Between the Sheets
By Emily Howe
46 Beacon is Bill Rosenfield's funny, fresh and moving new play in which two men, both at different stages in their lives come together for one monumental evening, during the course of which their lives are changed forever. Here, we discuss with Bill the origins of 46 Beacon, growing up gay in America, and the future of political playwriting.
Bill Rosenfield, writer of '46 Beacon' (Photo credit: Oli Sones)
You are originally from the US, what made you decide to make the move across the pond?
I was "re-organized" out of my job in New York and even though we were die-hard New Yorkers, when my partner was offered a position over here we jumped at the chance to see what it would be like to live in a foreign country that we loved. We thought it would be a simple two year stint, but within a few months we knew we wanted to stay. That was 15 years ago.
That's London for you! Prior to your plays, you worked on many Broadway cast recordings, how did the transition into playwriting come about?
I actually have always been a writer. My early jobs in the theatre were as a reader, and then later as Mrs Papp's assistant in the Play Department at Joe Papp's Public Theatre in New York. My work in Broadway Cast recordings came about because I needed a job. A good friend of mine who worked at BMG/RCA knew that (a.) I loved cast recordings and (b.) I could write about them. The job expanded over time and was pretty damn wonderful, but from the beginning, the "need" to write was satisfied there by writing synopses and liner notes. When the job ended a decade later it was only a matter of time before I started writing for myself again. Living in London, where there are more playwrights per square meter than probably anywhere else in the world, it was almost inevitable that I'd turn my attention back to playwriting. It's just taken a very long time to get here.
The play is a semi-autobiographical account of a specific night in your life. What made you decide to revisit that night in the form of a play?
One aspect of the theatre-going that I love is when the performers on stage "connect" with each other and the audience simultaneously. That when a scene or play ends, you need a moment to come back to reality. There are a couple of plays which influenced 46 Beacon: Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly and Terence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune. This is not just because they are two-handers set in a confined time and place, but because the characters in them each have their flaws and the plays are about seeing whether their flaws complement one another. I felt that "that night" was inherently theatrical and the challenge I set for myself was to write a play where the audience and the actors could make that connection with one another and get lost in the play.
Inspirational: Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in 'Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune' by Terence McNally in the 2002 Broadway revival.
What was it about that night that made you feel like it needed to be seen by a wider audience?
I actually never thought it would get this far. I wrote it because at the time there was a lot of introspection going on in my life, due to the fact that all my parents - Mother, Father, Step-Mother - had passed away within a five month period. I was trying to write about that, but I couldn't break through to my adult issues without coming to an understanding of aspects of my youth that I had never really thought through. So I wrote the play as a way to get to a different play and a different time of my life. It was only after I gave it to a friend to read and he told me that he thought it was terrific, that I began to think about the prospect of it being performed. And while I love reading plays, they're always better when they're performed.
We completely agree! In your opinion, what makes the Trafalgar Studios the right venue for the play?
The sheer coziness of the space. For 46 Beacon, the size and layout work entirely in its favor. I love the fact that in the West End there is a space where an intimate play such as this can find a home. I don't believe the play can only be done in a small venue, but I think the experience of the play on this scale will be different than when it plays in a larger house. Look at how a play such as Constellations made the leap from Upstairs at the Royal Court to the Duke of York's and beyond. Plays find a way to fill and satisfy their given space.
All about space: 'Constellations' by Nick Payne transferred to the West End from the Royal Court in 2012.
What would you like audiences to take away from the play?
I want audiences to come away with a sense of how far gay rights has come in such a short time and how, because so much of gay life was hidden away from mainstream society for so long, there is a history that has happened within our lifetimes that is in danger of being lost. On a less lofty level, I want people gay and straight to pause for a moment and think about that particular night in their own lives and reflect on how it changed them. The biggest surprise for me when we did it over two weekends at The Hope in Islington last year was that women in the audience adored it, in large part because they strongly identified with Alan giving up "something" that night and Robert initially taking that "something" for granted. And let's face it, everyone - no matter their sexual orientation - has a first time, so there's some aspect to the play to which everyone can respond.
Growing up in America, what did theatre mean to you as a young gay man?
It was, and still is, a haven. A safe place. My home life wasn't particularly happy and I could've just been a troubled kid who went down a different, less constructive path. But when you're a gay kid or any kind of "outsider", there are things in which you find comfort. It's a cliché now, but the fact that at the age of 9 I would sit mesmerized by "The Judy Garland Show" on TV - that was a clear indication that I could identify with her pain and her pizzazz. For me, becoming immersed in the world of entertainment (theatre, movies, music) not only offered me a "safe" place but also a place which explored the human condition. And so I learned about "real life" while trying to escape from it.
How does it feel to be a US playwright in the UK?
It's strange because by holding dual citizenship I don't think of myself as being defined by one country. Of the plays that I write, the "family" ones are American in tone and attitude, but the plays I write with my British voice are inherently British. Friends that have read the British ones are amazed at how invisible my US origins are in them. Though an American phrase sometimes seeps through,once it's pointed out to me - it gets cut. 46 Beacon is pretty unique in that it has two characters, one American and one British; it's split down the middle. I don't know if it's an American play with a British accent or a British play with an American attitude.
Oliver Coopersmith and Jay Taylor will star in '46 Beacon' at Trafalgar Studios.
What is your opinion on the current state of UK theatre compared to America?
I think that's become a difficult question now that the US has its new president who is hell bent on eliminating the arts from daily life over there. In the UK, there is a tradition of theatre as a political tool; audiences here actually like going to plays which explore new ideas and radical political thought. They like to be challenged, enlightened and enraged. There is simply so much "new" writing in all genres available in the UK that serious theatre in the US pales in comparison.
I think and hope that American playwriting in the next few years will see a surge in serious plays addressing harsh social and political issues. For many many years US playwrights and theatres have shied away from that, for fear of losing funding from government agencies and super-rich board members. The arts in the states are not a priority anywhere. Cities can seemingly always get hundreds of millions of dollars to build another stadium, or sports arena, or convention center. But to build or support theatres? The arts organizations have to beg for money from all sides and with the begging comes the inevitable compromise of what they program so that they don't offend board members or corporations who offer financial support. Assuming the current administration has its way I think there will be a sense of creative liberation among playwrights, who will write the plays they want and need to write, rather than being inhibited by the precarious state of whatever funds are available. The downside of that is, who is going to produce this onslaught of serious, liberated work? I'm not sure.
And finally, what advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Hey, I'm an aspiring playwright, who am I to give advice? But since you asked...
Go to the theatre, all the time. See everything. Read plays. Listen to plays on Radio 4. Listen, watch and learn. And most important of all remember this: no one is asking you to be a playwright. It isn't easy. And so many stars need to align for a play to get produced that you have to make sure you find joy in the creative process alone because the chances are the play will never get done. So write for yourself first. Then no matter what happens, that play will have given at least one person joy.
46 Beacon runs from 5th - 29th April 2017 at Trafalgar Studios, London.