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Last fall, when I began my residency with Charlotte Street Foundation, I began rewriting a play I had, called Satellite.
Originally, the play was set in a small town in Missouri. Its main character was Travis, who, when we meet him, is “holed up” in a dirty motel with the waitress he’s kidnapped, a la the one-sided romance between Don Murray and Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop.
In the revised Satellite, Travis is no less troubled and driftless than in the previous incarnation, he’s got a more specific past; he’s coming back home as a U.S. Army veteran from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, I’ve given Travis a last name, Beckett, and a romantic entanglement that doesn’t involve his kidnapping a woman. Dahlia, who goes by Dale in this new version, is a no-nonsense woman who works in the library in the town of Lenton, MO. She’s also living with Travis’ old roommate, Clint, which arrangement fuels the bad blood between the two men by adding the element of a love triangle.
The remaining holdover from the original version is Victor, or Vic, as his friends call him. His last name’s no longer Mild, and neither is he a smarmy low-level Rust Belt grafter with connections to harder criminals. This Vic is the most philosophical of the characters, and like Dale and Travis, and to a lesser degree, Clint, he’s locked to a place and is trying to break through the static of mourning; it’s revealed that he lost his wife in a workplace shooting. I was at pains to make this evident without resorting to agitprop; the reading will indicate how close I am to making the drama and heartache that resides in Victor and Travis’ backgrounds something that feeds their action, or inaction. Per inaction, there is some indirect reference to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and, further to William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, a post-WWII play in which an FDR-esque Joe sits center stage, listening to and helping the denizens of a waterfront bar.
Satellite takes place in Vic’s bar, which he is ostensibly planning to reopen, but he never seems to get beyond the planning stage. It’s apparent in how the characters come together in the bar that it once was a hub of social activity and remains so if only for them.
Lenton, Missouri is a fictional name, and a mutation, of sorts, of two specific towns I wanted to reference for myself in defining its dramatic perimeters. I spent part of my childhood in Belton, Missouri, but the person upon whose experiences I based some of the play, grew up in Warrensburg, Missouri. The movie theater, then, that I reference, was one closer to Belton; having gone to college in Warrensburg, I know the only movie theater that town has is an indoor house. I did want a stronger sense of movies as a way of keeping personal memories for these characters, particularly for Vic, who was planning a trip to Vienna, Austria with his wife so they could take a tour based on Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Film represents an outside world that is playing while these characters are locked into their very real situations, all of which boil down to whether each of them want to stay where they are.
The only character who is not in the original version is Kelsey. She’s the counselor who sees Travis in her weekly groups. We learn that anyone who has seen combat action is subject to mandatory counseling to deal with any issues their war experiences have left them with. I dance around Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and for much the same reason as I did with the workplace shooting. I wanted these characters to be recognizable people of depth and complexity. I’m not against the Living Newspaper or plays like Mother Courage, but I wanted to present characters that an audience would relate to as people they could see themselves talking to in a bar.
This Satellite, changed from womb to tomb, is the version I’m staging a table reading of at Paragraph Gallery the nights of May 20-22 with all performances starting at 7 p.m. The first two nights will allow the audience to see what goes into a play production, with the actors literally becoming acquainted with the script and each other as they learn their characters. I think the group I was lucky in assembling – all were my first picks – will be able to give me feedback when they have a concern or see something that I can make stronger. I expect and welcome this part of the process, and I don’t doubt that it can and will be entertaining. The third night, we kick out the table and the actors – Burnie Booth (Vic), Angie Lutz (Kelsey), Tyson Schroeder (Travis), Don Simon (Clint) and Meghan Whelan (Dale) – will sit directly facing the house. Afterward, will be a talkback with the audience, who I look forward to hearing from, not least because I am reaching out to veterans for their response to Satellite.
Preparing for a reading is much simpler than a full production, but it leaves so much to be guessed when trying to see what a play’s challenges are. With the reading, all you have is the script and the players. No one’s read the play in its entirety, let alone been given their blocking or emotional beats. With an audience in the house, and hopefully, some curious souls willing to return on one or both subsequent nights, this play becomes something more than words on a page.
Following the three-day reading, I’ll revamp and tighten where necessary for the next part of the process, submitting Satellite to various artistic directors across the country. I’m grateful not just to the performers taking this part of the trip with me, but to the Charlotte Street Foundation Residency for making it possible.