Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

A New York Diary

Gary Owen visits NY and just about survives


The flight is seven hours. These days you need to check in three hours before your departure time - security and everything. The train journey to the airport is two and a bit hours, but the train will be late so get the service before the one you need and you’ll almost certainly make it. And then before you even get on the train, it’s ten minutes taxi ride to the station - but best make it half an hour, just in case the taxi turns up late. from a rival service. But then again - if you’re leaving half an hour to get to the station, you could just walk it and avoid the taxi-wait anxiety altogether.

So: half an hour’s walk to the station (actually, make it fifty minutes - you’ll have luggage, and you’ll want a coffee). Then three and a bit hours on train and connecting coach. Then three hours security and departure lounge. Then seven hours flight. Then you descend from thirty-eight thousand feet, you touch down at JFK, you clear immigration, and they give you five hours back. So you could come out for some beers - or just go to your room, and collapse. It’s totally up to you.


My second mistake is saying ‘yes’ to the friendly guy who approaches us just past customs. He says ‘You guys looking for a yellow cab?’, and we say, ‘yes.’ And so he leads us to a limo, which has a lot of leather, and electric windows, and a very nice stereo system, and very definite air conditioning.

When we pull up at our destination, and he turns round and says, ‘That’s sixty-nine dollars plus tolls and tip and so that’s... eighty-eight bucks.’ We have been told to expect to pay a thirty-five dollar flat fee. In the days to come we will see that EVERY yellow cab in New York prominently displays a notice from the Mayor’s office, stating that the fare for a yellow cab ride from JFK to anywhere in Manhattan is thirty-five dollars. But we are not in a yellow cab. We are in a limo. We are fools.

And as I hand the man two grubby green notes, I find out that I have been a fool already this evening. Back in Heathrow Terminal Three, I walked into an empty Amex concession, and found six cashiers sitting idle. One of them smiled at me. I walked over to her, handed over my card, and asked for two hundred dollars. She looked at my passport, and the machine chugged and rattled, and the girl - an American girl - counted out four notes. Four fifties. I thought - will people take fifties? Is that going to be a hassle? Should I ask for some tens instead? But I said nothing. I just took the money, and ran for the departure lounge.

And as it turned out, I need not have worried about being stuck with four fifties. Because the friendly guy turns to me and says, ‘No, you see, I know it’s confusing cause all our notes are the same but what you’ve given me here is a ten and a fifty. Sixty dollars. And I need eighty-eight dollars.’ And I realise that the girl at the Amex counter has not given me four fifties. She has given me two tens, wrapped in two fifties. And I’m sure it was just a mistake - I mean , dollars are confusing, what with all the notes being the same size. Even Americans must make mistakes with dollars. Even Americans whose job is to count currency from a hundred different nations - even they must make mistakes with dollars.

I have been in New York for two hours, and I have been a fool, twice.

I promise to myself that I won’t get fooled again.


I am lying on a bed in the Chelsea Hotel. It is ten o’clock local time, four in the morning in my head.

On the television, a woman is saying ‘Even as I lay there, in a coma, I still had one thing, I still had my love of rock music.’

I am lying here because Kevin Spacey, on taking over as artistic director of the Old Vic, decided to start an exchange programme between New York and London. Last autumn, four New York writers came to London, and there were play readings, and meetings, and parties, which all led to Stephen Belber’s play Tape has being produced by the Soho Theatre. And now four British writers get to spend a week and a half in New York, being primped and touted and shown round the place - and I am one of them.

On TV, the woman is saying, ‘So my family, they took my Genesis and my Pink Floyd CDs, and they sold them, got a couple a bucks for each of them, and they used the money to buy CDs by Christian artists.’

Before coming to New York, I had never heard of the Chelsea Hotel. But the plaques around the door explain that it has been home to Arthur Miller, Dee Dee Ramone, Sid and Nancy, and Brendan Behan .

The woman is saying, ‘And they played these CDs to me while I was in the hospital, while I was in the coma.’

The Chelsea was also home to Dylan Thomas, on his last trip to America. The Chelsea was the base of operations from which he set about drinking himself to death.

And the woman smiles, and says ‘And even though I was unconscious, and I couldn’t hear, the Lord’s words must’ve seeped in, and the Lord’s love touched my heart - and I decided to live.’

