What does it take to bring a New Play Festival-winning script to life?
On July 9, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II was sleeping quietly in Buckingham Palace. Michael Fagan was climbing up a drainpipe just outside. He found an unlocked window, squeezed inside and helped himself to cheese and crackers. A short time later, the Queen awoke to see Fagan sitting on the edge of her bed. They had a nice chat. She eventually calmed him down and security led him away.
While Fagan began his stay in a psychiatric hospital, the palace sacked several security guards and fixed the alarm system. The incident was a chuckle on “The Tonight Show” in the United States. It saturated TV and the tabloids in the United Kingdom.
Playwright Llywelyn Jones was a child, living in London at the time.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “If the Queen isn’t safe, who is?”
A disturbing thought. And the seed of an idea that ultimately grew into a play: “Why Can’t I Be You?”
Jones’ play was one of five final selections performed in dramatic readings at The Players Theatre’s 2015 New Play Festival. His play was the festival winner — and was recently performed in a fully staged production at the Players’ Backstage Studio.
How did a news-of-the-weird story from his childhood grow into a fully realized play?
“Very slowly,” Jones says. “The idea went through a long germination process, then quickly came together in my mind.”
He explains that, a few years back, he was living in Los Angeles. A rash of celebrity stalker incidents hit the L.A. scene. One deranged individual went after Mila Kunis. Another broke into Madonna’s estate. The nightmares unfolded on the nightly news. Jones watched. And had a sense of déjà vu …
A new play began taking shape in his mind.
A play about a stalker, sure. A stalker and a celebrity hostage. Two characters, bottled up in a room…
But his play would be a work of fiction, not a disguised news story.
So, what is a stalker exactly?
A stalker is an extreme form of a fan — and “fan” is just short for “fanatic.” Desire fuels fanaticism. Some fans want their idols — but that had been done to death in a host of Lifetime movies. Other fans want to be their idols — and that hadn’t been done.
Jones’ new play would deal with the schizoid nature of fame itself. The love/hate relationship fans have with their idols. The sense of ownership. The sense of betrayal if their idol goes off-script.
Like the folk fans that hollered “Judas” when Dylan plugged in his electric guitar.
Like frustrated rock star Charlie Manson putting record producer Terry Melcher on his kill list.
His stalker would condemn his singer/songwriter idol as a sell-out. His stalker would judge his idol. At the same time, his stalker would want to be his idol.
So now Jones had his play. All he had to do was write it.
Before long, he did. He workshopped his first draft at the American Theater of Actors in New York City. Hearing the actors read his dialog helped Jones bring his characters into sharper focus.
He wrote some more and submitted his revised draft to last year’s new play competition at The Players. He was grateful to win — and equally grateful for the audience feedback.
“Somebody said the stalker shouldn’t know every last personal detail about his idol,” he says. “I thought it was a great suggestion.”
Jones tapped Jeff Dillon to direct both the staged reading and this year’s fully staged production. Dillon had directed “Blackjack,” Jones’ first production at The Players back in 2005. The two have been frequent collaborators every since.
“Llywelyn is egoless,” Dillon says. “He’ll take notes from me, from the actors — anybody. He sticks to the vision behind his script. But he’ll do whatever it takes to make the script as clear as possible to the audience.”
It took four months to turn that script into a performance. Jones fine-tuned the dialog and cut back a few monologs. Dillon found ways to make a one-room production evoke a world — and get the playwright’s vision across.
“That’s the advantage of working with living playwrights,” Dillon says. “I can’t ask Tennessee Williams what he meant by ‘the kindness of strangers.’ I don’t have to guess about Llywelyn’s intentions. He’s right here, and I can ask.”
Finding the right actors was crucial to the process. Several weeks of auditions yielded Rafael Petlock as the crazed stalker, Camilo Andres Bustos as the burnt-out rocker, Lucy Manuel as his no-longer star-struck fiancée and Richard Russell as a smarmy talk show host. How’d they do?
“Fantastic,” says Jones. “Every play starts out as words in your head. Keep working and you wind up with a script. But that’s still just words on a page. The right actors can bring your words to life. That’s exactly what they did.”