"It was the red seats," admits Charlayne Woodard, on a break from rehearsals for the premiere of her first multicharacter play, Flight, opening this weekend at Center Theatre Group's new Kirk Douglas Theatre. This was an understandably unexpected response to a question about what made the actor try her hand as a playwright.
"I had moved here from New York," she recalls. "My agent wanted me to audition for this play at a tiny theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard. I immediately told him I didn't come all the way out here to work for free. See, I was making a judgment, hanging onto that New York snobbery about L.A. I didn't want to do a play where opening night is cancelled because somebody's shooting a commercial." Still, Woodard reluctantly auditioned for the Fountainhead Theatre Company, and, the moment she saw the red seats in the space, she knew she was going to do something wonderful there. "The Longacre Theatre had red seats," she reasons, and it was there she first achieved success—and a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical—in the original Broadway cast of Ain't Misbehavin'.
Woodard was offered the role at the Fountainhead. "I heard myself say, 'I'll do your play if you'll do mine.' I just said it. I had never even thought of writing before. Closing night, they threw me the keys and said, 'You're up next.' They asked when they could see my play, and I said, 'In a week.' I went home and frantically went through my journals and said, 'Oh, my God, I've gotta come up with a play in a week, in a week, in a week.'" But at the end of that week, she brought the Fountainhead's board members together to tell them three stories she'd chosen. This modest beginning was the genesis for Pretty Fire, winner of the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award and NAACP honors for Best Play and Best Playwright, and the first of her three highly successful solo plays.
Her second, Neat, proved equally serendipitous. "It never occurred to me that I would write another play." During rehearsals for Pretty Fire at Seattle Rep, artistic director Daniel Sullivan overheard a story Woodard was telling on a break. "Afterward he said, 'Charlayne, that story is your next play. Write about that, and we'll workshop it next spring at the New Playwrights Workshop.' Then, he left me alone for a year." Neat, again acclaimed in its run at the Taper, later received the Irving and Blanche Laurie Theatre Vision Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination Off-Broadway. In Real Life followed, commissioned by CTG and Seattle Rep and developed at the Sundance Theatre Lab. It garnered the accidental playwright the Audelco Award, a Back Stage West Garland Award, NAACP Awards for Best Playwright and Best Actor, and Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards nominations for Best Solo Performance.
"Circumstances," she says, laughing. "If there hadn't been red seats and somebody hadn't thrown me those keys, I wouldn't be here working on Flight," which was originally commissioned for CTG's P.L.A.Y. program, dedicated to bringing theatre to Los Angeles youth. Woodard, always an avid reader and storyteller—a family tradition fueled by her beloved grandfather—never thought that passion would lead to playwriting. "See, all I know is how to tell stories. So I talk them up, talk them up, then, when I'm ready, I write them down. I learned that from Tennessee Williams." Williams' first landlady in New Orleans kept trying to catch him sneaking guests into his room. "Three, 4, 5 o'clock, she heard voices up there, carrying on," Woodard relates. "She charged in and demanded to know what was going on. 'I'm working,' Williams said. 'This is how I work. I talk it.' That's why he was such an amazing storyteller, why he's my favorite. Williams and Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison. The trinity for me."
Woodard crafted her three journalized stories into Pretty Fire on her feet at that little Hollywood black box theatre, with only four weeks to bring it to life. "I have always loved to step into the mystery. What can happen? Is it going to kill you? I'm stronger than that. I just did it." The red seats on her side, Pretty Fire proved a success. "Still, I said, 'No critics. This is a work-in-progress. I don't want them to beat me up before I stand.' They told me no one would come without reviews, and I said, 'Fine, my church members will fill it up.' But a reviewer from the L.A. Times showed up opening night and, a couple of days later, there it was—his love letter to me. I sent it to my friend Esther Sherman of William Morris in New York, who represented Fugard and John Patrick Shanley, and said, 'Tell those guys to move over! Here I come.' Three hours later, she called and said, 'I've got you booked at Manhattan Theatre Club for the spring.' That's the way my career has been all along."
Now, with Flight, Woodard faces a new challenge. Not only is this her first play with multiple characters but it's also the first time she's not onstage interpreting her own work. "I'm sitting in the house as the playwright, not up there creating. You just have to pass it off. Pass it off to the director, pass it off to the movement person, to the actors. It's an incredible experience for me, but it's also an exercise in patience. Everyone has a process. I know my own process when I work, but I've had to learn to let it go if someone else's process is different from mine."
Not that she's complaining. Woodard is grateful to have the supportive artistic environment she has fallen into at the Taper and CTG over the years to cushion the experience, and she is particularly thankful to director Robert Egan and her "godfather," Gordon Davidson. "To create like this, you must work with a creative team you trust. I trust Robert implicitly." They developed Flight together last summer at the Ojai Playwrights Festival, where it "took a huge leap," she says. "In Ojai we introduced not just a band of actors telling folktales but a community of people with a need to tell them." They're the kind of stories, explains Woodard, passed from generation to generation within African-American families. "You know, stories told at wakes and Sunday gatherings and birthdays and hospital waiting rooms. That's the way it's always been, from the very beginning of time. Then, when I started reading slave narratives, I realized these people passed these stories on out of a need. They were cherished by people who were enslaved, because they were all they had."
Corey Madden, director of P.L.A.Y., remembers the ironic progression of Flight, which started by celebrating the classic but now somewhat controversial Br'er Rabbit stories. "Charlayne began to talk to her friends about the project and ran into eminent folklorist Beverly Robinson at a dinner party," Madden recalls. "Beverly was passionate about the need for a theatre piece that celebrated African-American traditions. Charlayne was inspired and ready to commit."
"I'm all about the oral traditions, in passing along stories," Woodard says. "As I began to research and read, I realized I am a storyteller because of these stories, because of my grandfather, because of my family. I am here because of them." She believes we all must share our culture—past, present, and future—and that African-Americans have a particularly indelible past to contribute. She has dedicated Flight to the late Dr. Robinson.
Even considering the time constraints at this stage in the rehearsal process, Woodard is still rewriting every day, which she considers part of her collaboration with an "extraordinary family" of artists. "See, I come from acting," she says. "I want input. I want to know. This is the first play I'm not in the middle of, not inside of, but I've needed a director, a dramaturge, a team with all my plays. I've never been able to do it like some nightclub act. I'm used to input, and, if something isn't working, I can change it, sure. We're all working for the piece. Unfortunately we only have three weeks of rehearsal for an original play, which is a new trend in the theatre. Even in New York, at the Public and Manhattan Theatre Club, we had five weeks to create and three weeks of previews. I mean, we're doing it. We'll be ready. But it's all a first for me."
As she cocoons herself into the veritable sea of brand new red seats that brightly face the Douglas stage, it's not hard to guess that her usual luck will hold strong once again. The well-worn tales told and retold by a proud people, collectively woven together by Woodard into another magical play, will quite possibly add another impressive chapter to her serendipitous career—and maybe one day Flight will become a tradition all its own. BSW
"Flight" will be presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Sat. 2 & 7:30 pm, Sun. 2 pm. (Also Feb. 4 & 8-11, 7:30 pm, Feb. 6, 5 pm, Feb. 9 & 10, 2 pm.) Jan. 22-Feb. 13. $10-30. (213) 628-2772.