Perhaps you picture the life of a professionally published, globally produced playwright as at least a little bit glamorous: days spent in a wood-paneled private office pounding out dialogue with focused determination and nights spent partying with entertainment’s elite (or at least B-listers).
Spend an hour with Mark Brown, who was the keynote speaker at last Friday’s Playfest kickoff event, and you’ll be thoroughly disabused of that notion. With Orlando Shakes’ Jim Helsinger playing interviewer, Brown delivered a demystifying dissection of his accidental journey to becoming the author of one of today’s top 10 most-performed plays in America.
Helsinger introduced Brown to the audience as “our playwright,” befitting Brown’s close relationship with Orlando Shakes’ annual new play festival (formerly called Playlab), where most of his scripts have been developed. His Around the World in 80 Days has played in South Africa and Bangladesh, as well as most major U.S. stages, and China: The Whole Enchilada is currently in negotiations with the lead producer of Rock of Ages. Both began as Playfest readings and workshops here at Loch Haven Park. But according to Brown, his writing career began as a byproduct of his “record number of auditions for Las Vegas [an NBC television show] without ever getting cast.”
Brown says he “phased out of acting” to focus on something he’d started inadvertently after pitching an adaptation of The Little Prince to Orlando Theatre Project (now disbanded) as a holiday show to perform at the Civic (now Orlando Rep). They liked the idea, and asked Brown to write it. The resulting show, which featured Anne Herring, was successful enough to be picked up by Dramatic Publishing. Sadly, rights to the property changed hands, and the new owner has barred Brown’s version from ever being performed again.
The genesis of his biggest hit was equally inauspicious. “I had no burning desire to [adapt] Around the World in 80 Days,” Brown said, and he agreed to Helsinger’s entreaties to write it before actually reading the book. His first draft, which only covered “the first 40 days,” ran about three hours. (“It was close to real-time,” Brown joked.) After the Orlando workshop, Brown was working at Utah’s Shakespeare Festival when the theater was presenting a different adaptation of 80 Days with a difficult director. Within days of learning of Brown’s version, the director was dumped and Brown’s play received its world premiere, on its way to England and off-Broadway.
Brown stumbled into his next success, as well; it started out as a story about the adoption of his daughter from China. That idea proved “just boring,” Brown says, but he became fascinated with creating a primer on Chinese culture and history. Brown says China: The Whole Enchilada didn’t start as a musical, but “then I added a song, and another one and another. Twelve songs later ... .” Brown said that the show, which recently held backers auditions in New York and Los Angeles, polarizes some audiences – in the words of a manager at one theater that presented it: “Asian people love it, but white people are offended by it.”
Brown’s newest show was born of an unsolicited commission from Dramatic Publishing to compose an adaptation of Cervantes’ notoriously unadaptable Don Quixote (“I should have read the book” before agreeing, he says.) With his 6-year-old daughter demanding his attention at home and Facebook games like Mafia Wars as ready distractions, Brown says “the hardest part about writing is actually doing it.” He found himself retreating to the local Starbucks with his notebook to get work done. Thanks to a confabulating journalist, he ended up photographed as the semi-infamous “Pajamas Playwright” in the New York Daily News, though he insists he doesn’t normally wear his PJs in public.
Inspired by that experience, he ended up writing himself and his literary agent into his play Don Quixote – The Reckoning, premiering in workshop form at this week’s Playfest. The show, which is set in a “SuccuBucks Coffee” shop, features a fifth wall-violating playwright protagonist struggling to start an overdue adaptation of Don Quixote. Based on the brief excerpt performed for the keynote audience, the resulting show relies on goofy sound effects, Python-esque coconut horse-hooves and broad Borscht Belt humor. Fortunately, actor Philip Nolen (who enlivened Brown’s China and Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge shows) is on board in a silly beard, proving once again that every comedy could use him as its white knight.
Writing new plays may be modern theater’s equivalent of tilting at windmills. The biggest challenge, Brown told his audience, is “finding theaters that will develop new plays in this economy,” as most producers stick with “tried and true” safe bets. Brown’s only advice to fledgling playwrights with eyes on Broadway? Write a “jukebox musical” and “sweet talk Rod Stewart” into licensing his music.