Across the Way, a new play by Jeff Daniels currently in an extended run to Dec. 21 by the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, MI, has been named a nominee for the American Theatre Critics Association's ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award, according to the Purple Rose.
Actor-turned-playwright Daniels is founder and executive director of the Equity company that operates in his rural hometown, 60 miles west of Detroit, near Ann Arbor. The company was created in 1991 to provide a forum for Michigan actors but has since grown to be a theatre for both playwrights and actors, an isolated testing ground for new plays.
The focus is on Midwestern or Michigan writers, and of 24 world premieres, two have been commissions by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lanford Wilson and eight by the emerging playwright Daniels (best known as a film actor from "Purple Rose of Cairo," "Dumb and Dumber" and the New York stage's 5th of July).
"The trend in regional theatre was to do what New York had done last year, or what's already been published," Daniels told Playbill On-Line. "It took time to not only find playwrights [in Michigan] but then develop them. Then to have Lanford come in after many years, when I felt we were ready for him, and rewrite the play as we rehearsed: I'd been preaching that, but until the Pulitzer Prize-winner actually came in and did it, it was like, 'Oh, he wasn't lying to us.'"
Wilson's Book of Days and Rain Dance, which received their world premieres at Purple Rose, get their Manhattan premieres in 2002 03 at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre as part of a season-long retrospective of Wilson's work. Book of Days is currently playing at Signature. Daniels admitted it's important to him that Purple Rose have a national reputation as an incubator of new American plays. Four of Daniels plays are published, and several Purple Rose shows have gone on to regional or commercial runs. They received unsolicited scripts all the time, and any writer who wants to be produced there has to go through a "greenhouse" development process — a staged reading. Daniels confesses that subject matter about the Midwest or writers from the Midwest might have a slight advantage over others.
In addressing new works, Daniels — in league with first artistic director T. Newell Kring and successor, Guy Sanville — took a page out of the book of Circle Repertory Company, the now-dissolved Off-Broadway troupe where Daniels cut his teeth as an actor 1976-1981, and where Wilson and director Marshall W. Mason were major players. "When we started the theatre in 1991, for me, the norm was to find a playwright and find what he or she was writing and produce it," Daniels said. "That's what Circle Rep did time and time and time again, that was the norm for them. To do something that someone had already written or had been done somewhere else, or in New York, I wasn't interested."
Daniels said, "I built that place and tried to, in philosophy and principle, really try to emulate what I loved about Circle Rep. Circle Rep thought the playwright was king, and that's how we treat them here."
Purple Rose has grown from a 1991 season with a budget of around $200,000, and no computers to an organization with 24 staffers, a $1.7 million budget and a newly renovated $2 million space (same location, better amenities) offering four plays a year. In recent years, the Purple Rose started offering theatre classes, including a fee-based PAD lab, a "playwrights-actor-directors" lab where "we teach what we do" and create writers, actors and directors.
Stephen Dietz (Private Eyes, Lonely Planet, Ten November) is the latest commission from Purple Rose. The much-produced writer-director visited Chelsea in spring 2002 and went through a greenhouse reading. His new comedy, The Ride Inside, will be staged by Purple Rose in spring 2004. (Speaking of stars, Daniels has yet to appear on his own stage, though he did direct a well-received production of Wilson's HOT L BALTIMORE there.)
Daniels' serious-minded Across the Way, about the last 10 minutes of a woman's life, follows a gaggle of Daniels comedies that were greeted with howls of laughter from audiences. It began Sept. 26 and has been extended to Dec. 21. News of the ATCA nomination came Oct. 27.
Audiences are so enthusiastic about Purple Rose it's rare for a run there not to be extended (also, the space only seated 119 until the January 2001 reopening, when 40 additional seats were added).
What's Across the Way about?
"It's an epic love story," Daniels said. "It basically takes place in the last 10 minutes of a woman's life, and she's looking back and sorting some things out, and there's one thing that isn't right. And she's searching for what that is and what she can do about it. I did an exploration and an examination of a life, and of love. I think it kind of stretches the audience. In a lot of the previews we did talkbacks and the audience would say 'it's relentlessly demanding.' I don't let you get ahead of me. Just when you think you are, something else happens and you get dragged further and further in. Much like someone in the last 10 minutes of a life, not everything makes sense, not everything adds up. People were also saying, 'I didn't quite understand everything, but I was bawling my eyes out at the end.'"
Following his more frivolous comedies with such titles as Shoe Man, Thy Kingdom's Coming, Escanaba in da Moonlight, The Vast Difference and The Tropical Pickle, Daniels said of the searching new play: "I'm just entering the room of the wise. Somebody just let me in. They cracked the door and let me in. As long as I stand over by the wall — and don't talk to anybody."
For more information about the Purple Rose Theatre Company, visit www.purplerosetheatre.org.
— By Kenneth Jones