A way to relate
We need to build a new tradition of theater-going if the theater is to survive. The challenge is to invite this potential audience into the theater, to entertain and move them and make them laugh. If we do our job well, they'll come again and keep coming, and one day bring their children. If we don't, if we bore or alienate them, we could lose them forever.
How often have you gone to a play, even a highly touted one, only to be bored? You'll forgive a bad movie, which can be amusing even in its badness, but sitting through a bad or tedious play can be punishing. You're trapped, at least until intermission, and you resent being trapped. You sit there festering about all the money you spent, and the damn critics who said this was good, and the episode of "Mad Men" you could have been watching on TiVo for free in your own living room.
My aim with "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment -- The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself)" was to capture the attention of the hidden child in everyone in my audience. I wanted to write a play that would make no attempt to replicate onstage what television and movies do but would instead celebrate the uniqueness of theater. My impulse was to strip away the trappings of spectacle and get back to what theater does best: tell stories that reflect our world or create new ones that can enlighten, amuse, transport, make you forget, or force you to remember.
I set out to tell a ripping good yarn, the sort of narrative that captivated me when I was a boy, that I think enthralled all of us. For my subject, I was drawn to a story about the very nature of storytelling.
A few years ago, while researching a movie I was writing about a Holocaust survivor-pretender, I read the book "Impostors" by Sarah Burton. In it was the curious true-life tale of Louis de Rougemont, a man whose exploits transfixed the Victorian public. Louis claimed to have survived, among many other travails, a spectacular shipwreck in the South Seas, an attack by a giant octopus and 30 years among a tribe of cannibals. His serialized story made him famous, a celebrity author not unlike the Oprah Winfrey-annointed James Frey, whose veracity (like Frey's) was ultimately called into question. Louis' story stayed with me. In fact, the Frey controversy reawakened my interest in it. (Frey wrote "A Million Little Pieces," a memoir that turned out to be significantly fabricated, for which Frey was publicly dressed down by his erstwhile patroness.)
The story of Louis de Rougemont, his rise and fall, had all the elements of a classic picaresque: A young man leaves home to find himself, goes on a long and unpredictable journey, survives extraordinary events, finds fame, tells lies. In it I saw the potential for a purely theatrical play about the power of imagination.
Whenever I start contemplating a new play, I re-read one of my favorites, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Revisiting Grovers Corners has become a ritual of mine, like cleansing one's palette with sherbet between courses. Every time I read it, I make new discoveries. For this new play, "Shipwrecked!," I found inspiration in its very first words:
The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light."
Margulies' other plays include "Brooklyn Boy," "Sight Unseen" and "Collected Stories." He won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Dinner With Friends."
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: Oct. 14
Price: $20 to $62
Contact: (714) 708-5555