I get up and wrestle with the television, trying to find the Simpsons, which I have always imagined must be on American TV constantly. But the television only wants to tell me about air press leg massages; Women’s Rogaine; a walkie talkie service you can rely on; Hurricane Isabel; and all-new episodes of Seventh Heaven.

I give up fighting the telly - it always wins - and lie back, and listen to the air conditioning.

I have come to America for the first time ever.

They have put me in the hotel that killed Dylan Thomas.

I am sure they meant it kindly.


The next day, we do brunch. Kate Pakenham, producer of the Old Vic New Voices scheme, gives me my per diems. I sign a receipt, and stare down at the brown envelope stuffed with notes.

- You can count it, she says. I won’t be offended.

I do not count the money, but this does not make me a fool; Kate, after all, went to a very good school.

I meet Tyler Merchant, associate director of Primary Stages, who will direct the reading of my play, The Drowned World. We chat about the play and the actors he’s cast, and everything seems fine. As we part, he tells me what I really want to hear - that the Cherry Lane Theatre, where we are rehearsing, is easily within walking distance of the Chelsea Hotel. I don’t need to deal with the subway. Not tomorrow, at least.


A sunny Monday. I walk downtown from Chelsea to Greenwich Village. It’s a short walk, but takes me ages because of (a) my constant fear of getting lost (b) my ridiculous timidity about leaping through traffic meaning that I actually wait for the walk sign at every block, and (c) having to swerve every two minutes to avoid a muscleboy with yapdog stringing tripwire across the pavement. (These last thin out as I leave Chelsea, however).

Turning off Fifth Avenue, I am temporarily stunned to find the streets are - and there’s no other word for it - cute. They are single lane, they have narrow pavements, and the pavements are planted with shrubs and trees. Cardiff has bigger streets than these. Christ, Bridgend has bigger streets than these.

And a little scrap of my congential Welsh inferiority complex shrivels up, falls off and dies - right there, in the homely streets of En-Why-See.


Rehearsal. We sit in a circle, in a black box. Tyler says - Gary, do you want to say anything about the script?

I say - uhhhh… not yet.

And so we begin to read the play.


Walking back from rehearsals, I’m feeling pretty good. It’s still sunny, but not overwhelmingly so. The cast are getting to grips with the play, I think, with only a two real problems. When I write, I tend to put each sentence, or even each clause, on a separate line. It’s purely for my own convenience - detailed editing is much easier when you can look at three or four words at a time and decide whether they really earn their keep. And while the way I break up a speech over a few lines might give some guide to internal rhythms, I certainly never mean that each clause should be delivered as a separate thought, with a little quarter-second pause marking each and every line break on the page. The cast are tending to do this, and it’s making the whole thing sag quite painfully - but it’s a tiny, technical detail I can clear up in a two minute chat with Tyler at the start of tomorrow’s rehearsal.

Secondly, there’s a problem with tone. Drowned World is a play about lust, self-hate, betrayal, genocide, and contemporary mutations of the British class system, and - extraordinarily enough - the cast are taking it all very seriously. In a full rehearsal, the actors would have time to explore and realise for themselves that the characters are often being ironical, or sarcastic, or just joyfully cruel. But we have two days, and so I’m actually going to have to say things like - Michael, you know when your character’s smashing that girl’s jaw open? I think it would really help if you really played the laughs in that scene…

These notes I store up for my pre-rehearsal chat with Tyler tomorrow as I’m walking back up to 23rd Street - and it strikes me what it is that’s so unsettling about Manhattan. It’s that you can see where it ends. You’re walking amidst these towering skyscrapers, and in the back of your mind you know that a city this dense must go on for miles and miles and miles - and then you step out onto Fifth Avenue, and suddenly, between the towers, you can see the sky reach down and touch the horizon. And you know it must be all be fake.


I wake at three am. There is something in my mouth. I reach in, and find a small shard of glass between my cheek and my lower right jaw. This tiny sliver opens up the pad of my forefinger as I roll it between finger and thumb.

In my mouth, I can taste no blood at all.


