Things I Wrote While I Should Have Been Writing - Part Six
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
A TRIP TO NEW YORK I was given an opportunity to travel to the greatest city on earth to see something I have written performed on the New York stage. When you’re a writer, few things can ever match that. Having spent years writing plays with little success, the email I received telling me that a New York theatre producer/ director wanted to adapt one of my films into a stage, was one of the most wonderful moments of my professional life. My words would be sharing a stage that had no doubt been adorned by those of Neil Simon, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, and the audiences would finally get to hear the insight I have into the human condition…and all my knob gags.
Having convinced my family that it was a good idea for me to spend a weekend in New York to see my play and do a Q and A with what would undoubtedly be several beautiful and inspirational people, I replied to the director that I would be in attendance. What’s not to like…a weekend in my favourite city talking about how great I am to beautiful people who wholeheartedly agree. Tickets were bought, hotel booked and new trousers purchased. I decided that a playwright has a different look from a screenwriter, not so well-off, more in touch with the people, less in touch with shower gel. I needed some jeans that looked like they’d been to a lot of rehearsal rooms instead of the chinos that looked like they’d been to a lot of restaurants. I had a feeling that this might be the only time I would have a play on off-broadway, partly because it’s never happened before and partly because I don’t write plays, and if that was to be the case then I was going to look the part.
Travelling to New York had always been a wonderful experience. I should have realised that this trip may not have been heading for greatness when I was greeted at customs by a man who looked like he should have actually been working as a 1950s longshoreman, a man who decided instead of stamping my passport and letting me in, to take me to the room full of Bin Laden suspects. I am going to tell this part of the story separately, partly because it’s a story in itself and partly because it’s not totally relevant to what I’ve set out to write about - suffice to say it was one of the strangest and most terrifying ordeals I have ever undergone, which is saying something if you bear in mind I once spent three days in a Yugoslavian jail and have twice seen John Bishop live.
So in true movie style, let’s jump cut past the enormous emotional trauma that was getting into New York straight to being in New York. I was relieved and thrilled. I love New York. I had that wonderful journey ahead of me through Queens and under the Mid-town tunnel before popping up into the emerald city. My driver was an Indian immigrant who hated the city and hated Americans, I saw an opportunity and talked at length about my Indian heritage, my love of cricket and how much I loved it when Tendulkar scored runs against Pakistan. It was a good decision as he decided that we were brothers in arms and didn’t charge me for the journey.
Things were picking up and the hotel was fine too, not brilliant but fine. It was high up and in New York, that said had it been a disgusting hovel inhabited by crack heads it would still have been fine. I emailed the director of the play and awaited his response. I had imagined that we would be meeting for dinner and discussing the triumphant reviews while receiving visitors to our table unable to hold back from expressing their gratitude to the creative team. The response I got set the tone for the next thirty-six hours.
He replied about an hour later apologising that he wouldn’t be able to meet me that evening as he was currently being held in a New York jail having been arrested for demonstrating against the Venezuelan Government. Seemingly one of his compadres had smuggled a phone into the cell and managed to tap into the free wifi. I wasn’t sure what impressed me more, the fact the man directing my light romantic comedy was actually a fierce Central American activist or that he was able to get wifi in jail when I struggled in Ipswich.
I decided to make the most of the situation. I was a father of two children under five, I hadn’t been out on my own in years, I had a whole city to play in. However, I had also not slept in five years so instead of walking the mean streets and meeting wonderful characters and having secret trysts, I ordered a pizza and fell asleep. Things were looking up after all. The thing about being a writer is that what we essentially do for a living is make things up. Many writers will tell you otherwise, that in fact we put up mirrors to society, that we use fiction to reveal truth. Well I make things up, and what became apparent that evening in the Big Apple was that I had possibly made up this whole thing. I hadn’t made up the fact the play was going on or that I was about to watch it and then do a Question and Answer session to several hundred people…no, I had made up the other bit, where this was going to be a wonderful experience, that the theatre was off-broadway, that this director/Producer was a director/Producer, that the thing had been properly rehearsed and that it was something that would finally make me proud on the inside. Yeah, that stuff I clearly made up.
The theatre was off-off broadway, in fact it was so far away from broadway the cab couldn’t find it. It was off-off-off broadway, it was about as off-broadway as my house, which is in South East London, and not off-broadway, but off Peckham Rye. The Director/Producer was indeed a Venezuelan activist and when I arrived at the theatre in a part of town that Scorcese would have dismissed as a location for being too tough, he was there waiting for me. He was a charming man, his wife was a charming woman, and his nine friends were charming friends. He very quickly told me that he had been in jail for fighting for the rights of his people and that if he could he would start a revolution and murder the leaders of the illegal junta that called themselves a government. I could immediately see why he had chosen my film to adapt as a play. The similarities between the struggle for socialist ideals in a country riddled with capitalist corruption and gangland murders and my film about how tricky it is to know when you’re really in love, were clear for all to see.
The next thing he told me was that he had changed his name from Leonard Lopez to Leonard Zelig, after his hero Woody Allen’s great creation. I wondered why out of all of Allen’s characters he would choose to take the name of the one who had no identity of his own and morphed into anyone he spent time with. Maybe he was trying to morph in to me. The result would be odd, a mixture of Leonard and I would probably look rather like an overweight Che Guvara with a receding hair line and a slight stoop. Che has no idea how lucky he was to die when he did, imagine that poster on your wall.
