The world premiere of my play Conversations About an Empty Suit ran for two nights, opening Friday, March 13, 2020, and closing Saturday, March 14, 2020. A play about professional success and failure, it was the biggest hit of my life.
Conversations About an Empty Suit was born out of disappointment. Disappointment in myself, disappointment in my professional accomplishments or lack thereof. A mid-career playwright (I’ve discovered you just have to pick your own label; the “emerging” category had long left the building for me), I had stepped away as the artistic director of Clockwise Theatre, the company I had co-founded. Burnt out, I was going to re-commit to my neglected playwrighting career. After a flurry of play submissions and contest entries with nothing taking root, it seemed like my career was limping towards the unavoidable conclusion. I was a half-baked artist. Average. Given the desire but not the gift. Somewhere along the line I had missed the success meeting.
So, I began writing. How else was I going to work all this out? The birth of this play was not pretty. I decided to put it all on the table; every single personal flaw which held me back. But as I began writing I started getting pissed off at the game which seemed somehow rigged although everyone else seemed fine with it. Writing about failure, raging against systemic injustices and class biases began to be fun. But way too honest. Put my inadequacies on stage? If my career wasn’t dead yet, this would certainly polish it off.
After finishing, I put this dangerous, career-killing play in a drawer. Then I gave up theatre forever. After an unsettling year of doing nothing related to theatre, I decided I could be a theatre supporter. A happy audience member. So, I went to see a new play at Three Brothers Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois.
Three Brothers board member Dave Motley spotted me in the audience. Afterwards, he sidled up. “Hey, Madelyn. Would you be interested in meeting with me and maybe executive director Josh Beadle. Just to throw around any ideas or suggestions you may have?” Me, being a theatre supporter, agreed. Sure, I’d be happy to help. A week later, over sushi and tea, I offered suggestions and ideas. I was very helpful. I had more ideas. I was even more helpful. Nodding, smiling, they reeled me in. “What would it take, Madelyn?” I told them my price. Productions. I wanted productions. Josh said, “Sure.” Sneaky bastard.
The next season, Three Brothers mounted the world premiere of my play Taking Turns. A thrilling, satisfying professional artistic experience. But Conversations About an Empty Suit still sat in its virtual drawer. Then Three Brothers launched a two-year playwriting residency. I was part of the team to put the program together, [so] written into the structure of the residency was every accepted resident got a full production.
I hauled Conversations About an Empty Suit out of its Word doc file, blew the dust off, and read it. It had held up pretty well. 60% muscle, 30% flab, 10% indulgent, embarrassing, mind-numbing dreck. Luckily, I now had enough distance to do the work which needed to be done. Adding in feedback received after two public readings, and the play came into focus.
We secured director, Judy Blue, who cast the production with Abbie Brenner, Aimee Kleiman, Matt Lloyd, and Michael Vollner. Producer “sneaky bastard” Josh Beadle assembled production team of stage manager Galen Hughes, set & lighting design Katherine Hauger, costume design Jazmin Aurora Medina, sound design, Mason Absher, and properties by Dave Motley.
The process confirmed my standing as a mid-career playwright. With a personal life consumed by sandwich generation eldercare issues; I was only occasionally able to make it to rehearsals. One’s first few productions, you’ll do anything to be there at every rehearsal to just hear your words being spoken by real actors. But I was so swamped, the nightly stage manager’s report was the highlight of my day. To my chagrin, everyone seemed to be just fine with me out of the rehearsal room. Sure, I ended up rewriting a bit here and there, but those two developmental readings had done their job.
As opening drew closer, a group of playwrights ended up at my place for dinner. Chatter was the usual theatre tribe content, although one minor conversation stands out. Playwright and director buddy—naïve mid-20s Zack Peercy—voiced concerns about the coronavirus. “Oh god, you’re being alarmist, Zack,” wise old mid-50s Madelyn tossed back. I hope I didn’t roll my eyes. I really, really hope I didn’t roll my eyes.
The typical urgency of tech week was matched by the atypical urgency of the spreading pandemic. The intimate safety of a darkened theatre during those final rehearsals was a sharp contrast to the bright glare of the accelerating crisis outside.
Conversations About an Empty Suit opened Friday, March 13 to a sold-out house of 34 people. Outside of the theatre on that day, fourteen new cases of the coronavirus were reported in Illinois, bringing the total to 46. On March 16, Governor JB Pritzker would announce that gatherings of 50 people or more were banned to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Everyone in the lobby that night suspected that this could be the last time we would be gathering. The last live performance viewed, shared, the long-taken-for-granted rituals of welcome and social pleasantries already altered. We bowed to each other. Sheepishly bumped elbows. Some did hug, unwise in retrospect, but I had to hug my sister. I had purchased my traditional opening night cookies from local bakery O’Brothers. After writing opening night thank you cards, I then individually wrapped each cookie at home. While wearing gloves.
The lights dimmed and the play began. Aimee, Michael, Matt, and Abbie told the story. I am a wordy playwright, quick-paced exchanges punctuated by the occasional monologue with verbal twists and turns, each “um” and hesitation plotted and mapped. Their fidelity to the script was only matched by their ferocity of their performances. The engagement of the audience tracking each moment and discovery was palpable.
Just as an unknown story was unfolding outside, an unknown story was being told inside. No one knew, or knows now, how the story outside the theatre would play out.
Post-curtain call, flushed and heady, cheap Non-Equity champagne in plastic glasses, toasts were made. There was more hugging than recommended, although we all did try.
I believe at the end of my life, one of the greatest moments of my professional career will be that particular weekend, the people in that theatre trusted me enough to go on an unknown journey with me. Trusted I would take them to a place where discoveries about shared experience and common humanity would be paired with a satisfying conclusion.
Success will never look the same to me. Neither will failure. Along with everyone else, I have arrived in a new land. A land where a monster hit is a sold-out house of 34 people and a two-performance run.
MADELYN SERGEL is a northern Illinois based Guild member. A resident playwright with Three Brothers Theatre, plays include Taking Turns, SPIN, Throwing Rice, TALK, The Wind Phone, Another Piece of Cake, The Party in the Kitchen, Six Fights on a Summer’s Night, Dogs Are People Too, and Totally Okay, Right Now. www.madelynsergel.com Photo by Izzy Brodsky