Rehearsals today are at Primary Stages on 45th Street, which Tyler has reassured me is also within in walking distance, but in the other direction. ‘Uptown’, rather than ‘downtown’. I leave a couple of hours before I need to and walk up an avenue till it hits Broadway, then I walk up Broadway and look at Time Square, then having looked at that I carry on up till I hit the south side of Central Park. There I have my lunch, reflecting on how tiny this place is. How manageable. How carryable in the palm of one’s hand.

I walk back down to 45th Street, arriving in good time for my pre-rehearsal chat with Tyler. I walk into the building, up a few floors in the lift, and announce myself to the lady at the desk.

She looks at me blankly.

I tell her I am looking for Tyler.

She says - Tyler’s at rehearsal.

I tell her I know - and I am supposed to be at rehearsal with him. He told me he was rehearsing here. At Primary Stages. On 45th Street.

She looks round the office, and asks if anyone knows where Tyler is. Someone says, down at Cherry Lane?

Cherry Lane is where we’d rehearsed on Monday. It is many, many blocks away.

I saw, are you sure? Because Tyler seemed sure we were rehearsing here today.

The people in the office look at each other. I can see none of them have a clue where Tyler might be. But then one of them says, Cherry Lane? Wouldn’t he be down at Cherry Lane? And the room settles on this. Cherry Lane. Tyler is at Cherry Lane.

And even though I know they don’t know, I find I agree with them. Tyler is at Cherry Lane.

And so I walk to Cherry Lane. Because I have avoided the subway so far and know I will only get lost and make things worse if I try to figure it out now, I walk the forty blocks or so blocks to Cherry > Lane.

And when I get there, they say - Tyler? No, he’s not here. Isn’t he rehearsing at Primary Stages? On 45th Street?


Later - much later - I arrive at rehearsals. It turns out that Primary Stages have an office on 45th Street, and a rehearsal space - also on 45th Street. My contact sheet gave only their office address. And apparently it did not occur to anyone at the office that Tyler might have been rehearsing in the company’s own rehearsal space.

When I arrive, the cast are just finishing a readthrough. Afterwards, Mary, who is playing the kind of executioner that really gets a lot out of her job, says - boy, I could do with a laugh after all that!

I say, well, it’s interesting you feel that you’d like to laugh, Mary. Because, if you look at this scene where you’re leading the execution squad round to the non-citizens’ house…


That night, we go to the theatre. We go to see the new production by LAByrinth at the Public Theatre. LAByrinth (capitalisation of initial three letters because it’s a theatre laboratory - alright?) is the company of which Philip Seymour Hoffman is co-artistic director, and so I have high hopes.

The play is called Dutch - Heart of Man. For the first ten minutes, I am enthralled by its hyper-naturalistic representation of (what looks to me like) an authentic Noo Yoik working class. Half an hour in, I am beginning to realise that these are hyper-naturalistic characters in search of a plot. Half an hour before the end, I predict that the lead character is going to have to kill his best friend, in one of those desperate acts of violence which are not really motivated by the events of the play, but which at least have a nice climactic feel about them, and allow the whole thing to come to a semi-respectable stop. My prediction turns out not to be wrong.

American theatres, despite being unsubsidised and apparently desperate for money, have inexplicably failed to hit on the trick of keeping a nice warm bar open to tempt punters who may not be desperate to step out into the cold night. And so we head off to a Chinese bar in a cellar to do our bitching about the play.

After we’ve put in a good three-quarters of an hour of bitching, Kate asks me how rehearsals have gone.

I say fine, fine - but they’re a little slow. A little ponderous, maybe. And it’s all quite - heavy.

Kate looks at me and says, so… their delivery of your play is ponderous, and heavy?

I say, heavy and maybe portentous, even.

Kate says, Gary, you have given these people a play about betrayal and lust and self-hate and genocide, and now you are complaining that their delivery is a little bit portentous?

I say - mmmm.

Kate looks at me again and says: yes I can see how that might be a problem.


The next day is the first of two days of readings. I’ve been paired with Richard Bean, and today Richard’s play The Mentalists is first up. I know Richard slightly: we’ve been lucky (or unlucky, depending on you see these things) enough to share two prizes for our writing in the last year. And so we’ve exchanged pleasantries at prize-givings, both very good-natured, but both very aware that if it weren’t for the other, we wouldn’t be sharing the prize money (for we are writers, and this really is how writers’ minds work). One of the pleasures of this exchange has been getting to know Richard a little better. For example: the ceremony for the George Devine Award involved speeches from the both of us. Richard was effortlessly gracious and funny, and made me look like (even more of) a bumbling tosser. During our time in New York, I’ve learned that Richard used to be a stand-up comedian, and now am reassured that he gave a better speech than me only because he cheated - by being naturally good at that sort of thing, and by having practised.