The next alarm bell should have rung when I was introduced to the actors. The green room in a theatre is often a place that mixes good humour with slight anxiety, this one was like the waiting room for women applying to be Press Officer for The Taliban. Their faces were the faces of the damned, the kind of faces I used to see backstage at stand-up gigs in Hull and Middlesborough. The only thing that made me feel better was their apparent relief at meeting the man who wrote this bloody thing. The British members of the cast were quick to say hello and that they loved the writing, then just as quick to apologise for what I was about to see. One of them said being directed by Zelig was like being directed by a man who wants to murder a government. Actually she didn’t say that, she said that being directed by him was like being directed by a useless twat who had no instinct for the piece or for the theatre. I could hardly wait to see the show.
I was astonished to see the theatre fill up, Leonard looked at me with pride as it did so, and I had to slide along the cushioned bench seats to allow all the punters to get in. A rather large woman with a strong Brooklyn accent sat next to me. Our arms were touching like two sausages on a pan that refuse to be separated however much the cook wishes them to be so. But it was fine, it was minus 8 outside so sharing human warmth was acceptable on this occasion. She cleared her throat and pulled out a large bag of nuts as she settled in. She didn’t strike me as the kind of person who would spend a Saturday night in New York watching a fringe adaptation of a film nobody saw. At best, she seemed to be the kind of person who may have gone to see a musical on Broadway or a cock fight in Queens. I was intrigued and I asked her how she had heard about the production. She looked at me with a smile that revealed the most perfect of teeth, even the most unhealthy Americans have amazing teeth, it’s just true. She told me the reason she came was the Q and A after the show. I couldn’t help feeling a mixture of anxiety and pleasure at the thought that my being here was bringing people to see the show, that they were coming here to see me. ‘They said that the guy from the film was going to answer questions. I love him, I’ve seen every film he’s ever made.’ I thought that was interesting, I’ve only made two but I had a fan, a real life large woman from Brooklyn. She added: ‘My favourite was Star Wars Episode one’.
Yes, it transpired that the place was full and waiting for Ewan Mcgregor. I checked the poster. It read: Q and A with the star of the film. Before I could work out how to get the hell out of the theatre, the lights went down and the opening chords to the show started playing. I was locked in.
An hour and a half later I was paralysed with horror. What I had just witnessed was nothing short of a nightmare. The worst acting, the worst production and the worst theatrical experience I’d had since my daughter’s first nativity, which at least managed to get one laugh when the donkey shat itself. Apart from a couple of actors who may, with an actual director, have come close to delivering, the show was populated by the kind of actors that make me want to remove all funding from the arts.
The audience were, however, applauding, some of them even whooping. I wanted to stand up and tell them to stop, that they should be throwing fruit, pissing on the cast, anything but this.
Then I remembered. I was about to be asked to talk about it, to tell them how wonderful it had been to see my lines brought to life. I was to be cross-examined by a madman who clearly thought I was someone I quite clearly was not, and who was very possibly merely using me as an alibi in a Central American terrorist act.
Zelig then stood up and with great pride introduced the star of the film. I won’t ever forget the look on the faces of the audience as I took the stage. Who was this man? Where was Ewan Mcgregor? This man looks like he might have eaten Ewan McGregor but he’s definitely not actually Ewan McGregor. The woman with the fat arms was devastated. I heard her say ‘I was sitting next to him, is he the guy? The guy with the big arms?’ The level of disappointment in the room was remarkable. I suddenly knew how it felt to be my father, every time he came home. I was fucked, surrounded by actors desperate to hear how much I liked it and by an audience desperate to hate me for not being Ewan.
‘So Aschlin…did you enjoy it?’
‘Of course. I loved it. What a thrill to see it brought to life in such a brilliantly insightful and entertaining way. Ewan will be thrilled when I tell him.’
‘So are you and Ewan friends?’
‘Yes of course, if being a friend means not really knowing him and being too scared to talk to him on the rare occasions we have actually met.’
They laughed. They may have still hated me for not being him but they were at least starting to thaw.
‘Tell me, how did you come up with all the stories.’
‘Well they had been playing around in my head for some time and…’
‘Sorry to interrupt but do you really not know Ewan?
‘What about Dame Eileen Atkins? Is she a friend of yours and is it true that each time you see a Dame you have to bow?’
‘Do you know any famous people? I mean who’s in your next film?’
‘Well I made a movie called French Film which starred Hugh Bonneville who was also in this film and is of course quite a well-known actor.’
‘Sure, was he in Four Weddings?’
‘No, that was Hugh Grant, but he was in Notting Hill.’
‘No, Ash, that was Hugh Grant too. I know because my wife won’t stop watching it.’
The session went on for a very long half an hour, with each new question about who I did and didn’t know accompanied by a few more people walking out muttering their disappointment. I had underestimated just how much self-deprecation the average New Yorker could take, almost none.
By the end, I was left on stage with Zelig, just me and him and a handful of the cast, watching, listening and wondering what the hell they had been involved in. Zelig was a madman with a dream. The truth is the cast were merely actors in the crazed delusional mind of a lunatic fantasist who dreamt of having a play on in New York City, to be a part of the great theatrical tradition…but what I realised, was that man was me.