a small professional theater in Cincinnati wouldn't be the likeliest place for a Tony winner's follow-up work. But Mr. Leight found that the trophy reflects a very bright light, which is not always good for a brand-new play. And he has a fondness for ETC artistic director D. Lynn Meyers “who wanted to do Side Man before it won the Tony.”

        Mr. Leight is a self-defined “king of readings.” He likes to work and work and work at a play as he listens to actors reading his lines. But after the Tony, there was more interest in producing Glimmer (then titled The Glimmer Brothers) than developing it.

        “What I didn't understand is that people wanted to ride (the new play) into New York, but I think a first production should be exploratory, developmental. I don't know how many plays I have in me. Why rush?”

Personal references

        Mr. Leight tends to draw his art from life, and Glimmer is filled with personal references, although they don't cut quite so close to home as the domestic drama of Side Man.

  What: Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine
  When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 1
  Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
  Tickets: $25, students and seniors $20

        In his Broadway hit the son of a jazz man, legendary among his peers, examines the emotional devastation of his parents' marriage. While it's not Mr. Leight's life, the above sentence parallels his own broken family.

        This time Mr. Leight is looking at a pair of estranged twin brothers who worked together as jazz musicians early in their lives. One stays in the business and cycles downward, the other brother puts music behind him and is a suburban success story.

        “The genesis of the play is that when I was growing up, I knew a lot of guys who got out of the business. They'd sell life insurance or give eye exams.

        “And I wonder about the guys who got out versus the guys who stay in, about the people who grow up and the ones who don't, the people who live the life they want to and the ones who don't.”

        He “cuts and pastes” a lot of lives and a lot of truths into Glimmer, which moves back and forth through time to illuminate how the characters got from one point to another. Along with the two brothers, now in their 50s, there's a bumpy twentysomething romance intertwined in the plot.

        “I'm experimenting with plot — having one,” Mr. Leight laughs. His conversation is peppered with good-natured little jabs at himself. “I discovered it's a great thing when an audience is wondering what happens next.

        “My intent is to have them engaged enough in the story to want to know, "how are these people's lives going to untangle?'” While impatient producers were eager to rush things along, he was ruminating on the rules of drama. “I wondered, who can talk to the audience? Why not a guy in a coma?”

Developing project

        Mr. Leight wrote the first act of Glimmer before Side Man opened in New York. From there on, “I did it backwards.” Glimmer began its life on the second stage of the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival, followed by a workshop in upstate New York followed by a reading at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut.

        Ensemble's production will be closely followed by one at the prestigious Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. That one will star John Spencer (The West Wing) who has been connected to Glimmer since Williamstown. “He even flew to New Haven for the Long Wharf reading. He didn't want anyone else playing the part.”

        Mr. Leight won't say that the Taper production is the one that will matter most for Glimmer's future life. “I'll know more about the play after the ETC production.” He's here for the opening.

        Ms. Meyers, who is directing, “Asks all the right questions all the time. After this production, I'll take another pass at it.”

        Even as Glimmer opens in Cincinnati, five productions of Side Man are opening around the country. With a secretary to answer phone calls, Mr. Leight is free to work on other projects.

        He's just turned in a first draft for a movie sequel to The Commitments, and he's still involved with a would-be Alan Mencken (best known as composer of animated Disney musicals) musical Big Street. “I'm hoping to get a low budget Side Man movie going by February,” and like every other screen writer (both film and television) he's keeping a close eye on an expected strike.

        “Everybody's counseling everybody to book one more job between now and January. You get your health insurance lined up. It's potentially very scary.”

        He's planning to fly to Los Angeles from Cincinnati and “maybe write a pilot” that he adds, “is, even as I talk about it, pure hubris on my part.”

        Still, he's in a position that when he does pick up a phone, he gets past other people's secretaries.

        Writing a pilot, he muses “is being paid a little to enter a lottery. One hundred are commissioned, 15 go to pilot, six go to series, four get canceled and the other two are by (West Wing creator) Aaron Sorkin.”

        Then again, Mr. Leight may not have to worry about Los Angeles. He might just have business in New York.

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