Photo by NMU Northwind
The call came in the early afternoon. That very morning I had seen three—count 'em—three rejection slips. This was the fifth year of my burgeoning playwriting career and I still had not learned most of what I should have known about the profession. (Before the Interwebs, you see.) Hence rejections on plays that were still largely undeveloped.
So I was having a pity party and whining about how this wasn't worth it, etc. Sad. Pathetic. Then the phone rings.
Voice: Is this Mr. George Sapio?
Me: Yes. (Oh god, it's a bill collector.) Who is this?
Voice: My name is James Panowski...
(Where do I know that name from...?)
Dr. P: I'm very pleased to inform you that your play, Ghosts, was selected as the winner of the 2001 Mildred and Albert Panowski Award.
Me: (What? Did I hear that right? I just got three rejection slips. Is this a joke?) I'm sorry. Could you repeat that?
Dr. P: (Slightly slower and with more enunciation) My name is James Panowski. Your play, Ghosts, was selected as the winner of the 2001Mildred and Albert Panowski Award.
(Two beats of silence)
Me: Are you shitting me?
Dr. P: (Holding back a chuckle) No, Mr. Sapio. I am not. If you are willing, we'd like to fly you up to Marquette, Michigan for a week to workshop your play. There will be a staged reading which I will direct at the end of the week. And you'll receive a full production in November, five performances, at the Forest Roberts Theatre at Northern Michigan University. All expenses paid for both trips, by the way.
Me: (Completely gobsmacked. “Fly” me?) Um. Yes? Willing? Yes. Sure...
(I try to find intelligent syllables to say but I'm cut off before I can damage myself any further)
Dr. P: Wonderful! We'll be in touch within the week. Expect an envelope in the mail in a few days. It was a pleasure to meet you.
(Dr. P hangs up. I stare at the phone)
ME: (Thinking: Production? Which university? Michigan? Bob Roberts Theatre? Wait...Did he say ALL EXPENSES PAID?)
(Then, after a few seconds: What the hell is “workshopping”?)
And with that phone call, Dr. P almost single-handedly saved me from abandoning my playwriting career. For better or worse.
At that date, the Mildred and Albert Panowski Playwriting Award had already celebrated twenty winning plays. Mine was number 21. My wife, Maura, and I were met at the airport by Dr. P himself. We found him to be businesslike, but outgoing, genial, and generous to a fault. We were housed in a nice hotel room (and an apartment later that November!), given a car for the week, and had much of our board covered. All supernova material in the eyes of a neophyte dramatist like myself. But the best gift was yet to come: Workshopping.
I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. The word had been mentioned, but I never thought about it much. I'd idly figured that it would be a tweak here and there, with much of the process dealing with production values. You know, production stuff and all that.
I walked into the rehearsal room to find the entire cast assembled. There was an extra participant: Doug Hill, a playwright serving as the dramaturg for this production. (I had no idea what the hell a dramaturg was, but I shook his hand anyway.)
I was greeted warmly by all. And then we all sat down at the table and the process started.
What a week. I had no idea they were going to actually ask me to consider things about the play. I thought, “Well, it won, right? So it must be perfect.” But they did. I had a day or so of consternation; I never knew this kind of thing happened. But Maura, who is in many ways smarter than I am, counseled me to stay with it and see what happened. Best advice ever.
By the time the week was over, I felt like the next Broadway-bound playwright. I had a much better play. I had done a huge amount of rewriting—not because I was asked to or told that I should, but because these professionals were adept at their craft. They pointed out things here and there that I “should think about.” One of those things kept me up till 4:00 a.m. rewriting, but it turned a so-so scene into my favorite scene of the play--and one of my favorite scenes ever.
Dr. P's knowledge of theatre and Broadway was prodigious. He knew every Broadway show. He knew who starred in them. (He knew who should not have starred in them as well.) He knew the hits and the flops. He knew how long they ran, which theatre they played in, and details upon details. He had attended every Tony Award ceremony for years. He spent months collecting tales of Broadway trivia from theatre doormen all over the district. (I do hope these are recorded somewhere.) He spent hours regaling us with stories of Broadway, of actors and directors, of successes and misses. I knew little of what he was saying, but I loved listening to his tales. His passion for “the life” was unquenchable. (I also realized that he wasn't that good with names. He had a tendency to call everyone, “Poopsie”: “Go ask Poopsie over there”; “Poopsie will take care of it.”)
Dr. P was a lucky man, and he knew it. Adopted into a loving family and encouraged to be who he needed to be, he believed it was his mission to pass his good fortune on to others. Every student who came under his tutelage and every lucky winner of the Panowski Award were the beneficiaries of his kindness and endless knowledge. I was a nobody from nowhere, but Dr. P made me feel like a celebrity.
He also made me realize that if I wanted to succeed as a playwright I had to become a viable working artist as well. He asked me to serve as dramaturg for two later Panowski winners. Once again he'd done me a favor by putting me in a highly beneficial learning experience. It was an honor to serve as an important part of the workshop process and it made me think as a dramaturg should, critically, honestly, and with care and consideration for another's work. It was a job I loved—and still do. When an opening came up for a playwriting teacher at Northern Michigan University, Dr. P sought me out and encouraged me to apply. It was only my lack of a Ph. D. (we later learned) that kept me from the position.
My how-to book, Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs, would most likely never have happened without Dr. P's influence. Workshopping is a process that not every playwright values. And that's fine. But I believe it helps playwrights step back and look at their work critically. And that helps the play.
Of course, I dedicated the book to Dr. James Panowski. Without his gifts, my theatre career would not have been as rich. Dr. P was one of life's true shining stars. His generosity and love for our profession were gifts to all who knew him. He will be sorely missed; we were all very lucky to have had him with us for a time.