Award-winning Playwright Unveils Parsifal Worthy at UNO
The Tony Award-winning playwright and Oscar Award-winning screenwriter whose breakthrough work was 1980 Broadway smash hit Children of a Lesser God, is an Artist-in-Residence at the University this semester. His latest original script Parsifal Worthy makes its world premiere this month on the UNO stage, starring UNO actors.
"One of the major things about it being a new play is the amount of rewriting I do in the play, at rehearsals, overnight," said Medoff, his eyes rarely leaving the stage. "It's a collaboration thing. I can have a play at home for years by myself but it's very different once a director and actors are in it. It becomes a collaboration between them and me.
"I learn all kinds of things that I couldn't living at home as actors try to inhabit the people that have been living in my head," the playwright said, "and try to transfer the page to the stage, as it were."
Writing as Rewriting
Medoff, who has taught at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M. for nearly 30 years, flew to New Orleans in September for auditions for the UNO premiere of Parsifal Worthy and began tailoring scripts for University actors before rehearsals started. The rewriting process continued through last Tuesday with help from the UNO cast and Medoff's third and youngest daughter, Jessica, who serves as guest director.
"Yesterday, we pretty much took the latter half of the play apart," Medoff said one evening in October, watching actors scramble to perform new lines. "I wrote things. We cut things. So that's what we (are) seeing...is how I complicated their lives overnight."
The world premiere of Parsifal Worthy at UNO features an all-student cast: Nick Giardina, David Brown, Sarah Beth James, Rick Jackson, Meghan Shea, Tiffany Anderson, John Neisler, Sam Malone, Emily Felps, Blair Pourciau, Vinnie Matthews, Betsy Borrego, Franny Harold and Sabrina Rivarde. It also features the work of set designer Kevin Griffith; costume designer Tony French; lighting designer Diane Baas; props director Sarah Beth James and stage manager Kit Sternberger, all of whom are UNO students.
The opportunity to work with a playwright of Medoff's caliber as he reworks his masterpiece is unparalleled for most UNO students, said Department of Film and Theater Chair David Hoover. Next week, the UNO actors will bring the famed playwright's polished script to life.
An Unparalleled Opportunity
Mark Medoff is an American playwright, screenwriter, film and theatre director, actor and professor, who made national headlines as a young man in 1980 with his signature play Children of a Lesser God. The play, a romantic drama about a deaf woman and a speech pathologist who is also her former professor, centers around the struggles and victories the couple face as they combine their deaf and hearing worlds into one.
Inspired by the life of deaf actress Phyllis Frelich, the playwright developed, workshopped and debuted Children of a Lesser God at New Mexico State University, where he then worked in the English Department. Within one year, Children of a Lesser God had made its way to Broadway, where it ran for two years and 887 performances.
The run made Frelich a star -- and earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress -- while garnering Medoff not only high praise and the talk of the town, but a Tony Award for Best Play, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the London West End Society's Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. In all, the play received three Tony Awards and three Laurence Olivier awards, including one for Outstanding New Playwright, spurring Medoff to transform the script into a much-heralded 1986 film.
The film version of Children of A Lesser God, starring actors Marlee Matlin and William Hurt as a hearing teacher and deaf custodian at a school for the deaf, won Matlin an Oscar Award for Best Actress, augmented her career and brought Medoff nominations for an Oscar Award, BAFTA and Writers Guild of America Best Adapted Screenplay Award. The same year, Medoff was nominated for a Cable ACE Award -- known today as an Emmy Award -- for his HBO Premiere movie, Apology.
Since 1976, the award-winning playwright has published more than 30 plays, a number of which he has directed, as well as more than a dozen screenplays. Medoff's screen credits include adaptations of his plays Red Ryder, Clara's Heart and City of Joy, according to his bio. Two films -- Homage, which Medoff wrote and produced, and Santa Fe, a play co-written with screen writer Andrew Shea -- were invited to the Sundance Film Festival. The Hands of the Enemy also made its way to Los Angeles, starring actor Richard Dreyfuss and including a role for his oldest daughter, the playwright said.
