|Tuesday, August 09, 2011|
|When people hear the premise of Next Window, Please many of them say, “Wow. How timely.” And I certainly can’t argue with them, but inside my head I’m thinking, “Yikes, I started this play seven years ago.” Is it possible it’s become more timely while we were developing it? Or are some of the issues just more lime-lighted today?|
I started out to write a play about my experiences working in a bank (write what you know, you know?) And yes, the action takes place inside a bank, behind the plexiglass, but it could be any work environment. I’m exploring the different dynamics that people experience working together on a day-to-day basis and how this “group of people” often becomes a second family. The banking industry is a magnet of sorts to a slightly different group of people; many of them may have language barriers, but numbers are numbers in any language (once you know the exchange rate). So, I met and “stored” some very fun characters and have tried to paint theatrical portraits of them in this play.
One of the events that occurs in the play is a merger with another bank. And along with that development comes branch closures, lay-offs, and uncertainty. Welcome to 2011. Although what I call “merger madness” and what used to be called “Pac-Man Fever” has been with us for some time now. Several years ago, my neighbors in Burbank both worked for The Disney Company. There was consolidation and the wife was laid off and the husband was retained. However, he was made to take a lower salary and take on the responsibilities of two other positions. This scenario is not unusual and I’ve heard about all kinds of exit packages.
While I was working on the play, in between readings and re-writes, my brother phoned me. At the time he was a very key executive in a large pharmaceutical company back east. He received a phone call on Christmas day informing him that their company was being merged with another company and they would have to immediately cut the staff by 50%. There was going to be a stockholder’s meeting on January 1st (one week later) and my brother would have to submit a list of departing employees for that meeting. And this was agonizing for my brother. The names he would have to compile were not just arbitrary workers, but real, complex people with families and needs and expertise; many of whom he himself had recruited and re-located. My brother actually became physically ill during this process.
So, I wanted to explore this dilemma from both points of view, the people whose jobs are at risk and the people who have to “compile the lists.” It’s not easy for either side. And the question of loyalty comes up. And the question is, “does loyalty count anymore?”
Next Window, Please is peopled with six, vibrant, intelligent, vivacious, brave and idiosyncratic women. I’m very committed to creating great roles for actresses. To me, they are funny, evocative, and — at times - selfless. We are all lucky, too, because we have a stunning cast at Group Rep and the actresses are totally vested and believable in their portrayals.
People say to me, “Why set a play in a bank? Isn’t that boring?” And, I guess, when you’re on the lobby side of the plexiglass, it might seem boring. It is a lot of details and numbers and minutiae. But banks handle our funds (whether they are cash, loans, checking, savings), which — for many people — is their life’s blood. In addition to mergers, we’ve had a lot of banks fail. They died. There are lots of pressures within a bank; balancing, making profits, keeping customers, getting customers, servicing problematic customers and getting everything done as quickly as possible. And, as in any play, it’s mostly about the characters. And there is no shortage of fascinating behavior and interchanges with this colorful bunch.
For many years, I worked with the late Lonny Chapman on the development of my plays. He was a very good guide and dramaturg. Two of the plays we premiered at Group Rep and have been published by Samuel French and gone on to have productions around the country and even overseas. In one of our last script discussions about Next Window, Please (before his health failed him) Lonny suggested it might be interesting to have these women break the fourth wall and speak to us; tell us something they wouldn’t necessarily tell each other or a customer. So, that aspect is now part of the fabric of the play. It makes the play wonderfully theatrical. As well, we never see any customers in the bank lobby (through the theatrical plexiglass). As in Our Town, the audience will have to imagine a lobby full of customers, anxious to get to the next available teller window.
As I developed a relationship with Lonny over the years, I got to the point where I could anticipate what he was going to say about a new play or an early draft. One of his most popular questions was, “Where’s the sex?” So, after a while I always made sure to weave the sex into the play at the beginning. In the case of Next Window, Please the stable environment is toppled with the temporary placement of a young male who’s in the bank’s executive training program. He is fast-tracked for a high position within the bank and is there to observe and absorb the day-to-day operations. So, even though this guy has a fiancée (unseen), the women are all intrigued by him and the chemical balance of the branch changes. Office romances are discouraged, yet so many couples “meet” at work. This aspect is explored and surprisingly – I hope – romance develops.
So, whether or not my play is ultimately, deliberately timely, I’m certain most of it is timeless. These are real people that are part of a family-by-choice and that unity is threatened by the merger madness. And what these everyday people do in the face of this dilemma is remarkable. There’s a lot of humanity onstage at the Group Rep. And it just might make us feel a little bit better about us humans and encourage us to realize that we can prevail. I’d love people to come away from Next Window, Please with a sense of hope and an appreciation for the working relationships we develop in our careers. And the next time you bank in person, remember that that’s a real person behind the plexiglass, just like you.