A few weeks ago, I got an email from my friend Larry Eisenberg that Group Rep, the theatre near my house where he’s artistic director, was staging “The Winning Streak” by Lee Blessing, a play I’d never seen.
I emailed Larry, whom I’ve known and worked off and on with for just over 25 years:
I know Lee Blessing.
And he now lives here in Los Angeles.
Has he come to see this, or been involved in the rehearsals?
If not, perhaps I can get him to come see it.
Now, mind you, Lee Blessing is one of the perhaps 40 American playwrights who make their living writing plays. (The rest are independently well-off or are primarily writing television or they’re in academia or they own marketing companies. Seriously.) His plays, including “A Walk in the Woods,” “Cobb,” “Going to St. Ives,” “Two Rooms” and about 30 others are constantly produced all over the world. He is one of our great, and widely known, playwrights.
So, when Larry and I had a little email back-and-forth where in a very gentlemanly way he hinted that perhaps it was inconceivable that I knew Lee Blessing, I understood. Because how could he know that I’ve been acquainted with Lee for about five years now because of our mutual affiliation with the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha?
Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of seeing “The Winning Streak” at Larry’s theatre, in what I thought was a terrific production, with the playwright seated to my right, and to introduce Lee Blessing on stage while sharing with the audience the story of Larry’s friendly skepticism and then turning to Larry, pointing to Lee off to my left on-stage, and saying, “So Larry, I win.” Larry and everyone else in the packed house laughed.
Like all of Lee’s plays that I’ve seen, “The Winning Streak” proved to be moving, funny, and incredibly well-written, so well-written as to appear effortless. But it couldn’t have been. For one thing, it’s a two-character play — probably the single hardest sort of play to write well. A badly written two-character play is like a ping-pong match, with two opposing forces lobbing the ball back and forth; this is why so many of us write, instead, three-character plays, where the conflict can constantly shift. I said this to Lee (who, it should be noted, has written no fewer than five full-length two-handers), who didn’t know why he kept returning to this form — he just does.
To the theatre company’s great delight, Lee had agreed to do a talkback. He was generous with his time, putting in about an hour, thoughtful and funny in response to good questions, kind to bad questions, and not unduly harsh to the one guy in the front who kept asking moronic questions. (“Did you ever think of giving the old man’s ailments to the young guy in the play?” “Would you ever consider writing a play with someone?” — Meaning, no doubt, himself.)
Lee of course got the “How do you face the blank page?” question. He quipped, “Luckily, I have a computer” — but then answered seriously about playwriting. He started as a poet, then found that he had a facility for writing plays, and gradually the poetry fell away (I had a similar experience with writing fiction); playwriting is a form he knows how to express himself in. In addition to grasp of the form, he said he enjoys writing the first draft, but really enjoys writing the second draft — and that’s essential, because all plays are rewritten, and you’d better enjoy rewriting.
Afterward, Lee left to go grade papers for a course he’s teaching online. I chatted briefly with a friend who’s in my playwriting workshop, which was where we both had been just before the start of the play. The day was like having three playwriting practicums in a row — first, in my workshop, as we got to hear and talk about five plays-in-progress; then seeing Lee’s play; then hearing Lee talk about writing plays. It was a fun, thrilling, heady day spent with writers and experiencing their work.
The next day, today, I spent fixing sinks in my house.