The Making of a Dream Come True vs. Doubt
PART 1 I was first introduced to John Patrick Shanley's play Danny and The Deep Blue Sea in an acting class. Initially, the scene performed did not interest me. However, years later I picked up the play out of curiosity, as the play was always a favorite among actors in class.
After reading the entire play, I knew in the marrow of my bones that I had to produce it and perform as the title character Danny. Little did I know what was in store for me over the next two and half years. The play became a spiritual expedition – the magnetic writing drew me in and took me for a roller coaster ride of my life!
I immediately applied for the rights to the play from the Dramatists Play Services (DPS) in New York. I also posted a casting notice at The Actors Studio in Los Angeles as the talent is so dense and the actress would likely have a similar understanding of the material as I did. I received two submissions for the co-starring role of Roberta. As I was waiting to hear back from DPS to be granted the rights, I proceeded with the audition process. I recognized one of the two submissions from a previous audition I read with the actress for a film. I distinctly remembered having a tiff with her and not getting on well in the audition. Instantly I thought to myself, "She could be the perfect Roberta!" I considered it destiny, especially since I only received two submissions for the role. I contacted the actress, Deborah Dir, to invite her for an audition. A couple of days later we met. Her introduction was so polite and professional, I thought for a moment, "Oh, no – she's not what I remember, she's too nice." But she certainly had the perfect look to play Roberta. The role demands a woman that is in touch with her deepest power, as much as she is with her hidden vulnerability. We agreed that the audition would entail reading the entire play (60 + pages). I knew that the writing would draw out the desired effect I was looking for in Roberta, just doing a scene would not suffice. The writing would affect the actress spontaneously, just as it original affected me, especially reading it aloud. I instructed Deborah to just read the words on the page and not to make any choices. So we read, and about 30 pages into the audition, I saw her transform before my eyes. The writing began to force her to let go and allow her deepest insecurities bleed through. I think even she was surprised at what was happening, especially with an actor she didn't know. But it didn't matter. Deborah could not contain her need dive deeper into the character, and I was no longer auditioning her but rather dancing in spontaneous, spiritual creativity. Upon finishing the reading, I immediately blurted, "You got the part!" Deborah was elated. I shared that I had a director in mind and wanted to introduce them. The next step would be to read the play again with him. After Deborah left the audition, I called Michael Arabian who was on a 7-year hiatus from the industry after a successful career directing theater in LA and NYC. Michael was a very influential teacher to me and familiar with my acting and dedication. Michael answered the phone, we chatted a bit to catch up, and without hesitation – or knowing the actress yet – he said, "Yes, I will direct the play for you." I was overjoyed. When I met with Michael and Deborah for the table reading, Michael's commitment to direct the play was solidified. He praised Deborah, telling her she was born to play Roberta. All was confirmed. Now I just had to get the rights to produce the play. Nearly 2 years passed while being repeatedly denied the full rights to the play from Mr. Shanley. However, the DPS did offer non-professional rights to the play. So while we could put the play on, this meant our production was prohibited to advertise, charge admission, or receive press – all of which would help us promote the play and recoup costs. There was a loophole: we could receive audience donations. Still, I started to doubt whether I was supposed to do this damn play. I thought to myself, "I need to find a new play that I can get easily procure the full rights to." A month later, I was at the gym and U2's song "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" came on the radio. The lyrics spoke to me. As I listened, I realized, "I need to do this play – for myself, for my growth as an actor, and for my spirit." I conceded.
PART 2 Upon accepting the non-professional rights from the DPS, I was still determined to get the full rights. We began our 30-day rehearsal and secured a theater, but I continued relentlessly requesting the full rights.
While mounting the production, I was inspired to request letters of recommendation written by the heads of The Actors Studio in an attempt to compel Mr. Shanley – a member of the studio himself – to grant the full rights.
Graciously Martin Landau, Mark Rydell, Barbara Bain, and writer Lyle Kessler wrote personal letters to the DPS for Mr. Shanley on behalf of our production. I thought for sure this would be our break in securing the rights.
Meanwhile, our opening night drew closer. Since we couldn't charge admission, I chose to turn the production into a charity event for The Big Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles. A win-win: donations for a good cause and hopefully positive word-of-mouth for audience attendance.
