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Role Reversal for Terry Teachout: Critic Turns Playwright

Rural Intelligence Road Trips“I hadn’t written a play before, but I had this dream where I saw the stage picture of Pops and heard the first line. It just popped into my mind.” ‘Pops,’ like ‘Satchmo,’ is a nickname for legendary jazzman Louis Armstrong, and the newly minted playwright is the accomplished author and Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, explaining that he finished off his first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf four days after that fateful dream.

The four-day draft stretched into a year of work on Satchmo... before its workshop at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, which he also directed, another first for Teachout. And now the one-man play, starring acclaimed actor John Douglas Thompson, is having its New England premiere at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.

Rural Intelligence Road Trips“I’m a committed compulsive individual,” declares Teachout, who says his journey to writing Satchmo… began at age nine, when his mother called him over to watch Louis Armstrong on the Ed Sullivan Show. “It was before I knew anything about jazz,” he says, but that soon changed; Teachout became an accomplished jazz bassist in his own right before breaking into art criticism with a music review for the Kansas City Star, written before he was graduated from college.

In 2009 Teachout published the biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, of which New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote, “...Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists.” The book benefited from Teachout’s unprecedented access to tapes Armstrong made during the final decade of his life. Much of the knowledge that Teachout acquired in researching the Armstrong biography has been channeled into his new play.

Satchmo… is actually about two men – Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser; the former African-American, the latter white and Jewish – both played by the same actor. At least that was how the play was first workshopped and later staged at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in September, 2011.

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Photo by Kevin Sprague

In a surprise twist, actor John Douglas Thompson, who had already committed to play both roles in his first one-man show, will take on a newly added third character, jazz musician Miles Davis, in Teachout’s latest version of the play. “It’s hard to believe but just two days after we added Davis’s speeches, John came in to rehearsal and he had the voice right and the look. It’s the same with his Armstrong. Suddenly he looks the part, and he’s a foot taller than Pops.”

There have been other changes to this new production, directed by Gordon Edelstein, which runs through September 16 before moving in October to Edelstein’s Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. Originally a two-act play, it’s now a single act. “Dropping the intermission – and I had written a brilliant last moment for the first act that always got great applause – was like taking off the tourniquet: the blood just flowed,” says Teachout. “And people were leaving after the first act, thinking it was over anyway.”

Attending three weeks of rehearsals as playwright, Teachout found the analytical skills he relies on as a critic came in handy to hone and alter the work. “You learn to think diagnostically as a critic and that can be an advantage for a playwright,” he says. “And Gordon is a terrific dramaturge, so you can take a very long look at what you’ve done.”

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Creative team Edelstein, Thompson, and Teachout; photo by Kevin Sprague

Like a true compulsive, Teachout – who, in addition to his responsibilities at the Journal, is also the chief culture critic at Commentary and an active blogger – already has two more plays in the works. He has written two opera librettos (The Letter, commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, premiered there in July 2009, and Danse Russe debuted at Philadelphia’s Center City Opera in April 2011); now he and his composer, Paul Moravec, are toying with a third idea. But before moving full speed ahead on these projects, the author remarked, “there is a need for something to write for, a commission perhaps. Money up front helps. I mean, really, you don’t start the car until the meter’s running.” – Peter Bergman

Satchmo at the Waldorf
At Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse
Now through September 16
Lenox, MA

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