Medoff also produced and directed the documentary Who Fly on Angels' Wings, about a mobile pediatric team helping the poor of southern New Mexico, and Children on Their Birthdays, based on the short story by Truman Capote. His play and subsequent film When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?, centered around a New Mexico rest stop diner that loses most of its clientele to development and a new highway bypass, received an Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle and John Gassmer Playwriting Award.
A prodigious writer, Medoff continues to produce at a clipped pace. A feature film Refuge appeared in movie theaters around the nation in 2010. Wager, a play that Medoff originally published in 1974 at age 27, debuted as a newly transformed work in September. The playwright shows no signs of stopping.
Jessica Medoff, his third daughter, is an opera singer, actress and director who plans one day to be the guardian of her father's work, "a very sweet idea," Medoff said. She has performed under his direction more than half a dozen times and continues to act professionally while embarking on her directing career. Most recently Jessica Medoff played the lead in Carousel under her father's direction, he said. In January, he will direct her in Annie Get Your Gun. Like her sisters, Jessica Medoff has been around the stage -- and involved in the theatre community -- for most of her life.
"She's really just setting out on this path, but she's really ready to do it," the playwright said, watching his daughter direct UNO actors last month and notate his script with laser focus. "She's a really good director. It's been extremely rewarding and gratifying to work with her on a play of mine."
An Artist and a Teacher
Medoff has been a professor at New Mexico State for nearly 30 years, where he has had a profound impact. In 1974, he received the University's highest faculty honor, the Westafer Award, according to his NMSU bio. In 1980, he received the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, New Mexico's most prestigious lifetime artistic honor. Twenty-five years later, he received in 2005 The Kennedy Center Medallion for Excellence in Education and Artistic Achievement, an award given to a practicing artist who is also a career teacher.
Medoff co-founded NMSU's Creative Media Institute for Film and Digital Arts and American Southwest Theatre Company, where he served as artistic director. He has taught in the University English and Theater Departments and funded the Mark and Stephanie Medoff Theatre in the University's Center for the Arts. Though the theater is available for their use, Mark and Jessica Medoff came to UNO this fall at UNO Film and Theater Department Chair David Hoover's invitation.
Years ago, Hoover chose to study a Medoff play while writing his own graduate thesis at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. Hoover corresponded with the playwright for a year about one of his scripts, then worked for him at New Mexico State for two years before eventually making his way to UNO, where he has starred for more than 20 years as an artist, director, actor and professor.
Under Hoover's direction, the UNO theater department has won more Kennedy Center American Theatre Awards -- and produced more award-winning actors -- than any other University in the state. Hoover has helped to grow the theater department into one of the University's most popular and successful programs, added scholarships and spearheaded renovations to the Robert E. Nims Theatre, where he often performs and directs and where Parsifal Worthy makes its world debut next week.
A Holiday Play
Parsifal Worthy, which stars UNO undergraduate and graduate students is a "family-friendly" comedy, said Hoover. The play -- which takes place two days before Christmas, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day -- is "a holiday play about a man who still believes that we should do unto others as we'd like others to do unto us."
"It is loosely based on a short story by Dickens called The Chimes which I've modernized and I can't even tell you what's really left over from the original short story," said Medoff, intently watching actors perform a pivotal scene as he spoke. "Most of it just comes out and I have no control over it until I go back and look at everything analytically or someone looks at it and tells me what I'm doing."
At New Mexico State, Medoff teaches several courses where he deals a great deal with the "classic hero," a word and a role that he sees as genderless, the playwright said. This play is centered around both a male and a female hero. Parsifal Worthy, played by award-winning UNO actor and graduate student John Neisler, has two daughters he's trying to raise in the absence of their mother Penelope who was murdered years earlier, the playwright said. The main character's name is an allusion to the errant knight Percival found in classic literature.