Richard’s play is a two-hander about a couple of middle-aged men, set entirely in one twin ensuite room in a Travelodge. It is funny and warm and sad, and the audience love it. We break for drinks at a bar over the road, and then return for my play. Thanks to Richard, the audience are nicely warmed up and well-disposed towards the world, and sit through the painfully slow opening monologue, and seem to enjoy my pretentious, fragmentary, messily apocalyptic fairy tale. In fact, at the end, a woman comes up to me in tears, so moved has she been. In my head, I had been screaming ‘Just GET ON with it!’ every thirty seconds throughout the performance, and I now feel like the world’s most ungenerous and churlish man.

As I am feeling this, Tyler comes up and asks me for notes.

I say - well, they were still a bit slow.

Tyler frowns, and says - I can get them to come in on each other a little faster?

And of course I know this isn’t what I mean. Once they’re talking to each other they’re fine. What I should say is - Tyler, the lead actor is still introducing a quarter-second pause between every clause in every sentence in the opening monologue, and boring me rigid even before the play starts.

But this is the kind of thing the world’s most ungenerous man would say. And the lady who has been reduced to tears by the beauty of my writing is still tearfully at my side, tearfully telling me how brave I am to expose all this stuff…

And so I say to Tyler: fine. Tell them to come in on each other faster. That’ll be fine.


The second day of readings. It turns out this Hurricane Isabel thing the TV has been going on about is not a long running drama about a ferocious single-mom-and-judge played by Amy Brenneman. It is instead a real hurricane, involving wind and rain and potential loss of life. The national news is absolutely hurricane alert, worried shrill about the thousands affected by power cuts and whole villages now cut off in Virginia. The New York news, OB-ing from Rockway Beach, is talking to some surfers who are really, really pleased about all the big waves. I decide it will be safe to venture out.

I go for a long walk before today’s readings. I walk downtown from 23rd Street. I walk past 22nd, 21st, 20th, until finally I reach a place where the streets have no numbers; they actually have names. I walk down Bleeker Street, and into TriBeCa, where I understand I am unlucky not to see Robert de Niro. It is not until I see the first subway stop labelled ‘World Trade Center’ that I realise what I am walking towards is not only the site of a world-historical event, and an all-purpose casus belli: it is also a mass grave.

Two years after 9/11, the site of the attack is a huge hole in the ground. You walk through street after street and then you stumble on opencast mine in the heart of the city. One side of the chainlink fence carries a series of information boards, telling the story of development on the site from the founding of the city; to the razing of fourteen whole blocks so that the World Trade Center might be built; to the events of September 11th, 2001. And then the information boards go, telling about the search for survivors that continued for days after the attacks; the painstaking retrieval of human remains; the removal of thousands of tonnes of debris; the determination to rebuild on the site, and the debate over what exactly should be built there. The message is clear: 9/11 may be the darkest hour in this city’s story, but it certainly does not end this city’s story.

As I’m watching a family of tourists get their picture taken in front of the hole, a teenage boy sets up a table, and spreads out a dozen or so booklets with titles like ‘New York’s Tragedy’. Trade is brisk until a middle-aged man with a backpack stops and berates the kid.

- You have no respect, he says. No respect for what happened here. You have no respect for the people who died here.

The kid says nothing, just stares at the man. The man stares right back.

- You have nothing to say to me, the man says. You’re just gonna stand there?

The kid still stares.

- Maybe we should find a cop, you could talk it over with him?

The kid stares some more. The man shakes his head, walks off.

The steel fades from the kid’s eyes. He starts to tout for trade again. But now no-one will come near the kid. He stands there for maybe a minute more, then packs up his table and is gone.


After today’s reading, a woman who identifies herself as ‘an Episcopalian minister’ comes up to me to tell me how disturbed she has been by my play. She had been looking round the auditorium, trying to figure out who the writer might be, but could see no-one who looked ‘dark enough’.

