'Before Steepletop' is the latest work by the Sarasota playwright, who didn't find his talent until retirement.
A good playwright doesn’t just create characters. A good playwright hangs out with them.
“They’re alive in my head,” says playwright Arthur Keyser. “I don’t get bored with rewriting because I love visiting my characters.”
Keyser, 89, was the winner of the 2017 Players New Play Festival, which earned him the chance to produce his new work this summer at The Players Centre For Performing Arts. The play, “Before Steepletop,” is a historical fiction piece about Pulitzer Prize winner Edna St. Vincent Millay’s young adult years spent in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Keyser began writing his work in 2011 after spending a summer in The Berkshires of western Massachusetts with his wife, Ellen. A different feature-length play of his was being produced at a theater festival in the region, and after a performance he met a friendly poet.
The writer walked right up to Keyser to introduce himself, and they became fast friends. Later in the summer, he called Keyser to invite him on a road trip to Millay’s home (now a museum) in nearby Austerlitz, N.Y. Keyser agreed, unaware of the impact the quick getaway would have on him.
“I’m not by nature a spiritual person, but I had a feeling when I walked into that house,” Keyser says. “I could feel her presence.”
He had to do something about it. Keyser spent the next nine months researching Millay extensively. He pored over biography after biography, learning so much, he soon became overwhelmed by the plethora of fascinating details regarding the poet’s short life.
Keyser became fascinated by not only Millay’s talent but her addictive personality, her two choice vices being alcohol and sex. He says his knowledge of her turbulent life became so extensive, he could have written 60 biographical plays on the subject.
He almost gave up the idea of trying to depict Millay’s captivating life story theatrically until he dropped the constraints of nonfiction. What if he centered his story on one of her wannabe lovers — who was completely fictional?
Thus the character of Sheldon was born. A recent transplant from Atlanta, Sheldon arrives in New York City as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed aspiring poet. He unknowingly moves into the same boarding house as his favorite writer — none other than Millay — and immediately cozies up to her.
But 20-something Millay isn’t having it. She refuses to sleep with him, and she encourages him not to pursue a career in writing, noting it led her straight to poverty.
This infuriates Sheldon — mostly because he feels like she’s sleeping with every other man in New York City. A star-crossed love affair develops, with a plot Keyser infused with several historical events.
Playwriting is a relatively new pastime for Keyser, who wrote his first play nine years ago at the age of 80.
He says it was his career as a lawyer, surprisingly, that helped him develop the necessary writing skills.
After graduating at the top of his law school class — a degree he earned taking night classes while juggling a job at the Pentagon helping plan the Korean War — Keyser returned to his hometown of Philadelphia to work at the circuit court. After that, he spent the next 45 years practicing corporate law at the same firm, only to switch to a different firm for the last five years of his career.
“I don’t think my parents ever read a book,” Keyser says. “I grew up in a family where my parents were both born deaf.”
His parents couldn’t help him with his schooling and couldn’t afford to take him to any artistic institutions, but Keyser says their love and support helped him develop a passion for reading and writing long before he was formally taught. Soon, his dream career became sports writing.
It wasn’t until he was 14 that he saw his first play and fell in love with theater.
“I never thought I’d do anything but sit in the audience,” Keyser says.
Fast forward to 2004, when Keyser moved to Sarasota. He retired at 75, and like many residents, the combination of sun and quality art organizations intrigued him and his wife. It was an easy decision.
One day, Keyser found himself at a Players production, and Managing Artistic Director Jeffery Kin walked onstage to tell the audience about a senior theater company the Players was organizing. He recalls turning to his wife and expressing interest before being quickly shut down.
“You’re not an actor,” Ellen told him.
But he went to the audition anyway, only to be told he didn’t need to audition due to the company’s desperate need for male actors.
“We discovered soon that I didn’t belong in the theater company,” Keyser says with a laugh, noting his wife was right to doubt his thespian potential.
He did, however, go to enough rehearsals to notice that a sketch wasn’t going well. He offered suggestions, and something clicked. He realized he could write scenes — and write them well.
Since then, Keyser has gone on to write about 40 short plays and six or seven full-length plays (who’s counting when you’re just doing it for the love of it?). His subjects range from a play about elderly widows to an absurdist play in which the characters were mad at Keyser for ruining their chance at being in a better show.
“When I wake up I can’t wait to get to my Mac and start writing,” Keyser says.
He learned the craft after reading several books and taking multiple playwriting workshops, eventually traveling as far as Asheville, N.C., for the chance to hone his skills with a new teacher. He was the only one in his class to successfully write a play in one night.
He joined Sarasota Area Playwrights Society in 2009, the same year he wrote his first play. Now he’s a Dramatists Guild of America Inc. ambassador for the Sarasota area.
Keyser went on to submit several works to local playwriting festival Theatre Odyssey, and in 2015 he won Best Play for “High School Reunion.”
“Before Steepletop” came out of an online class he took with multi award-winning playwright Caridad Svich. Eventually it became a full-length historical fiction play he submitted to the 2017 Players New Play Festival.
Since earning the top prize at the festival, Keyser says he’s relied on Kin and his director, Don Walker, to offer suggestions in what has become a collaborative process.
“Playwriting is like plate spinning,” Kin says. “You have a story going, and then you have characters, and then you have dialogue, and then you have conflict, and you have to make sure your story is still being told, but you can’t let down on the conflict — and where’s that character growth?”
His job, Kin says, is to help keep writers from letting any of those plates fall.
Now, 50-drafts later, Kin thinks he has most of his plates spinning.
“The challenge was to take a real character and real events, have her do those things and yet weave his story into hers,” Keyser says. “I’m the worst critic of my own plays.”
Kin says the playwright has a “rock star” work ethic that has made him successful. He listens to criticism, rewrites and surrounds himself with the right people to create a play showcasing a famous character who not many people understand, making “Before Steepletop” something special.
Asked what’s next, Keyser — who turns 90 in January — says he won’t stop writing plays until he’s no longer around.
“I think this has kept me alive for this long.”