As sole writer or collaborator Douglas Carter Beane has had a hand in six Broadway productions, including the musicals Xanadu and Sister Act and the LCT production of The Nance. But after a rehearsal the other day of Shows for Days, which begins previews in the Newhouse on June 6, Beane told me that at times he makes the majority of his income from community-theater productions.
“That is one of the things that inspired me to write the new play,” Beane said. “The other is that I felt frustrated with a couple of my recent theatrical experiences on Broadway. I wanted to go back to the source.”
In Shows for Days, an autobiographical memory play, Beane recreates his initiation into his profession. The story begins in May, 1973, in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and where his 14-year-old stand-in, Car, is thrown into the world of community theater.
“We were hilariously creative,” Beane said. “We had to be. There was no internet with clips we could steal from for our productions. We were completely cut off.” The main connection to professional theater was the yearly broadcast of the Tony awards, and the occasional professional production – “Pippin starring Greg Brady” – that would trundle through.
And yet those years were, to cite the Joe Cino phrase referenced in Beane’s new play, “magic time.” As Jeanie Hackett, one of Beane’s co-initiates in those days, who is now an acting teacher in Los Angeles, told him recently, “Nothing will ever be that glamorous again.”
Beane’s hometown is hard-pressed for glamour today: surveys regularly rank it one of the most impoverished cities in America. “I went back there while I was writing the first act of my play,” Beane said. “I got on the bus and traveled down. It was my first time visiting in more than 20 years. I was shocked at what I saw. So much of the city has been abandoned.”
Beane may be dispirited with Reading’s decline, but he remains grateful for what it gave him. “I am thrilled to have a chance to recreate it for Shows for Days. Writing this play changed my life.” He explained: “I’m doing things I wouldn’t normally do.”
For starters, he plans to direct his next two plays, whose composition is in progress. And in August he and his family are moving to London for ten months. “I’m looking forward to being somewhere else for a while.” That he can make the temporary displacement has a lot to do with Sister Act and with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, for which Beane provided a new book. “They are both on tour, so I have a little money in my back pocket.” He added: “And Sister Act is very popular in summer stock.”
I suspect it is also becoming popular in community theaters, of which Beane remains fond. “They are so often the object of ridicule, in movies like Waiting for Guffman. But I think they’re noble. They gave me a start as a teenager, and they are still giving opportunities to people today.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.