From the page to the stage: Columnist Jessie Raymond launches first one-act play
MIDDLEBURY — Jessie Raymond has received a lot of positive feedback for “Around the Bend,” her regular humor column that has become a Page 4 staple in the Addison Independent for the past dozen years. It’s pretty common for her to receive column kudos while standing in line at the supermarket or at social events.
But lately, her writing has been garnering loud applause from an audience that has been able to see her words play out on stage.
Raymond, since 2014, has regaled Town Hall Theater-goers with two 10-minute plays based on her comedic musings. Addison County audiences will get a more generous helping on Nov. 20, when her first one-act play debuts at THT.
It’s called “This Is Not a Good Time” and will be presented in conjunction with another world premiere play — that of Middlebury College professor Robert Cohen, called “The Varieties of Romantic Experience: An Introduction.” The plays are another example of THT identifying and nurturing local talent while providing them with a beautiful venue through which to showcase their work.
“Our unofficial motto at Town Hall Theater is ‘a celebration of local talent,’” said THT Executive Director Doug Anderson.
Raymond, 47, seemed like a natural to bring into the THT creative fold, he noted.
“I’ve admired Jessie’s columns for years,” Anderson said. “She clearly has the sensibility and the skill to make people laugh out loud, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to do.”
Anderson freely admits that he and his colleagues “pestered” Raymond into writing a 10-minute play for THT’s “Pop-Up Plays” series. Each play in the series must be written, rehearsed and be ready for presentation within a 24-hour period.
Raymond’s first Pop-Up offering, in 2014, involved a woman’s introduction to a new neighbor, who happened to be a psychic. Hilarity ensues.
“I had no story writing experience,” Raymond recalled. “It was absolutely terrifying to write it, especially with other people who had already written plays. I didn’t even know how to format a script, or anything.”
It proved an exhausting but entirely satisfying experience for Raymond — so much so that she again popped into the Pop-Up mix this past March. That one, titled “One Door Opens,” involves a couple washing up on a beach, finding a freestanding door. The couple tries to figure out whether the door might be a portal into another dimension.
“You write the story in your head and you think parts of it might be funny, but you don’t know,” Raymond said of the creative process. “And then you go see people who you don’t even know reading your lines and acting it out. That was amazing.”
Putting the playwright’s lines into motion on a stage “takes it from two dimensions to three dimensions,” she added. “People get things out of it that you didn’t necessarily put into it. People develop their own characters.”
And “One Door Opens” is proving a prophetic title for Raymond. She entered the play in this year’s Exit 7 New Short Play Contest, offered by the Exit 7 Players, a community theater group in Ludlow, Mass. She recently learned that her submission was one of 16 winners out of a total of 715 script entries the group received this year. So “One Door Opens” will be performed in the Bay State next February.
Having shown quick mastery of the 10-minute play, Raymond was ready to take her script writing to the next level, Anderson reasoned. He urged her to write one in the 30-minute range, and Raymond agreed. During the next several months, Raymond and Anderson met regularly at The Diner, next to Town Hall Theater on Merchants Row, to talk shop about Raymond’s budding creation, “This Is Not a Good Time.” Somewhat autobiographical in nature, its protagonist is a family-centric woman who’d love a few moments to herself. The coast finally looks clear for an evening to herself, but the doorbell keeps ringing.
Anderson’s early feedback on the concept was not promising, Raymond recalled.
“When I first pitched it to Doug, he was doubtful,” Raymond said. “He didn’t think it was a strong enough theme for a play.”
But Anderson’s doubts dissipated as Raymond’s script came together and got more polished. A lot of the material became instantly relatable to many moms, like Raymond herself. She and her husband, Mark — her frequent foil for “Around the Bend” — have a daughter, 16-year-old Leah. Jessie also has two stepsons, Joe and Ethan. Mark comes from a large family that enjoys spending time together. There are times that Jessie would briefly like to escape all that togetherness, she admits.
“She started cranking out really funny dialogue, and it was clear to me that we had something extraordinary on our hands,” Anderson said. “Based on a very early draft, we cleared a weekend for a performance and it’s a real pleasure to bring this script to the community.”
Anderson is directing both Raymond’s and Cohen’s plays.
The cast for “This Is Not a Good Time” includes Wendi Stein, Carol Reed, Tanya Kurtz-Lehman, Joanna Colwell and Lee Guptill. Stein is from Burlington, the rest of the cast is made up of local thespians.
“This Is Not a Good Time,” and both of Raymond’s Pop-Up plays, are all comedies. She wants to write more plays in the future, and has no plans to depart from the comedy genre. She’d eventually like to graduate to a multi-act play.
The transition from prose to performance continues to amaze Raymond.
“You write something, and in your head, you’re hearing your own voice and have this conversation,” Raymond said. “But when you hear other people put their personality into it and they actually develop that character into a character with their own style — and then start interacting — that’s the best thing.”
She’s confident audiences will get their money’s worth this coming weekend.
“It’s nothing super-deep; I don’t think it’s going to change anyone’s outlook on life,” Raymond said of her new play.
“I think people are going to laugh.”
Also on the bill is a new stage version of Cohen’s short story, “The Varieties of Romantic Experience: An Introduction.”
“It was published several years ago, but it reads like a very funny performance piece,” said Anderson. “Translating it to the stage has been easy.”
In the one-man play, starring the much-acclaimed Christopher Ross, the audience becomes a group of students on the first day of class. The professor’s lecture on relationships is increasingly dotted with references to his own failed love life. Soon he is revealing far too much of his embarrassing past to the stunned undergraduates.
Cohenis a professor of English and American Literatures at Middlebury College. His award winning books include “Amateur Barbarians,” “Inspired Sleep,” “The Here and Now,” “The Organ Builder,” and a collection of short stories, “The Varieties of Romantic Experience.”
“It sends up everything from academic-speak to college politics to male desire, and, like Jessie’s play, it’s laugh-out-loud funny,” Anderson said of the Cohen play. “I’ve been wanting to do it for years, but it’s a murderous role as the actor is alone on-stage for 35 minutes. It was only when I saw Christopher Ross perform here that I thought we finally had the ideal actor to make it work.”
Raymond’s play is first on the bill and is suitable for all ages. Cohen’s play is after the intermission and is for mature audiences, Anderson said.
The two plays will be staged on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21, at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall Theater. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at www.townhalltheater.org, by calling 382-9222, at the THT Box Office (Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m.), or at the door.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].