I ask her if she can tell me more specifically what it was about my play that disturbed her.

She considers, but cannot say what exactly has upset her. It is simply, she tells me, that I am ‘way too right wing.’


For Richard and me, the next few days are taken up with meet-n-greets at various New York theatres that might possibly be interested in putting on our work: we finally get to grips with the subway and flit across town to chat with literary managers at the MTC, the MCC, the Vineyard, Atlantic, the New Group, Naked Angels, and New Dramatists. All of them say they like my play. All of them make very clear that they would never, never, never put it on.

On Saturday night, Torben Betts and Simon Stephens arrive in New York - their work will be rehearsed and read at the Cherry Lane Theatre next week. We go to see Flow at the New York Theatre Workshop. It’s a one man, one woman show - dancer-rapper-storyteller-performance artist Will Power doing the storytelling-dancing-performing with DJ Reborn providing the soundtrack. It takes some concentration to follow, but it’s an absolutely brilliant show. Chattering and excited, we slope off to a bar. Torben’s first night in New York is not a terribly pleasant one - he’s shouted at for smoking in the bar, inadvertently commits an Open Carton Violation when he goes outside for a fag and brings his pint with him, is accused of spiking a girl’s drink when he comes back in, and is shouted at, again - this time by the reception staff at the Chelsea Hotel - who want to know who the hell he is to be asking for a wake-up call for this ‘Torben Betts’ > guy.

Richard and I share a yellow cab home, and at the intersection of of 8th Street and 4th Avenue, our cab switches lane and smacks into a girl who is crossing the road. Quickly a crowd has gathered around: someone who says he is a first aider has put his coat over the girl and is trying to persuade her not to try and get up, as he thinks her leg may be broken. Someone else has is phoning for help. The girl’s trainers, which came off in the collision, are gathered up and given back to her. Shock sets in, and the girl stops trying to get up. A fire engine arrives, and the firefighters put the girl on a stretcher.

We give statements to a cop. Once he’s taken our details, the cop says Richard and I can go, as the girl’s life seems not to be in danger. He asks if we have settled up with the cab driver. We tell him we have not. The driver is sitting quietly in his cab, saying nothing to anyone. The cop goes up to the cab driver, and asks how much we owe.

Six dollars ten, comes the answer. We give the cop a ten dollar note, and he takes it to the driver. The driver takes the note, and asks something of the cop.

The cop looks at us, and says - so… what kind of a tip do you wanna give?

Richard and I look at each other, and know that this, truly, is our New York Moment.

We tip the guy two dollars.


On Sunday, we have a choice of entertainment: we can go to a Mets game, or we can go and see the Dalai Lama. I already know what baseball is like, having read Don DeLillo, and so I opt to join the quarter of a million New Yorkers who stream into Central Park, and arrange themselves in good order before a small stage and video screens the size of up-ended soccer pitches.

Various city dignitaries come on. They appear as dots on stage, and in pore-revealing close up on the video screens. They all say how glad they are to be here today, and how glad they are that so many people have come. They all say this at slightly greater length than they need to, but still receive warm applause from the audience. The final support act is Richard Gere. He talks for a few minutes about how privileged he is, but even this cannot alienate the hugely enthusiastic crowd, who cheer his every word.

Finally, the Dalai Lama trots out onto the stage. He looks out over the crowd, and guffaws. He is laughing, I take it, at the sheer silly extent of us all, and not at anyone in particular (imagine: being laughed at by the Dalai Lama). He sits down in a wooden chair, and tells us how glad he is to be here, and how glad he is we have come, and then he goes on to tell us a thing or two about how it really is with the universe.

He speaks hesitantly, breaking off to ask aides for particular words in English or to snort with laughter. He tells us - to paraphrase rather briskly - that if even a small number of us began to act with greater compassion towards our fellow beings and towards our planet, then things would get an awful lot better, an awful lot quicker than we imagine. It’s hard to disagree with this; and the crowd certainly does not seem to disagree. Waves of applause ripple across the park every time the Lama pauses, quieting quickly when he starts to speak again. Immediately next to me in the crowd are a sizeable family group. They are cheering everything the Lama says. Up ahead of them - about a hundred meters ahead of them, a maybe quarter of the way to the stage - there is a dip in the ground, and the people sitting in this dip cannot see. Overcome with excitement, some of them get to their feet. The patriarch of the sizeable family starts to shout -

- Down in front!

