“Holy shit”¦It’s like getting the rights to “˜It’s a Wonderful Life’ and then getting Charles Manson to write it.”
— Enda Walsh in his acceptance speech for the Tony for his book for Once, winner of eight Tony awards last week
One of the cast members of Rogue Machine’s production of Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, Lisa Pelikan, gave me the play about four years ago when Rogue Machine was just beginning.Â I read it and was astonished.Â Walsh was the most original voice in theater that I had read in many years.Â The same day I read it, I called his agent in London who told me the rights were held by the Druid Theatre. So I called Galway and spoke to Tim Smith, Druid’s general manager.Â He was apologetic. The Druid production was on its way to UCLA, so LA rights weren’t available.
I waited, I saw the tour, and then good fortune smiled on me.Â I was working on a screenplay with a young writer who had graduated from CalArts. He asked about Rogue Machine and then asked if I would be interested in meeting a playwright who was a friend of his.Â I said yes — his friend was Enda.
I have read all of Mr. Walsh’s plays except Once. His vision is brutal but brutal because of his great understanding of the human heart, of love and loneliness and how they both compel and define existence.Â He creates characters whose longing is palpable, and he finds a gentle character-based humor in his bleak worlds.Â I know Once from the movie.Â I think John Tiffany, co-creator and director of Once and of Black Watch, is an extraordinary artist.Â Of course, he understood Enda Walsh was exactly the right person to write Once.
When we started Rogue Machine, we said we would do only new plays and plays not previously done in Los Angeles.Â We are making an exception for The New Electric Ballroom, which had only five performances at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse during that tour in 2009.Â We make this exception because Enda Walsh is a new voice in the theater and will surely be an important voice.Â I think brilliant beyond words is an apt if somewhat contradictory description.Â Walsh is a true poet of the theater. His words are brilliant, but the journey of discovery to the life behind the words reveals his true genius. Charles McNulty recently cited him as one of the heirs to Beckett and Pinter.
The New Electric Ballroom is a fairytale for existentialists. Its world seems like ours — a small village in Ireland — but it is actually a created world with its own rules.Â Forty some years ago two sisters, foolish in love, hounded and humiliated by the other women of the village, retreated to their home and have not been out since.Â Each day they retell and relive the fateful events that have shut them away for their younger sister.Â What perhaps started as storytelling to warn the sister of the dangers of love and the cruelty of the townspeople has become a way of life with each of the three sisters — three sisters who will not get to Moscow — imprisoned by whom they’ve become within this ritualized existence.Â As often as they repeat themselves, in this fairytale world, their telling of the tale is always like it was the first time — fresh, raw and wounding.
One of the joys of staging The New Electric Ballroom is that set designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and lighting designer Leigh Allen have joined me once again.Â Â Each time we work together we get better. Our challenge was to create a world that is bleak but rich in fantasy.Â Stephanie gave Leigh and Dianne Graebner, who has crafted the iconic wardrobe, a set-scape of pearly monotones. Dianne’s wardrobe and Leigh’s lights splash color and transport us to the women’s fantasy world. Adam Phelan, who did the sound for last year’s The Word Begins, is back with a homemade Foley tape, which the women play to support their stories and which also helps transport us to that other world.Â Â The five of us are supported by our amazing technical director David Mauer, whose own artistic vision always enhances what we do.
I can think of few writers who are more challenging than Enda Walsh for actors.Â Hiw script requires ritualized dressing and undressing and five-page monologues –Â but when the actors disappear and the characters begin to emerge,Â nothing is more exhilarating. Tim Cummings is Patsy, Lisa Pelikan is Breda, Casey Kramer is Clara and Betsy Zajko is Ada.Â Together we’re at that sought-after place where how they tell their stories and illuminate this world gets better every night.
Walsh is an extraordinary writer whose understanding of the human condition deserves a large audience.Â Many of you reading this have probably spent your life devoted to the theater.Â It seems incredibly wrong that we who seek to create art, who seek to keep this great art alive, who seek to get writers like Walsh seen and heard, cannot make a living doing so. Even so, each time we do a new production, we continue to attempt to do our best work. This defines our art as much as the results of that work.Â What else can we do?
The New Electric Ballroom opens Saturday. Sat at 5 pm, Sun at 7 pm, and Mon at 8 pm through July 30 (no performance on Mondays, June 25 and July 23).Â Rogue Machine, 5041 Pico Blvd., LA, 90019.Â Tickets are $30. 855-585-5185. www.roguemachinetheatre.com
John Perrin Flynn is responsible for launching the premiere of John Pollono’s Small Engine Repair (Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly, Ovation, and Garland awards) and the Los Angeles premiere of David Harrower’s Blackbird.Â As Rogue Machine’s founding artistic director, he has executive produced all four successful seasons, garnering the LA Weekly Career Achievement Award in 2012.Â John recently directed the critically-acclaimed Los Angeles premiere of The Sunset Limited, which ran for six months.Â He directed the award-winning premiere of Henry Murray’s Treefall (now produced four times and published by Dramatists Play Service in 2010), Monkey Adored, and the Los Angeles premiere of Rogue Machine’s inaugural production, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, by Jeffrey Hatcher. He helmed Craig Lucas’ Small Tragedies at the Odyssey Theatre and the premiere of John Pollono’s Lost and Found at the Lounge Theatre.Â John was the executive producer and director of Lifetime’s long-running award-winning series Strong Medicine, has produced two other series and 14 television movies or miniseries including the Emmy nominated Burden of Proof.
***Production photos by John Flynn