Getting new eyes and ears on a play he’s written isn’t exactly Manchester playwright David Preece’s favorite part of the process, but it’s necessary if you want your script to be any good.
“You feel naked. You’re exposing yourself, warts and all, to the public. And they can mock it, they can laugh at you — and that’s part of the process of writing a play. You’ve got to be strong!” Preece said via phone last week.
His “warts and all” will be on view Sunday, Jan. 8, at the reading of his most recent piece, The Story of Ruth, at the Concord City Auditorium, part of the Walker Lecture Series. Jim Webber will direct, and Barbara Webb, Wallace Pineault, Melinda Wolf, Katherine Proulx, Steven Lajoie, Andrew Pinard, Aaron Compagna and Kim Lajoie will read.
The play is about television actress, screenwriter and playwright Ruth Gordon, a New England native known for the films Harold and Maude and Rosemary’s Baby, for which she won an Oscar. It takes place when the actress is 79 and decides she wants to go back to Broadway, where her origins lie.
New Hampshire audiences have seen many of Preece’s plays. His most recently produced was Dancing Among the Wildflowers, about the last hours Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife spent together at their Texas ranch, at the Hatbox Theatre this fall. Preece is a history buff and theater-lover, so much of his work is inspired by real people and events.
“I fell in love with Ruth Gordon in the early 2000s. I had seen Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude. … I started to do some research and was amazed at the odds and the obstacles thrown against her, and how she overcame all of them,” Preece said. “There was a time when there were no plays or movies given to her, so she decided to write her own. … I was also fascinated by the people who befriended her and helped her along the way.”
Many of these people were theater legends — Thornton Wilder (who was inspired by Gordon to write The Matchmaker), Alexander Woollcott, Helen Hayes and Jed Harris — all of whom make appearances in The Story of Ruth.
“I just thought a tribute needed to be given to her and these people,” Preece said.
Preece, who’s also executive director for the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, began researching the piece two and a half years ago. He spent many Saturdays and Sundays on his computer at Starbucks sipping coffee and sifting through information.
“You learn a lot about history, and that’s one of the rewarding things about being a playwright — if you do the necessary research, you uncover a lot about your characters,” Preece said.
Writing took about nine months. He compares his process to ceramics.
“It’s like clay. You start to massage it, and then you build the sculpture that will be known as the final play, but it involves months of rewriting, and hopefully opportunities to have the play read aloud by good actors and presented by a good director,” Preece said.
During the reading, Preece will sit at the back of the theater and mark up his script with red ink as he follows along. Afterward, he’ll ask for audience feedback and conduct one-on-one meetings with the actors and director for critique. Then it’s back to Starbucks.
Listening to play readings and getting feedback is critical for playwrights, Preece said. What you hear aloud doesn’t always match how it sounds in your head — which is why he’s so thankful for the support in ventures like these.
“The theater community in New Hampshire is one of the best because they really do encourage community and professional theater,” Preece said.