When Jim Leonard was an English major at Hanover College in the late seventies, where I was running a one man theatre department, he responded to a request I issued for “extras” to swell a scene in a play I was staging. He had one line and seemed to be well prepared to say that one line during the final rehearsal when I blocked him into the scene. The next night, opening night, he made his entrance appropriately, but failed to say his appointed line. Somehow we got through that event and the play proceeded to its intended conclusion. Later, in the green room I asked what had happened to his line. His response was, “I got so involved in the action of the play going on around me that I forgot I was part of it and just watched.” After brief contemplation I found that to be an entirely acceptable answer.

He remained an avid theatre goer all through his four years at Hanover. Second semester of his senior year he approached me and asked if he could enroll in my Experimental Theatre class, but not attend. Instead he would undertake the writing of a full length play. We bargained a bit and concluded that he ought to come to class just in case he did not manage to write the intended play, so I could have a basis on which to give him at least a passing grade.

As it turned out he got to work on the play immediately and the process of the class was lecture and discussion in the first half with the second given over to actors in the class reading his script aloud, with comments, questions, suggestions to follow. The class genuinely became “experimental” theatre, because almost every day Jim had new pages for us to read. At the conclusion of the 14 week term he had written Act I of an astoundingly good play, as far as we could tell. I knew however, that the only way to learn how effective a play might be was to read it before a live audience. Consequently I scheduled a public presentation, script in hand, for an audience of interested auditors, mostly English and Theatre students and faculty.

The play was called And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, and it dealt with the young wheelchair bound protagonist, Elizabeth Willow. It was a non discursive work, one that jumped back and forward in time and space, much as Lanford Wilson’s characters do in The Rimers of Eldritch. Indeed, as soon as I perceived in our classroom readings of Jim’s work that that was the way he intended to go I directed him to the library to find and read Rimers.

When the public reading was over the audience clamored to ask Jim questions concerning his ideas, intentions, plot structure, etc. With an instinctive wisdom beyond my years I pronounced that Jim would not answer any questions. The only answers given would have to come from the audience. Only they could tell us what was working, what was not. Only they could reveal how the characters had affected or left them cold. Only they could say if the non-discursive format was succeeding.

The overwhelming essence in the answers the audience offered was that we had a play that was working. They understood and followed and liked what they understood as the “time and place fractured” action unfolded.

During the five week spring term at Hanover College each student takes only one class and each prof teaches only one class. In consequence one can take off on the most wonderful tangents. I determined I would stage three plays in that five weeks–See How They Run, The Star Spangled Girl and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. We would rehearse and present the first play in ten days at the college, then haul ourselves and our costumes, scenery, props,. etc., to Arkansas where we would do the first play again at a small theatre there run by a friend of mine. While that was running we’d rehearse Girl and present it the next week. While Run was playing we would rehearse Charlie Brown, stage it there, then toss everything back in the truck and return to Hanover where we would put up Charlie Brown as our closing show of the academic year. Jim was enrolled in the class, but did not have to attend. He stayed on campus and wrote. By now I knew he was a writer and could be trusted to complete his assignment–making a draft of Act II. Which he did. On the last day of classes we repeated our public reading process and learned that he had almost everything he needed to make Jackson a viable script.

With the reading done we all went off to a party as an English prof’s home, where alcohol could now be served to students on campus–because they were no longer students but graduates. Much talk ensued concerning Jim’s play. The host professor, Jim Ferguson, suggested to me how the major problem of the play could be solved. I thought he was spot on so I called Jim Leonard over and asked Jim Ferguson to tell him how his play ought to end. He did, and, to this day that is pretty much exactly how Jackson climaxes.

The next academic year (1979-80) I scheduled a Hanover College Theatre mainstage production of And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson. We entered it into the American College Theatre Festival, took it to regional where it was very successful and ultimately became one of the National winners and our production appeared at the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center. Jim’s career as a playwright was underway. The student play that won the playwriting prize that year was by Lee Blessing and the script was The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. In effect, Jackson was the national runner-up.

The following academic year, Jim had asked me to consider producing The Diviners, a new play he was contemplating and opened our discussion by asking a seminal staging question: “Is there a way to show a drowning on stage?” I reeled back through my years of theatre experience to a staging concept I had imagined when reading Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck while in grad school. I opined it could be done–using light to simulate water. I told Jim unequivocally that I could find a way to stage his drowning scene. All he had to do was write it. Well, he did–and wrote it beautifully.

