Producer Matt Salinger and Clear Channel Entertainment are exploring a national tour for The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien's one-woman Off-Broadway sensation about a white woman's multigenerational family history in apartheid South Africa.
Salinger told Playbill On-Line there is no end in sight yet for the Gien play, starring Kate Blumberg at Playhouse 91 in Manhattan, but he and Clear Channel's Bill Conner are putting together a national tour of the humane work that may start in Palo Alto, CA, in October or November and work the West Coast before going to Atlanta, then hopping from Boston to Philadelphia to St. Louis and Cincinnati.
The Syringa Tree, Gien's celebrated play about two families in apartheid South Africa, opened quietly in New York City Sept. 14, 2000, starring South African native Gien, playing 24 characters in the world of an English family in apartheid South Africa. The underdog show, told from the point of view of Elizabeth, a six-year-old child who doesn't yet understand the tensions and conflicts in the household shared with her parents, her brother and the beloved black nanny and her child, captured the hearts of its audiences from the beginning, even as cynics guessed the starless, 100-minute work would close after a few weeks.
Word-of-mouth and solid reviews fueled the box office, although the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York prompted a monthlong shutdown to allow New York theatregoers to get their equilibrium back. Salinger told Playbill On-Line in January he has not yet made any money on the show, but weekends are selling well. (The Playhouse 91 box office remained open during the hiatus. All royalty holders agreed to waive their fees and the theatre owners waived the rent during the time off.)
Kate Blumberg, a South African native who has worked Off Broadway and is an administrator in the acting school of The Atlantic Theatre Company, took over the roles created by Gien Aug. 1, 2001. Salinger and Blumberg are discussing her continuing with the show on tour. After its New York debut, Gien won the 2001 Drama Desk Award in the category of Solo Performance, and a 2001 Obie Award for Best Play. She left the Off-Broadway hit July 31, 2001, to concentrate on a screenplay for the piece. She begins the London debut of the show at the Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre Feb. 9, opens it Feb. 14 and continues in repertory to April 3. Salinger hopes the Cottesloe staging will branch out to a commercial run in London, where ties to South Africa are stronger than in the U.S.
"Because of their colonial past, it will resonate more immediately," Salinger suggested. "I would imagine it will be even stronger there."
The work is a semi-autobiographical account of Gien's life. She first developed the story as a screenplay (which Salinger had read) and performed scenes from it in an acting workshop in the Los Angeles area. Director Larry Moss saw the potential for the scenes to be a one-woman work. Salinger agreed it could be a unique theatre experience. The play had its premiere at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre in 1999.
The work is a labor of love of Salinger, who is known more as an independent film producer. He produced a video production of the play, filmed with three cameras over three days at Playhouse 91, starring Gien but without an audience. (The version is expected to have its TV premiere on the Trio cable network.) Salinger is also attached to the still-developing, fleshed-out feature-film screenplay of the story.
"I would like nothing better than to work on this for the rest of my years," Salinger told Playbill On-Line. "Since becoming a producer, I've produced a lot of things that were more about business or were more about learning how to produce. I've always been looking for something of extraordinary quality that was worth all the pain and time and nightmare phone calls — and I I finally found one. I'm not gonna let it go too quickly. I haven't made any money on this, and I need to. I'm also trying to learn from this. The lesson it's taught me is that I followed my heart and it's lead to all kinds of great things."
Salinger said there is still a perception by those who haven't seen the show that it's a political "South African play" that is more about message than entertainment. "I knew I was going to be battling that from the very beginning," Salinger said. "It has certainly lived by word of mouth."
Will it make a profit in New York?
"Sales are up again, we've sold out on a couple of [recent] Sundays and Saturdays, if that keeps happening, we will," he said. "Last spring we were on course to have broken even in the fall. The theatre owners have seen that we have legs, and they've been great in our bad times. "
The script of The Syringa Tree will be licensed through The Dramatists Play Service.
Performances of Syringa play at Playhouse 91, 316 East 91st St. (between First and Second Ave.). For tickets call the box office at (212) 307-4100.
— By Kenneth Jones