Hearing voices at 3 AM: Interview with POST HASTE playwright Frank E. Reilly

New England actor, director, and playwright Frank E. Reilly wrote a number of plays, including Rose, featuring a 42-year-old woman with the mental capacity of a 7 year old, albeit a precocious, conniving child, and how she affects the lives of her family and friends. Cemetery, showing a middle-aged couple finding joy and enlightenment picnicking at various cemeteries. They Didn’t Call Me Dandy, about a slick ad executive who comes face-to-face with the realities of his excesses in one day. A Green Sky in which a young couple, ninth-generation Mainers, encounters another young couple straight from the high life of New York City.

Reilly also wrote musical shows, including Understanding Hearts (created in collaboration with Hank Beebe), based on the romance of Dolly and James Madison. And a music show in honor of Bessie Smith, the great “Empress of the Blues.” Eight musicians, an original Diva, and Frank Reilly himself traveled around the US to all major jazz festivals with To Bessie, With Love. The show was so successful that it lead to an eight week run in San Francisco, six shows a week.

POST HASTE, just world premiered at the Hedgerow Theatre. This drama is based on a true story that appeared in Collier’s Magazine in 1915 and presents the etiquette doyenne Emily Post and her 20 year old son, Edwin, Jr., as they embark on a cross country journey in a custom made roadster over the Lincoln Highway, the first in America. [Hedgerow Theatre, 64 W. Rose Valley Road, Media, PA] June 10-28, 2015; hedgerowtheatre.org.

Frank E. Reilly at the Hedgerow

Frank E. Reilly at the Hedgerow

Actor as Writer

Henrik Eger: Tell us about your transition from actor to director and then writer.

Frank E. Reilly: Actually there isn’t much of a transition but, rather, an approach. An actor works with the script, which the playwright delivered to the director who interprets his work for the actor. It’s a circle that goes around and around until it settles into a finished product for the audience. However, having dished out all that profundity, let me say that each area has its own set of standards or criteria one must acknowledge.

The issue of brevity with dialogue, which most theaters seem to be seeking these days, brings up a problem with POST HASTE as it has some lengthy passages of expository dialogue. Knowing general rules is one thing; however, writing freely is another. If I don’t hear voices talking to me, usually at 3 AM, there is nothing on paper. But when they begin to talk, and that can happen anywhere, anytime: be ready to record on anything that’s available! However, don’t, under any circumstances, trust your memory, especially when you’re over a certain age.

If my play is accepted, I am more than willing to work with the theater and dramaturg in making cuts and minor adjustments to accommodate their vision or circumstances. I am open to these changes, but not always eager to please. Nonetheless, it is a collaborative effort that must always be taken seriously and with respect. Writer, producing theater, and actor—we’re all in this together.

My work with Hedgerow, the producing theater, is an entirely new experience on several fronts: Having this play produced for the first time; working with a theatrical dynasty [the Reed family spans several generations of actors and directors in the Philadelphia area]; and directing my own play. The premiere of POST HASTE, showed me that I firmly believe where I am now is where I am—not in the past and certainly not in the future.

Actor as Director

Yes, the devil is in the details when it comes to directing! As the director, I need to see the vision of the playwright’s work before tackling those details or attempting to direct actors around the dialogue and the stage. I often thought when directing that I wanted to be a good traffic cop and amateur psychologist. The former is what it takes to block effectively, and the latter the understanding to assist the actors in getting to where they wish to go with their characters. Both paths are tricky and must be taken seriously.

I am not and never have been big on “motivation”—an overused term with most acting coaches and young actors. I feel that those kinds of buzz words belong in the classroom or when preparing a monologue, but when the actor has the job, his or her “motivation” for the character should be inherent. I actually abhor having to “teach” an actor how to “act,” for when I do, and I’m not good at it, I fear I’ve hired the wrong actor.

Actor Acting

As an actor, I was aware of something that the legendary acting coach Stella Adler once said: “Never attempt to understand your character unless you understand the author.” Consequently, I would always run to the library, pre-Google, and do my research before embracing the script. This first step never failed me in my better understanding of that character I was about to take on.

After that, I would attempt to understand my directors and what they were about, what they wanted from my characters, and what their overall vision for the play was. Not that it was easy or clear at the initial step in the process of rehearsing, but as long as I kept an open mind, I was bound to have a better understanding.

No matter what aspect of the magical atmosphere of live theater I am working in, I always go to the actor’s view and how the actor might interpret the words. I hope we are using the same language, understanding each other’s sensitivity, and living the same dream.

Playwriting

Eger: Looking at your plays, how would you say you have evolved as a playwright?

