We go on the road with Owen Thomas as he takes his play Richard Parker to Los Angeles.
As anyone who has ever had even a passing interest in film or television will tell you, Hollywood is something of a mecca to film buffs and nerds the world over. It is fixed in our minds from our first exposure to modern American culture and has long become synonymous with glamour, success, fame and fortune.
I am a playwright from South Wales. This summer actors Alastair Sill, Gareth John Bale – the all-important John helps differentiate him from the gifted footballer whom I idolise – and I were fortunate enough to enjoy a ten date run of our play, Richard Parker, in Los Angeles. A play that began life as an idea I had when trying to get one of my twin baby daughters to sleep had taken me from a 20 minute slot in Canton to two weeks in California.
Richard Parker is a darkly comic two-hander that explores the themes of fate and coincidence. It focuses on the eponymous hero, setting foot on a boat for the first time in his life, and a stranger he meets who turns his world upside down. With one believing in fate and the other devoutly believing in coincidence, the scene is set for a confrontation. It is staged minimally, using only two benches and the physicality of the actors to create a narrative driven piece of theatre.
The play began life at an evening of new writing called Zufall at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff. The commissioning company, 3D, invited me to expand the original 20-minute piece into an hour-long play in order to give them the experience of touring a show. The play then went on to tour Wales, the wider UK twice and subsequently had a successful run at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Whilst in Edinburgh an American producer called Mike Blaha from Fringe Management invited us to appear at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. And the rest, as they say…
Prior to this experience I had always thought I could only ever live in the UK; or, more specifically, Wales. I have now revised this, having spent 17 glorious days in the Californian sun and only seeing rain as the plane dropped though the clouds to land at Cardiff international Airport. To date it has rained every day since our return, but you won’t need reminding of this, and I demand no sympathy.
Los Angeles is a remarkable place. Seen on foot, the size and scale of everything makes one feel like Frodo Baggins doing his shopping. And every day, countless wide-eyed dreamers clamber off the buses and trains that snake their way into the city to seek the path to fame and glory. Actors, writers and directors are to be found in every corner; waiting tables, chatting over coffee, attending auditions, all of them hoping for that one big break. And every day countless jaded bleary-eyed realists admit defeat, dig out their return tickets and head for home. All the while the sign stares unblinkingly down:
Yes there were some things one would have to get used to. El Salvadorian gang tags on the flat, occasional gun shots in the street, crap tea, countless explanations of what part of England Wales is and regularly bursting the bubble of people who think that Four Weddings and a Funeral was a piece of stark social realism.
And yet the positives loom large. A climate to die for; people friendly to a fault; relatively cheap living expenditure (let’s talk about healthcare another time); and food. Oh dear God, the food! I heard a startling statistic whilst channel-hopping in the States one night. Were the average inhabitant of the planet earth to weigh the same as the average American, and were this to be replicated the world over; this would be the equivalent of an extra billion people in the world. This is a truly fear-inspiring statistic. A billion people composed entirely of excess body fat.
It’s enough to give you nightmares. Or the inspiration for a play.
One of the real joys of the trip was getting to see the sights and sounds of LA between performances. Courtesy of our producer Mike (a big, friendly bear of a man), we were given an insider’s view. The best Deli to have breakfast (Cantor’s in Fairfax apparently), trips to Venice Beach and Malibu, the chance to put my hands where Frank Sinatra’s (and about a million other tourists) hands had been outside Graumann’s Chinese Theatre.
A real highlight was a trip to watch the LA Dodgers play baseball, a game I now understand and actively enjoy. The combination of sporting passion and relentless patriotism was a sight to behold. The spectacle of the game being interrupted halfway through to allow a singer to emerge onto the field of play for a quick burst of an impeccably observed rendition of God Bless America was surreal but beautiful. As a lifelong Spurs fan, I can only recoil in horror at the thought of somebody interrupting the game in the 70th minute to give us all a quick burst of God Save the Queen.
There were pilgrimages to both the Hollywood sign and the Griffith observatory. Griffith J Griffith was a Welshman who emigrated to the States in 1865. He promptly made a fortune in Mexican silver mines before settling in his adopted home of Los Angeles and ultimately bequeathing the city with many generous gifts: Griffith Park, the observatory and an open-air theatre. It is in part thanks to him that we Welsh enjoy such a warm reception as we make our way around this town.
Performing to an American audience is a fascinating experience. They seem to be so much more open and giving with their laughter and applause. The inhibitions that sometimes a British audience will demonstrate are swept away. Genuine interest in the process from audience members with some arguing the finer points of the text in the foyer afterwards was hugely enjoyable as a writer. Normally you shuffle in, sit near the back, hope people will enjoy it and then shuffle away unnoticed. A real moment was on the day we were performing when we learnt that the great Brian Hibbard had died. We asked our announcer to dedicate the show in his memory and the warmth that came back from the audience was very moving.
The icing on the cake for us was leaving the city with the award for Best International Show. We discovered that we had been nominated whilst travelling on a bus from Santa Monica having just watched England exit yet another tournament on penalties. We hurried back to the flat, dug out what clean clothes we had left, and headed down to Fringe Central. We never thought we would win, but secretly hoped to do better than Ashley Cole had just done.
The award ceremony was wonderfully glitzy. I tried to avoid cliché, but caught myself uttering the classic ’to be nominated is honour enough’, a lie that has passed the lips of countless hopeful nominees who then promptly destroy the bathroom in a hunt for cocaine to numb the gnawing disappointment. But when our turn came, and the words ‘Richard Parker’ were announced, it felt like watching somebody else. The blur of the moment, the pats on the back, the begrudging handshakes from fellow nominees and the realisation that you actually had to make a speech. ‘Keep it simple’, we agreed. So I stepped forward and simply said ‘Diolch Hollywood’. Leaving them to ponder what it meant as we were ushered away for photographs and free cider. It is a moment I will never forget.
In some ways winning the award feels like it has changed things for us. Offers to return and perform at next year’s festival, a run in San Francisco, and the possibility of the New York Fringe mean that the whole gamble was worth it. Sometimes you need to do that: take a chance, see what happens. But if nothing had happened, it still would have been one of the best things I have ever done.
The flight back was long and yet curiously passed quickly – like a box set of The Killing or Christmas Day with loved ones. When we finally landed in Cardiff (16C and raining – again, you don’t need me to tell you this) it was with a feeling that something had changed for us. Gareth told us a story one night of how the members of a Lions tour spoke of the fact that after winning, there would be no need to speak of it afterwards as you passed each other on the street. A look would be enough. A twinkle that said ‘we did it; we went, we saw, we conquered’. The feel of the award knocking around with two weeks of dirty washing confirmed this as it throbbed within like a tell-tale heart.
And so, what next for Richard Parker?
He has been very kind to me, taking me to some wonderful places, introducing me to some wonderful people and giving me memories that I shall reflect on as and when my own journey ends. And yet I feel he needs to rest, to sleep a while. He may resurface for one welcome home, but then he will push himself away on his raft until the day comes when we decide he needs rescuing once more.
I am currently working on a sequel, which picks up five years after the play has finished. The working title of this piece is Robert Golding. But it’s a curious thing; it feels a bit like cheating. And so I prefer to think of myself as a Frankenstein-like figure, creating and nurturing a brother to walk hand in hand with my creation, and watch as they stalk the countryside, frightening all who cross their path.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis