Getting that New York vibe

John Davison and Therase Neve in Manhattanhenge by William Gallagher, directed by Joanna Egan

Do you know how long I’ve had this open with a photo and no text? Since Wednesday, actually Thursday if you want to be picky: maybe around 2am. The instant I got back from the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds where a short play of mine was performed: a short play, a small theatre, but a bit of a milestone for me.

You had to pay to see it. Last time, I had a larger audience and a longer piece but that audience was made up of producers, theatre agents, publishers, a fella from the National Theatre. It was a showcase, it was wonderful, but this week’s one involved an audience paying cash.

And they loved it. I think it’s fair to say that: one woman told me in an audience discussion afterwards that she’d had goosebumps at the ending. Another said she’d cried. And the cast told me they were proud to have been in it.

Now, okay, I’m always likely to think someone’s just being nice but when they say things like that and you have to know that it was in the heat of the night, everyone pumped up from being in a success, all these things. But that’s a good reason to be pumped and I choose to believe my cast.

I’ve been so lucky with cast that I’m starting to suspect all of them, all actors everywhere, are good. Mind you, I wrote a short sentence in Crossroads that had five meanings and the actor chose to deliver… none of them. Still not entirely sure how she was able to strip it of all five without actually dropping the line but I will tell you that mumbling was involved.

She also probably had no more than thirty seconds rehearsal time: it was a busy show.

I’d have liked to have been in rehearsals on Manhattanhenge. I’m not saying I’d have done things differently, but the process is great and I miss that. And I might have been able to fix a thing that bothers me: I’ve got a nice joke in it which is good but it’s necessarily so close on the heels of something else that it gets a little lost. Let me show you.

You need to know that these two people have just met, they’re strangers and they’re really going to stay that way, it’s just that for these few minutes, they’re brought together by this mysterious thing called Manhattanhenge that I seem to shy away from explaining to you. He’s 40s, fretful, American, a restaurant manager. She’s 19, back-packing, gap-year British.

MICHAEL: They do say it makes you stop. It’s a cleansing, spiritual breath that runs right through the city. That New York trick of being completely private and alone in a crowd, that loosens, dissipates. Connections are made. People just talk.

JOANNE: Look at us. Would we have talked?

MICHAEL: Probably. I’d have said “Hello, my name’s Michael, our specials today are…”

JOANNE: And I’d have said “Hi, Michael, I’m Joanne, and what do you got for five dollars?”

MICHAEL: “The exit, madam.”

It’s that last line that felt on the night that it came in too close. Can’t see what to do about it yet, the rhythm’s right but the punch isn’t there. Still, I think actually I may leave it precisely the way it is: the piece is not a comedy, that excerpt is not building to that joke and it’s not that gigantic a gag anyway. And what does most definitely work, what was just a treat to see on the night, is that talking about the way they would normally be separate, would normally not really talk, heightens the fact that now they are.

Manhattanhenge very successfully sounds like a really, truly casual chat, a conversation that you could completely believe spontaneously happens between these people. It’s unforced, bouncy and it hides how I’ve telescoped the scene down into its most economic form.

And I think that’s part of the reason it worked. Now I’ve told you that people cried, you’d be looking for the punch or the tragedy and I think you might even be disappointed: you look for what I’ve done on the page and it’s a tiny thing. But when you aren’t looking for it, when you don’t know something is coming, the fact is that you provide the tragedy: nothing bad happens here at all, not the slightest, tiniest thing.

It’s the gap between what these characters know and what you do that makes the piece just a little shivery.

And I love that: I love fiction where it’s taking place in your head as well as in front of you. I wrote a thriller thing once where you provided a character with an alibi, your assumptions provided her with it, and then I spent weeks making the reveal the smallest yet most unmistakeable moment I could. Something that would’ve passed you by, maybe even bored you, if it were one character giving another an alibi, becomes an almighty gasp because you knew the answers and you’d fooled yourself.

That piece got me a literary agent. I should go back to it.

Nothing’s happening next with Manhattanhenge. A few people I rate highly are reading it, I’m toying with the rest of it: I have five Manhattanhenge stories, this was just the one that was right for stage. I suspect as good as the others are, I may throw them away and leave this one on its own. I don’t mind a short, it’s much better than a padded piece: a sketch is better than a stretch.

But I tell you, upsetting people is even better than seeing them shake with laughter. And that was pretty good.

I’ve just spent 12 hours driving over the last ten days or so, I swear since 2am on Thursday morning I’ve had my chin on the desk, I’ve been wondering what all these buttons are with letters on them.


3 thoughts on “Getting that New York vibe

  1. A writer I admire, Susie Maguire, and her friend who scares me, Marina McLoughlin, have solved that joke problem I mentioned. They suggest I change the last line to this:

    MICHAEL: For five dollars? “The exit, madam.”

    I didn’t like it at first, I wasn’t keen on the repetition of the phrase immediately before it, but now I’m sold. I even see a little Aaron Sorkinness to Susie and Marina’s rhythm there and I think that particularly suits my Michael character.

    So, sold. I’ve put that it into the script.

    Thank you both,

  2. Tomorrow, the world!

    Hooray for paying audiences. Nice work you.

    Also the actors, directors, ushers, and box-office staff, obviously.

    But mostly, nice work you.

  3. Thanks but nah, it was all me. They just did what I told them to do.

    Er, actually, I say that as a joke but in so many ways it was true. Especially when I rang the box office to buy my own ticket (oh, yes, I’ve always wanted to do that – and in fact had to), and I’m telling them my credit card numbers, they wrote them down just like that.

    Some of the aforementioned writers I highly admire have read the script and asked if they can recommend me to producers I highly admire. Go on, then, I said. Since it’s you.


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