Reilly: I’m still evolving, and my experience with POST HASTE and the Hedgerow proved to me that this “evolvement” never stops, nor should it stop. I firmly believe that I am where I am now, as a playwright, because I had years of preparation as an actor, training, performing, directing, and reading plays.

I’ve always loved writing even in the “mad” world of the ad agency business back in New York and San Francisco, where my primary focus was on media, but where I also found opportunities to write copy for some major accounts. I was raised on Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner. I was drawn to these writers, and later to Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Simon Gray, Noel Coward, and A.R. Gurney. The great Bard was always there, looking over my shoulder, tempting me to tackle him on stage.

Becoming a playwright is like living from day to day: you need to stay open, optimistic, and eager to accept what’s coming your way, lest you miss that opportunity to write the next Death of a Salesman, the next Glass Menagerie.

Eger: Where do you find your ideas for new plays?

Reilly: Most of the things I’ve written came from a line of conversation I overheard or an expression someone casually threw out.

Brock Vicker as Edwin Post, Jr. and Penelope Reed as Mrs. Emily Post

Brock Vicker as Edwin Post, Jr. and Penelope Reed as Mrs. Emily Post

POST HASTE: Reilly’s latest play

Eger: How did you come up with the story of POST HASTE?

Reilly: My wife, Sharon, heard the story from a casual conversation during an intermission at an Off-Broadway theater one balmy summer evening about eight years ago. As we strolled up 5th Avenue that night, we talked about it and how it might be a good subject for a new play. We’re walkers—by the time we reached our hotel on the west side of 70th, the small spark became a full blown concept for a one woman, one act play. Back in Portland, Maine, I immediately went to work on the research and located copies of Emily Post’s original Collier’s Magazine series, and after reading through them, I knew I had the idea of a play.

I’ve loved travelling since I was a wee one, especially by automobile and Greyhound. I even had toy Greyhound buses as a child and would picture myself traveling cross country, all by myself. Indeed, the seed of POST HASTE was planted long before I was introduced to Emily Post and her historic journey cross country, and at the very least turning it into a play. There wasn’t a moment in the past two months that I was not on that journey with Emily and her son Edwin. I look forward to our next trip together.

Eger: What was your first reaction to discovering Mrs. Emily Post and her journey?

Reilly: Initially, it didn’t ring any bells with me, except the “idea” of this privileged woman roughing it, as it were, over unpaved roads, some shabby hotels, bad food, and unpredictable weather conditions. How far could this go as a play? I pondered that question, trying to sleep, tossing and turning with ideas of tackling the job of developing this incredible story into a play.

I believe in hunches, and so I decided to pursue this one upon my return to Portland, Maine, and the first good indication that hunches can pay off was discovering the yellow copies of the original series of this journey in Collier’s Magazine in the library in Bangor, Maine—September 1915—chronicling Emily Post’s entire trip from New York City to San Francisco and the Panama Pacific Exposition.

Eger: What did you dig up that kept you going?

Reilly: After piece-mealing the information, I began my own journey into the personal life of Emily Post and her family, especially her son, Edwin Jr., whom she had taken out of his junior year at Harvard, stating he would learn more traveling with his mother cross country as her chauffeur than finishing out his spring semester.

It was here that the story, my play, began to intrigue me where I was able to visualize how it could look and be played out on stage. My problem, however, was that I couldn’t find much information of a personal nature on Edwin, so I had to abandon his participation on the journey, leaving it a one woman play, making the task of writing a play more difficult as there is no interplay on stage, resulting in the actress having to carry the load, and I don’t mean just “line load,” but emotions, physical demands, and maintaining sustained general interest for the audience.

Eger: You asked well-known American actors to read your script.

Reilly: Yes, the first actress to read it publicly was a known film and stage actress who liked it very much. In the reading, she was “on book,” but after a producer at the reading approached us with his proposal, the actress declined, as she feared her short-term memory could not handle the line load.

The second actress to read it was at the Dramatists Guild in New York, and although a superb actress, she was physically wrong for the role of Emily Post, which for me was a priority. I then presented it to a well-known Broadway actress who found the concept interesting enough to read it. Here again, in the consequent dialogue with her, it was obvious, that if she were to accept it, I would have to alter the overall message of the play, from a woman undertaking this brave trip to one who was expressing her independence as a “woman.” I felt then, as I do now, that Emily Post did not need to be described so singularly. Although, having said that, I did appreciate this actress’ remark, “It can’t be all bonbons!”

Eger: Which sources did you use to write POST HASTE?

Reilly: I was lucky to discover copies of the original Collier’s Magazine series at the Bangor, Maine Library, and from there I found some more good stuff at the New York Public Library Archives, and finally the lovely biography on Emily Post written by her son, Edwin Post Jr., Truly Emily Post. It was within these pages that I discovered Edwin himself, allowing me to create him for the play.

