Penn playwright puts on a pair of premieres

As Penn Theatre Arts students file into class for the first day of Bruce Graham’s playwriting workshop, they see one word chalked on the blackboard: “Want.”

“My students get so sick of me saying, ‘What does this character want?’” says Graham, a playwright who has written for both stage and screen. “So I figure they might as well get used to that word from day one. Without strong wants you don’t have a strong play.”

Graham should know. The author of more than a dozen produced plays, Graham, who lives in Media, in Delaware County, has had his work staged at New York’s Hudson Guild Theatre, the Cincinnati Playhouse and Chicago’s Northlight Theater, among others, as well as many Philadelphia area theaters. His movie credits include “Dunston Checks In,” a 1996 family movie about an orangutan that wreaks havoc in a hotel, which starred Jason Alexander and Faye Dunaway. His plays, including “Coyote on a Fence” and “According to Goldman,” have won numerous awards, and Graham has also been honored by the Pew Foundation, the Theater Association of Pennsylvania and the Princess Grace Foundation. Even for such a seasoned playwright, every new play brings its own freight of anxiety. This month, Graham has two new plays on Philadelphia stages: “Dex & Julie Sittin’ in a Tree” at Old City’s Arden Theater and “Full Figured/Loves to Dance,” less than a block away at Christ Church Neighborhood House.

Graham hears both plays are being well received, but admits he stays away as much as possible when he has a play in production and is rarely in the theater on opening night. “I’m either at the bar or in the stage manager’s booth,” he says. “I know some who can sit there calmly, and I hate those people. I don’t know how they do it. I’m worried that a phone onstage is not going to ring when it’s supposed to, or someone’s going to miss an entrance.”

Graham, who was a public school teacher before he found success as a playwright, has been teaching at Penn for five years now, and there’s at least one piece of advice he finds himself handing out over and over: “These are not movies you’re writing, so no, we’re not going to do the car chase.” He starts his students out with the simple exercise of taking a tape recorder, recording a conversation and transcribing it verbatim. Quickly, he says, they realize the dialogue makes no sense. Creating compelling dialogue involves injecting a kind of clarity we rarely hear in actual speech, and in a script a playwright has to be sensitive to every dash and every ellipsis. “It all affects the dialogue,” says Graham, who devotes the last half hour of each class to acting out scenes his students have written. “After a couple of weeks they start seeing what’s wrong with their scenes and they are their own best critics,” he says.

When it comes to his own plays Graham is a tireless rewriter of scenes. When “Dex & Julie Sittin’ in a Tree” was in readings last year, Graham redid the entire first act, since he felt the story—about college sweethearts who meet up again 25 years later and find the sparks still flying—was too unsympathetic to one of the characters. In January, before the play opened, he tweaked it a little more, but three nights before the curtain lifted he “froze” the script. It was unfair on his actors, he says, to keep on making changes. Besides, as he tells his students, “You have to make your mistakes in public.”

Graham keeps expectations manageable for his students, telling them, “If you can sustain 20 minutes [of engaging theater], that’s fine.” With “Dex & Julie” he set the bar considerably higher for himself. Not only is the play an hour and a half long, it also relies on just two performers to carry the entire piece. “It’s rough,” concedes Graham. “You don’t have a third character to take the pressure off. It’s not easy on the director, on the actors. The only person it’s easy on is the costume designer.”

With more than 20 years of successful stage productions under his belt, and a handful of Hollywood successes, the question occurs why Graham never headed for the West Coast to pursue a more glamorous career path. “I hate the West Coast, it’s the most boring place in the world,” Graham counters. “Plus I’ve always been very comfortable here. I’m still hanging out with guys I went to elementary school with. I know where to get a good sandwich.”

The Theatre Exile production of “Full Figured/Loves to Dance” continues through Feb. 25 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. 215-922-4462. Arden Theatre Company’s premiere of “Dex & Julie Sittin’ in a Tree” continues through Mar. 4. 40 N. 2nd St. 215-922-7011.

Originally published February 15, 2007.

Originally published on February 15, 2007