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FRINGE REPORT INTERVIEW: Brandon Toropov
It's Edinburgh 03. But how does the magic get here? We asked a stunning writer who did it last year .... in 8 weeks.
When a peak-slot last-minute Edinburgh cancellation sandwiched svelte C-Venues boss Hartley Kemp against a clock-ticking deadline, he cried help to Bolton Octagon's megastar This Is Soap director Christopher 'Studworth' Sudworth, who remembered a modest American playwright whose mesmerising writing he'd caught in a Boston studio 2 years before. Brandon Toropov tells John Park how he arranged production of his astounding 7-part drama from a standing start, stormed 30 shows in Edinburgh, picked up Fringe Report Awards 2003 - Best Drama Writer, and doubled his mortgage.
Try an internet search on Brandon Toropov and you'll find reams of the mass-market books he writes in one of his lives. In another he's a playwright of subtlety, humour and deep penetration. A quiet, good-looking, shy and gentle man, he's bemused by the success and critical acclaim gained by his remarkable Seven Affidavits On Authority at Edinburgh 02.
The seven playlets focus on the incidents of our lives, from CVs and their consequences, to shagging one's neice, via the secret messages contained in in-flight messages, and religious zealots with a penchant for bonking under the table. They're deceptively easy to take in - and entertaining - yet each is a profound study of human nature, with stunning dialogue. Separate, they lock together to form a whole - a disturbing look at us, and how we really are.
So how does a writer, summoned in May, organise production of a major Edinburgh show in just a couple of months? Bearing in mind that most companies take a year and more? And the huge cost of shipping everyone involved across the Atlantic, and paying for accommodation, and casting, rehearsing, staffing? Arrrggghhh. Or as Toropov puts it - 'It's like climbing a cliff, and jumping off'.
Gorgeous actress Rachel Grissom whose haunting face dominated the press for the play, got an early call and came on board fast. 'I've known Brandon 3 years,' she recalls, 'I saw early drafts of The Night Before and On The Menu At This Restaurant (two of the playlets)'.
A playwright herself, Rachel Grissom has limitless admiration for Toropov. 'He's a committed writer, passionate, very supportive of other artists. He's willing to try anything to see if it'll work.' And high-risk. 'I've seen his come up with some very risky, imaginative re-writes - a lot of writers hold themselves back.' Rachel's astounding performance took the audience's breath away.
Amy Merrill, the kind of formidable and good-humoured company manager who forms the rock on which theatrical success is built, is an old mate. 'I've known Brandon since the mid-80s. We were both writers in Theatre In Process (a play development team run by Boston director June Judson). He wrote a play with a character throwing Valiums and Pot Tarts in a blender. To consume.'
She locked into the project straight away. 'Brandon writes about the anxiety of middle-class people: that veneer of normality - and the turmoil of fear and misery underneath'. Project One - raise the money.
Betsy Carpenter had directed the premiere of Seven Affidavits in Boston. She's a prolific and subtle director in Boston, New York, Miami even. And she's worked with the legendary David Mamet, as actress and stage manager, assistant director and director.
She's a friend and admirer of Toropov's work, and said 'yes' - something her bank balance may have regretted, but certainly not Carpenter herself. Her task was immediately to re-think the direction for an Edinburgh audience, and get immersed in a punishing schedule of rehearsal. And help raise the money.
With a team like this, maybe Brandon's task wasn't quite so impossible. He's the first to acknowledge the concentrated work done by everyone in the minute amount of time available.
Margaret Ann Brady, joint lead actress in Seven Affidavits, is used to the lad and got recruited immediately. 'Waaallllll, me and Brandon, we go way back'. They met in Christopher Durang's play Identity Crisis. Brandon was acting a transvestite psychotherapist.
'He became my first comedy-writing partner', Brady remembers. Their Macbeth parody was an instant TV hit. Brady learnt Toropov's writing secret, 'Very loud rock music. Very, very loud. We took turns, one on the typewriter, the other bashing away on the piano. Brown Sugar and the rest of Let It Bleed.'
In the 20 years since, Margaret Ann Brady and Brandon Toropov have collaborated a lot. 'Mainly when someone thinks they have a great idea for a radio variety show. We get together, write, brainstorm, get reports of how this station or that is really interested.
'As long as it's not too (insert variable), and we can't really mention (ditto). And so on, till it dies a death, like a summer romance.' This will warm the hearts of BBC writers who think this only happens to them. With one difference: 'One of them was actually broadcast'.
The fine male actors John Arnold and Neil A Casey came into the project and deep rehearsal immersion. They're both hugely experienced performers.
John Arnold's a Georgia University graduate, who continued studies at London's National Theatre and works prolifically in film, tv and theatre in America. Neil A Casey is a Niagara University graduate with a strong background in comedy, drama, and lots of tv commercials.
The rest of the team snapped into place: Marguerite Bergel, an experienced comedy actress and skilled improv performer took on production and press liaison. Jesse Chan-Norris, is New York-based but conveniently living in London; he'd designed lighting for the American productions of Seven Affidavits and got the call to pack his kilt for Edinburgh.
Kate Ford had graduated from Emerson College, Boston, in Stage Management, so that's what she was asked to do on Seven Affidavits. Rita A Fucillo edited Panorama magazine, and Playbill, respectively the Boston official guide, and theatre guide, and took on the role of press consultant.
Joanne Twist, an experienced UK PR consultant who runs PR With A Twist, became publicist. Scott Weiss was asked to handle graphic design, including his superb flyer featuring Rachel Grissom with a deck of cards.
And, er, the money? Well, says Brandon Toropov, there was sponsorship, there was worry. And there were second mortgages.
What about the man who's to blame? Christopher Sudworth is Youth Director at The Octagon Theatre, Bolton. He's working on a new adaptation of Animal Farm. And his fine improvised show This Is Soap (daily at Edinburgh 03, unmissable).
'It's quite a strange story' says Sudworth. 'I met Brandon through his play. I was staying with Kamela Hutzley (they'd met on a train between Chicago and New York, what a lad) in 2000, she was stage managing Seven Affidavits and I met (director) Betsy (Carpenter), and (actress) Rachel (Grissom).'
He was blown away. 'Even watching the play in early rehearsal, I was incredibly enthusiastic. It was one of the most exciting scripts I'd come across in a long time. I asked Kamela to put me in touch with the writer. Brandon and I emailed, he sent me the script.
'We finally met at the show itself, in Edinburgh 02.' Where, by chance, their two shows were showing at the same venue (Review of Chris Sudworth's Ed02 This Is Soap).
And the end? They got the money. They arrived, jet-lagged and nervous, at Edinburgh Airport. Brandon Toropov remembers a middle of the night techical run-through, fighting to stay awake. And then - curtain up.
The company shared a big Edinburgh University apartment. A petite chambermaid surprised him with the words 'Would you like a wee hoover...?'
Earlier in 2003, Fringe Report acknowleged the outstanding work of this talented writer on Seven Affidavits with its award for Best Drama Writer in January 03.
Almost-last word to actress Margaret Ann Brady. Memories of Edinburgh 02? 'Deep-fried Mars Bars. Sheer joy to work with Brandon again. An incredibly stretchy brain, omnivorous humour - combined with steadfast moral integrity. And he bought some great CDs'.
In the middle of the run, he slipped away for a week's vital holiday with his wife. Final verdict? 'Wonderful.'
John Park - July 03
(c) Fringe Report 2003
Note - Seven Affidavits On Authority Company Manager Amy Merrill's articles on Edinburgh 02 are at Marquee Online:
Marquee Home Page.
Report 3 (in pdf format)
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013