Tuesday, May 10, 2011

They Were Ours by Larry Manogue and William Walter White

They Were Ours

By Larry Manogue and William Walter White

Based on a book by John Campbell

Directed by Beth Gardiner

Monday, May 16th 7pm

Ripley-Grier Studios

520 8th Ave, 16th Floor Studio D
(between 36th and 37th Street)
New York, NY, 10018
($5 suggested donation)
RSVP at info@coyoterep.org

From Larry Manogue

“THEY WERE OURS” is a play about 43 soldiers from Gloucester County , NewJersey , who died during the Vietnam War. In December 2008, I attended a children’s theater production in Woodbury , N.J. of a Christmas play I wrote many years ago. After the show, the director approached me. Marianne asked, “I have a friend who wrote a book about the soldiers from our county who died in Vietnam . Could you turn it into a play?” I was dumbfounded. This was the first time I had ever met her, and the only writing she’d ever seen of mine was this children’s play from years ago. I mainly write comedies, (at least that’s what I think they are). I’ve never written about something with the heavy subject matter of war and death. How would I even write an adaptation? I told Marianne to send me a copy of the book, and said I’d think about it. In February 2009, she emailed asking if I had read it yet. No…I hadn’t. I was working on another play and the thought of reading a 300+ page book was the furthest thing from my mind. I showed the book to Bill--- he grew up in the county too--- and he was interested in reading it, when flipping through it, he noticed the author grew up in the same town as him. He was moved by the book, and offered to collaborate on the play with me. Still, how would we even go about writing an adaptation? In April 2009, we read the latest course offerings from Primary Stages School of Theater (ESPA). We had already taken several playwrighting classes there, and for their summer session a new course was: Adaptation by Rogelio Martinez. I called Bill and said, “I guess we’re supposed to write this play next.” So we signed up, and started working on the play two years ago.

By October 2009 we completed the first draft, had an informal reading, and were discouraged—it ran over two and a half hours and it was just too much to sit through. Little by little we worked on edits and rewrites. Working on this blog entry, I found the old email from November 2009—when I proposed having a staged reading in the South Jersey theater, where Marianne approached me. In it I wrote:

“The process of writing this play has been a life changing experience. Looking at their pictures in uniform, it appeared as though the photographs could have been taken last week. Reading the stories of these young men and the survivors they left behind were very powerful in their own right, but we couldn’t help but think about the parallels with the situation our country is in now. We both felt a sense of duty to these young men who went to war so many years ago and yet were shipped out yesterday.

We feel we've become very close to the men and women in these stories and were inspired by their courage, compassion and love for each other and country. This is a first for us in many ways. Neither of us had ever attempted an adaptation before, nor had we ever collaborated. We certainly never expected to be writing a play about the Vietnam War. We both have very different styles, and approaches, yet once again the insight of another writer, so close at hand was integral.

In February 2010, we had a staged reading of this early draft at the Sketch Club Players Theater in Woodbury, NJ directed by Marianne—the woman who put us on this journey. We also finally got to meet John Campbell, the author of the book. We received a positive response from the audience, but we knew there was still more work to be done.

We met Donnetta Lavinia Grays, artistic director of Coyote Rep, while she was working on “The New Normal” in a playwrighting class at ESPA instructed by Cusi Cram. We were trying to put a cast together for an informal reading in NYC and we asked Donnetta to be part of it. She wasn’t able to do it, but she invited us to join the Antreaders Group here at Coyote Rep. “They Were Ours” fit Coyote Rep’s mission statement of plays about ordinary people doing extraordinary things… so we brought this play to Antreaders, and revised it a few more times. It’s been a real challenge trying to write a play telling 43 stories, with 90 characters portrayed by 10 actors, and trying to keep it under two hours.

Working on this play has given me a new appreciation for those who serve our country, and life itself. There are no guarantees in life—so many of these young men died before they reached age 22. I’m blessed that I came of age in a time without war, and I am here to help tell their stories. And they are some great stories. John Campbell took seven years researching the subjects in his book. Many of the people he interviewed shared funny stories and memories…that’s how I’d like to be remembered one day. We know war and death is a tough subject matter. Hopefully we’ve balanced the sadness with light. We hope you’ll also give yourself permission to smile and laugh, as you’re introduced to 43 guys who have become a big part of my life these past two years, stealing a piece of my heart in the process.

From William Walter White

I first became involved with this piece, when Larry told me he was
asked to adapt a book about Vietnam into a play. I have to admit, I laughed. It's not a project I expected him to ever undertake. Not that I didn't think he could do it; I just never thought it would be a subject he would tackle.

When he handed the book over to me, the first thing that struck me was the photographs of each soldier. They were so young...it was as if they were taken last week. These weren't pictures of soldiers from the two World Wars.

Everything looked so much more contemporary and current. The second thing to strike me was finding out the author of the book, John Campbell, grew up in the same small town as I did, Colonial Manor, NJ. I read the first story and that was that. I asked Larry if he would mind a collaborator. So far, this has been a two year journey for Larry and me, intersected with John's own twenty to forty year journey; depending on what years you're counting. It has been both an honor and a privilege to work on this project with Larry. I know it has changed me.

Photos of the soldiers included with the blog are:

Stephano J. Fiducioso… February 11,1947 to November 2,1967

Donald F. McDowell… August 24,1945 to December 26,1967

Augustus J. Ponto, III… September 29,1945 to June 10,1967.

About the Playwrights

Larry Manogue has written “The Jersey Girls” (produced off-Broadway at The Actors’ Playhouse), “For Better or Worse”, “Stuck in Traffic”, “Rowhomes”, “Help Wanted: Santa” and “Tuesday Night Threesomes”. His plays have been read or developed at Primary Stages/ESPA, Theater Row Studios, Coyote Rep, Theatre 603 and the Woodbury Sketch Club Players Theater. He is a graduate of Temple University.

William Walter White's other play’s include “Comrades,” “Supreme Beings,” and “Your Mother's Eyes/ Your Father's Smile.” His plays have been read or developed at Primary Stages/ESPA, Theater Row Studios, Coyote Rep, and the Woodbury Sketch Club Players Theater.

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