I also contacted Peggy Post, great granddaughter of Emily, at the Post Institute in Vermont, to advise the Institute of my plans and to garner any further data on this subject. She also put me in touch with her legal people in San Francisco for copyright protection. There is not a lot of personal information on the Post family, more on their efforts and achievements in the world of etiquette and philanthropy. I had to read between the lines to find their personalities, and in some cases, make some wild assumptions. I believe they call that “literary license” to which I enthusiastically subscribe.

Eger: Tell us about your composing process.

Reilly: My process was long, with many rewrites and public readings, with each one taking a lot of preparation and planning. I wanted to put my best foot forward and not embarrass myself or the actresses doing the reading, or, for that matter, bore the hell out of the audience. The first reading was in California by the veteran stage and film actress Barbara Rush, the second at the Dramatist Guild in New York by stage actress Margaret Daly.

I also peddled the script around the market and received many helpful suggestions from people in the industry. Once in a while, an actress would show initial interest, but would then want to alter the message to her own cause or belief. Reluctantly, I would then have to stop negotiating as I was not willing to come away from my concept, and, more importantly, Emily Post’s description of her historic journey in 1915. One thing I learned from this process is that the finished product does not happen quickly.

Eger: Your latest play has a few things in common with the famous Driving Miss Daisy.

Reilly: Yes, this has been said many times recently, but I never had Driving Miss Daisy in mind. I cannot see any similarity in characters or dialogue, other than two people in a car—one in front and one in back. POST HASTE features a mother and son driving cross country in a 1915, discovering themselves, each other, and a new America.

POST HASTE at the Hedgerow Theatre

Eger: Penelope Reed is ideal for this role as a classically trained actress. How did you find her?

Reilly: My dear long-time friend, Walter Fitzgerald’s wife Welthie Fitzgerald, who knew Penn, put me in touch with her. The rest is history—and happily so.

Eger: Tell us more about your cooperation with Penelope Reed (as Emily Post) and Brock Vickers (as her son, Edwin Post) and their input on the manuscript.

Reilly: Both actors provided excellent input right from the first reading, even during rehearsal where we would often stop to make adjustments in the script that worked better on the stage. I was and remain quite grateful.

Eger: Apparently your first version was a one-woman show. You then changed it by integrating the son and a butler, with the mother still dominating.

Reilly: I always wanted to write Edwin into the plot, for balance and conflict, but the original actress who wanted to play Emily preferred it as a one-woman performance piece. After that plan fell through, I tentatively integrated Edwin into the script, and developed him further at the Hedgerow. I’m happy to say that through my work at Hedgerow, I was able to develop Edwin into a significant character.

I had two scenes in the play all along that would resonate with me: the picnic and the flashback to the room on Staten Island where Emily was pregnant with both sons—the room where, later, she made her decision to leave Edwin Sr. to become an independent person.

I wanted a tight show, to move quickly and to have the audience traveling with us as companions. I was concerned that too much delving into personal matters might bog us down, get too preachy, and slow up the journey of seeing a young America. However, having seen the play in action, I know I’m going to increase Emily and Edwin’s importance. I very much loved what Hedgerow did with the picnic scene—the simplicity and tenderness of the moment. Mother and son are alone at the beginning of this adventure as Emily reflects on her youth with remembrances. I had too much “furniture” in mind—happy I was shown a better way.

I also relished the addition of Josh Portera as our Butler with his mannerly presence and want to increase the butler’s participation for the next production. In the Staten Island scene, I had always planned to have Emily pick up a little handmade wooden boat, weathered with time, a toy to trigger her memories. She would never have been without it. That scene has always put me in touch with Emily’s true self, and each time Penn performed the scene, I was on the brink of tears, as was Penn.

Strong mother, strong son: The future of POST HASTE

Eger: Are you thinking of rewriting POST HASTE to make the son much more of an equal, dramatically and psychologically speaking? If so, what do you have in mind?

Reilly: After viewing this production, I am quite seriously considering expanding Edwin’s role, digging a bit deeper with Emily, and developing their relationship even further. I would like to allow Emily to show more anger, more disappointment in losing Edwin’s love, someone she cherishes. At the same time, I think I need to bring Edwin’s personality more to the surface: his disappointment, anger, and resentment, as well as how he really felt about his mother pulling him out of his junior year at Harvard, shortly before this semester was completed.

Eger: Thank you, Fred. Anything else you would like to share?

Reilly: I was inspired by the performances of Penelope Reed and Brock Vickers, who gave birth to my new play and to these two enigmatic characters. I would like to quote Edwin’s line when he’s describing his journey into the desert: “An experience of a lifetime!” Thank you, Hedgerow!

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com