"I wanted to write something about the classic fallen hero, if we define the traditional hero as someone who wanted to sacrifice something from himself for something larger than himself," Medoff said. "As we discover through the play, his wife has returned from death and is here to help him through a difficult time in his life, where he discovers someone he works with has murdered his wife," said Medoff, as he watched Neisler endure a court scene and dangle from scaffolding in the role of Parse Worthy.
"He is a person with anger management issues and he's trying to control his anger. He's someone who's trying to do the right thing all the time and that's a terrible burden," the playwright said. "He has an anger he is trying to suppress. He has to struggle, like many of us do, to maintain civility, which is difficult especially in the presence of someone who is corrupt."
When he realizes the amount of ill others do, Parse Worthy contemplates suicide, according to a play synopsis. He is about to jump from the roof of a theater when a strange woman named Penelope, played by UNO graduate student Tiffany Anderson, appears on a bicycle and stops him.
"She is either in his mind or she's been sent by some unnamed force but in any event she's some inexplicable presence not unlike the ghost in A Christmas Carol," said Medoff, recalling a famous holiday play set during the same three days surrounding Christmas. "I stole from Dickens' A Christmas Carol where Marley's ghost comes to Marley and tells him the common welfare should be his business."
The play also includes a member of Ebenezer Scrooge's family and a reference to figgy pudding, two elements found in A Christmas Carol, Medoff said.
According to the play's synopsis, Penelope, it seems, can work magic "although she has some disagreements with whatever mysterious force sent her to Parse's rescue."
Together, Parse and Penelope "take a journey of redemption, from rage at and disappointment in humankind to a reaffirmation of faith in Faith."
From the Page to the Stage: An Ensemble Cast
Rife with comedy, the show features a large ensemble cast of "highly entertaining characters, some good, some bad, some really bad," according to the synopsis. The ensemble characters offer support and obstacles in reuniting Parse and his family.
"Periodically, I write a play with a lot of roles in it for younger actors," said Medoff. "Having been a teacher for 40-some-odd years, I'm constantly dealing with young people and in a university setting. I'll write a play with a lot of roles, whereas anything I write for a community production can't have 20-some-odd characters in it. We've got 15 large roles, virtually all played by graduate students and undergraduate students in the program here."
The playwright watched his daughter create complex scenes with 29 people on stage, each engaged in a private act or dialogue, then quickly disband them and move to the next scene.
"I like working in the theater better than film because of the intimacy," Medoff said. "I love the process."
Recreating the same scene on a film set, one person would be operating the camera zooming in on several characters while 29 people stood around, watching, he said. Medoff, who has another play coming out next spring, said he deliberately writes a lot of women's roles. The playwright nodded toward a UNO actress learning to walk with crutches as though severely disabled.
"I love watching people work hard," said Medoff. "One of the appeals of having my children in the theater and on the set from a young age is that they saw people working extremely hard and being kind to each other."
The play is his third holiday show, said Medoff, who has been writing seriously since age 15, when a high school English teacher "told me that I could do something I do better than anybody in my class."
He studied theater at Miami University, then a professor sent him to New Mexico, a place he had never considered or even heard of, he said. He fell in love with the region -- and New Mexico State University - and has since refused opportunities to move to New York or Los Angeles. New Mexico State and the Las Cruces community, particularly community theaters, have been good to him, Medoff said. New Orleans has also been kind, the playwright said. He came to the Crescent City for a change of scenery and the chance to polish his play in an exciting city with a strong theater community.
Medoff is not sure where Parsifal Worthy will hit the stage next, but believes he will workshop the play again before he sells it.
"Everything takes me years and after we do it here I'll probably do it one more place - then anybody who wants it can have it," the playwright said last month. "It usually takes me two or three productions to get it as far as I'm going to get it."
Medoff, who taught several master classes this semester while at UNO, will be back in the Robert E. Nims Theatre next week for a grand performance.
Playwright Mark Medoff brings Tony-winning style (and a world premiere) to New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, Nov. 15, 2013
Ex-Faculty Bad Boy Mark Medoff Takes a Tony Home to New Mexico, People, Jan. 12, 1981