A company’s reasons for producing “The Cockfighter” determine whether playwright Vincent Murphy grants permission for performing it.
The West End Players Guild, St. Louis’ oldest continuously-operating theatre company since 1911, received not only his blessing, but he will attend Saturday’s performance and host a Talkback afterward for those who wish to stay, meet him and discuss the play. He will take questions from the audience.
The show opened April 10, and will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Ave., St. Louis. It runs 80 minutes without intermission.
Murphy and Frank Manley were colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta. Murphy adapted Manley’s 1998 novel for the stage. He directed their version, which premiered at the Humana Festival for New Plays in 1999.
“Manley was a poet and novelist I admired a lot. I was really taken with this coming-of-age story. I wanted Frank’s language to be as authentic as possible. He had such a lyrical voice, and was a terrific writer. His characters so well-embodied their struggles,” he said.
Manley was the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Renaissance Literature at the college, and a member of the selection committee that hired Murphy for the theater director. Manley died in 2009.
Murphy was Artistic Producing Director of Theater Emory for 17 years and is now a professor of theatre studies and resident actor/director at the university. He has directed at many regional theaters throughout the United States. Asa director, playwright, actor, designer, choreographer, and artistic director, has collaborated on more than 200 productions in a career spanning three decades.
Murphy has devoted much of his career to championing the development of new plays, and specializes in adaptation of non-theatrical literary works. He wrote a textbook for adapting literary works, “Page to Stage — The Craft of Adaptation.”
West End Players Guild was drawn to the coming-of-age story, set in the rural South, after seeing it at Humana, which takes place annually in Louisville, Ky.
“A number of the folks on our play-reading committee are regular attendees at the Human Festival of New American Plays, which is put on the by the Actors Theatre of Louisville every spring, said Mark Abels, one of the actors and also on the board. ‘The Cockfighter’ was a hit there, but has been performed rarely since. We loved the script and this was the year we took the plunge.”
“As a company, we are always on the hunt for character-driven stories. This one we have carried in our hearts for several years,” Director Renee Sevier-Monsey said.
“I always hope that our audiences can see themselves somewhere on our stage — and sometimes it’s not a comfortable vision! — and that the stories we tell speak to them. This was a very stripped-down, straight to the heart story about people and I am so proud of the work the actors are doing with it,” she said.
A nearly 13-year-old boy is entrusted with a champion rooster by his rough-around-the-edges father, to fight in the next derby. What happens upends the boy’s view of what it means to be a man, and changes him and his family forever.
“These are honest, true characters who operate according to their own strong moral code,” Sevier-Monsey said. “We are left to decide whether we agree or disagree with their positions, but they never doubt that they are right. This leaves The Boy with very clear choices as he matures through the action of the play.”
Besides Abels as The Father, the cast includes Mandy Berry as The Mother, John Reidy as The Uncle and Benjimin Tracey as The Boy.
Murphy gave West End permission, but has denied rights to others who didn’t have the same vision about the material. “One group looked down on the characters, and these people are not to be made fun of, we must show their struggles,” he said. “I trusted Mark. They seemed to have a hand on its pulse.”
Abels had tracked down Murphy directly, as the play is not available through the major licensing companies. “He was almost immediately enthusiastic about a company like ours mounting the show, and he has really gone out of his way to help us present and promote it,” he said.
“The Cockfighter” is deceptively simple, but has its challenges. “I have especially enjoyed the challenge of telling this story on a stage that is practically bare, with very few props, and with the challenge of essentially creating in the viewer’s imagination things like the truck we drive, the house in which we live and the cockfighting arena itself, not to mention the chickens!,” Abels said.
Casting the right people was essential. “It is very easy to round up a room full of auditioners when the play is by Shakespeare, Neil Simon or David Mamet. Everyone knows those plays and wants to do them. Not so when the play and playwright are pretty much unknown to St. Louis actors and the subject matter is a tad arcane,” Abels said.
“It is an easy choice to find villains, especially with a surface reading of the Father. We worked so hard to give the audience the chance to discover that these people have reasons for being hard, or soft, or people who struggle just to put one foot in front of the other every day of their lives. Bottom line is they love one another even if they don’t understand each other’s motivations,” Sevier-Monsey said.
Murphy said elevating the universality of the story is important to him. “You have to believe in the characters. The actors must convey the sincere truths — the uncle has to be more than pathetic. Visually, you have to imagine the cockfighting, it has to have vivid imagery,” he said.
Theater became his life’s calling when he was a teenager. He said he didn’t see a live play until he was 13, at the Boston Children’s Theater, and witnessed his peers transforming themselves into other characters. He had invented skits with family and friends during his early years before that.
Once he experienced the transformative power of theater — “to alter us, to tell our stories” — it took hold of his life and changed it, he said.
The reason he adapts, he said, is to make a novel, short story, poem or essay come alive on stage, make it life-sized. “Theater allows us to share a discovered story in the unique way that only live performance can, bringing the storytellers and audience together for the experience,” he said in an earlier interview.
“All works of art have a vocabulary of expression — ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ has its sweat and violence, Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ as the arc of a family journey, a Hopper painting has its loneliness, isolation and urban context.”
For more information or tickets, visit www.WestEndPlayers.org.