At the beginning of the following academic year, he had some pieces of The Diviners written, but it was a long way from being a complete script. He came to campus to be in residence for the second half of the fall term. I installed him in a small storage room in the basement of Parker Auditorium, just a short walk from the mainstage where we did all our theatrical productions. He was about four doors down the hall from my office. He was equipped with a phone, a bed, a table and his typewriter. He took his meals in the student cafeteria and showered in the dressing rooms. While he was writing we would be up a level on stage rehearsing what pages he already had brought into something approaching final form. If we had a problem with a scene we would phone down to his room and ask if he could come up and give us some guidance. Conversely, when he was struggling with writing a new scene he would call up to the stage and ask to come up with new pages and have us work on them while they were still warm from the striking of his typewriter keys. And so it went for about six weeks until the play and the production were both completed and ready to be shown to an audience, who would render the final verdict.

Once again the play was entered in the American College Theatre Festival. At that time our plays only ran for two to three nights on campus. Opening night and an actress and an actor had come down with such severe laryngitis that they could not speak the lines. Our solution was to place Jenny Davis, our stage manger at a low stand on the stage left side of the stage, Jim, the playwright at a similar stand on stage right, each to read the lines as the voiceless actors moved through their performances, mouthing their lines as the words were spoken aloud for them by Jim and Jenny. It worked like a charm, better than I could have imagined–probably due to the wonderful dramatic powers of Jim’s play, which commanded attention to such a degree that it was very easy to forget that two of the actors were voiceless.

The second night the ACTF adjudicator, Sam Smiley, playwriting professor from Indiana University, responded to the show and gave Jim some very specific suggestions concerning areas where the play needed attention. The Diviners was invited to regional festival, as had been Jackson. It too went on to the Kennedy Center where it won the National Student Playwriting Prize for 1980. Biff Liff, of William Morris Agency was in DC to present Jim the prize money, saw our production and called Porter van Zandt, producer at Circle Rep in New York city, to come down to Washington to see it. He did and liked it and convinced Marshall Mason, Artistic Director of Circle Rep to have a look at it. The result was that Jim, John Geter, the Hanover student who had created the role of Buddy Layman, and I as director, were invited to Circle to create a play in progress version to show to the Circle rep patrons. Using whatever came to hand I mocked up a small approximation of the setting we had used at Hanover and rehearsed, not at the theatre, but in the office area of Circle Rep. Among the Circle actors we used was Jeff Daniels, who played Dewey and Tanya Berenson (one of the founders of the company) who enacted Norma. John Geter remained as Buddy, surrounded by NY pros, and was brilliant.

Marshall liked the play and decided to put into Circle’s season for the fall. After much negotiation (to which I was not privy) it was decided that Marshall would put aside his desire to direct the full scale Circle production of The Diviners and gracefully yield that position to me as the playwright’s mentor. It was understood that I would cast William Hurt as CC and Jeff Daniels would remain as Dewey. As fate would have it Hurt got his first big film role in Altered States and the same happened with Jeff with Ragtime.

Thus it was that I got my one and only New York directing credit. The production got good reviews, but did not seize the heart of Mel Gussow, who, instead of Frank Rich, represented the all powerful NYTimes, Gussow gave it a good review, but not the rave needed to assure a move to Broadway. Rich had been unable to attend our opening night because he was scheduled to attend and review a Broadway revival of Brigadoon. A few days later, however, he did see The Diviners and gave it a very, very positive mention in a NYTimes squib called “Critic’s Choice.” Ironically, everyone associated with Circle had predicted that Frank would love The Diviners. Clearly he did, but fate did not allow him to give us the “money” review that would allow a move to Broadway.

After his graduation from Hanover Jim Leonard moved to Bloomington, IN and with Tom Moseman, founded the Bloomington Playwrights Project to help Indiana playwrights advance their careers. The Project still exists and still has the strong intention of advancing the cause of new and underexposed dramatists. For the last two years I have directed a work for them, and will do so again in November, staging this year’s winner of the Reva Shiner New Comedy prize. Jim Leonard is a producer and writer for Warner Bros. in Hollywood and has been the central writer for several TV series: Close to Home, Skin, Thieves, The Marshall and others. He now works on Dexter. He recently had a highly praised Los Angeles production of a new play, Battle Hymn. He is married to an Indiana gal he knew, but did not date, in high school. They have two sons, both in college, and Jim remains the all around good guy who would accept a small role just to help out a director in trouble, even though he would forget to say his line. Actually, that is a true measure of how passionately he is involved in the only thing theatre cannot survive without–the word written to be spoken.

  • October 2, 2011