The Dalai Lama is saying that if each of us could try to put aside our own fleeting and momentary desires, then we would find it easier to accept things as they are.

- Down! In! Front! yells the guy.

The Dalai Lama is saying that if we could all accept things a little more, then there would probably be much less conflict in the world, and we would probably all be a lot happier in the long run.

- Down! In! FRONT!

Quite a few people miss what the Dalai Lama says next, because of the guy’s shouting. Annoyed, they stare at him. The guy looks from disapproving face to disapproving face, appalled to find himself cast as trouble-maker.

- But they won’t sit down, he protests - and I wanna see the Dalai Lama!

At this, the Dalai Lama gives up.


Getting a quarter of a million people out of Central Park takes some time. But, mindful of what I’ve just heard about being tolerant and compassionate and accepting - and not wanting to look a twat like the big fat shouting guy - I force myself to smile at everyone who bumps, bruises, intimately brushes or aggressively pushes past me on their way out. And I have to admit, the old orange-robed guy knows what he’s talking about: a rush-hour trip to Tesco’s usually leaves me snarling at people invading ‘my’ personal space - but after about ten minutes the forced smile settles over my face and starts to feel natural; and by the time we get out of the park and back onto the streets, I’m still grinning like a gimp.

We head into the nearest diner for more planet-busting portions of American food, and talk about how we’re going to really try to be more compassionate from now on. It’s only when the bill comes that I realise that the last hundred dollars of my carefully-managed per diems have gone missing from my pocket. Some bastard has taken advantage of the crush to rob me - and I will have smiled at him or her as he or she did it.

Or, of course, the other possibility: the hundred dollars just fell from my pocket. Just randomly. Just an accident.

And then a girl - a poor-because-honest girl who had come to Central Park that day just hoping for some words of comfort - stumbled upon that tight little roll of notes, and, an unbearable hope threatening to burst her heart, leaned down and saw that yes, this was purest MONEY she had stumbled on. And being so painfully honest, she would go to the nearest cop, and ask where to hand the money in. And the cop - a shady type who would usually take the money and keep it for himself - this cop would be so moved by the words of the Dalai Lama and the look in this girl’s eyes that he would tell her just to hold on to the cash. And she’d have money for somewhere to stay for a bit - and money for her little brother, who would need medicine - and she would believe that truly miraculous things could happen in this awful world, and turn away from a life of crime, and be someone really effective and good, and probably save all our lives.

This, truly, is what happened to my hundred dollars.


Monday night is our last night in New York. The party is at Soho House, which in New York is in SoHo. The party is for attracting famous people. The idea is that the famous people will be photographed, and their photographs will be published, and everyone will see that famous people were at an Old Vic New Voices party, and this will make rich people give the project lots of their money. There is talk that Heather Graham has positively RSVP’d, but in the end the best we can manage is Mary Stuart Masterson (who may have been big in the Eighties, but is a slip of a thing now) and the actress who played Ally’s secretary in Ally McBeal (who again, looks a substantial girl on screen but is absolutely tiny up close).

We writers are by several orders of magnitude the scruffiest people in the room - so much so that the bar staff are decidedly sniffy about refilling our glasses. Kate fixes this by pointing at us and announcing to the room that we are the writers and the party is ‘in our honour’, and making the photographers take pictures of us.

Our credentials thus established, the bar staff have no further excuse not to hand over the booze. And so we drink it all.

When I wake the next morning, I find perched on top of the television half a dozen bunches of cheap, corner store flowers, stuck in a vase which I have created by hacking into a two litre mineral water bottle with my nail scissors. And I remember stopping at an all night grocery at the way home, thinking to blow my last few dollars buying tatty American consumer items with their kitsch 1950s packaging which could then be given as presents to all my most fiercely anti-American friends. And then I remember deciding not to be such a git, for > once.

The maid comes in as I am packing. I say the flowers are for her, as a thank you for emptying my bin twice in the last ten days. She says that they are very nice: her look makes it obvious that the money would have been nicer.

author:Gary Owen

original source:
17 November 2003


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