As we rehearsed and dug deeper into the exploration of Danny and The Deep Blue Sea, we waited with baited breath to see if Mr. Shanley would release the professional rights to at least get press to review the play on opening night.
April 20, 2007 – opening night. The moment of truth... and still no word from Mr. Shanley. On a whim, I decided to call the DPS and give it one last shot. They answer and I ask, "Hi, I'm calling for an update about getting the professional rights released from Mr. Shanley?"
I wait with anticipation and nervous excitement. The rep responds with, "No, and stop calling and asking for the rights. Shanley is not going to give them to you, he has not released the rights for that play to Los Angeles in years." I crumble and politely say, "I'm sorry, I hoped that the letters of recommendation would solidify our legitimacy." The rep repeats, "No. Sorry – that's it, no more." I thanked him and hung up.
"Well, the show must go on!" I think to myself. I must move forward.
And we had a glorious opening night with a sold-out audience supported by friends, family, members of The Actors Studio, and The Big Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles organization. The audience reception overwhelming – my dream and intuition were spot-on. This production was a true a success... but still no rights. My deeper ambition bore from my deeper truth, my yearning, my knowing. I will get those rights for this is my calling!
The following week, word spread throughout The Actors Studio of the success and praise of our show. To my delight, I learned that Martin Landau and Mark Rydell would attend the upcoming Saturday night performance. At the conclusion of the show that evening, Landau and Rydell were so moved that they offered to have The Actors Studio produce it. This was a huge compliment and further confirmation of my intuition, but I knew in my heart that even if the Studio produced the play for us, as a non-profit organization the same boundaries prevented the professional rights. I thanked them for the offer, however, we were already up and running here so I declined.
Martin Landau looked at me and said, "Well, we have to get Shanley to see this show, it will change his mind."
Meanwhile, acclaimed writer Lyle Kesler also attended the play and shared, "Shanley – like all writers – is overly sensitive... even more sensitive than actors. It's likely that he is afraid that if the play were to receive negative press, it could hurt his reputation. And Shanley has the film version of Doubt debuting this year, so he won't risk it."
All four weeks of our production played to sold-out audiences – just from word-of-mouth! On the second to the last weekend, I received a phone call at midnight on Sunday just as I was arriving home from the theater. It was our director, Michael.
He said, "I might have some good news. A friend of mine went to see Shanley's play Doubt at The Pasadena Playhouse this past weekend and found in the play's program an email for Shanley." Michael continued, "Shanley offered his email to anyone who had a question or comments about the play to write him personally. If we can get a personal letter from Martin Landau and Mark Rydell directly to Shanley expressing their review of the play, it may finally get him to release the rights!"
Thrilled I exclaimed, "Yes, this is the universe guiding us to the goal!" But then I remembered that we only had one more week left before the show closed. I began to have doubt.
Michael understood my need to push this through and was quick to instruct me not to write Shanley until we spoke with Martin Landau and Mark Rydell. I agreed... for the time being. I thanked Michael and hung up. Since it was past midnight, I knew it was too late to ring Landau or Rydell, so I opted to call The Actors Studio and leave a detailed voice message including Shanley's email address in case they checked it in the morning. I couldn't wait... I could feel my dream coming true as I stared at Shanley's email address on my notepad. I paced the room contemplating, imagining, dreaming.
I have in my hands Shanley's email address and it's now 4 am. I wonder, "Is this even a working email, would Shanley get it, or would an assistant get it? " Doubt filled my thoughts. And I kept hearing Michael instructing me to WAIT until we receive a formal letter from Landau and Rydell.
Wired, I lied down on my bed. I looked over at my laptop, already open to my Gmail account. I swear I heard my computer say, "WRITE HIM, TELL HIM HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT HIS PLAY AND HOW IT RUNS THROUGH THE BLOOD IN YOUR VEINS AND THAT YOU WERE BORN TO PLAY DANNY."
I thought to myself, Shanley is likely in New York, it's three hours ahead, so it's 8 am and he might be awake. I get out of bed and go to the computer. I write from my heart. I am reminded how the character "Danny" has given me the courage to speak from my heart, my truth. I think to myself, Shanley will hear my cry, he will hear my soul.
I PRESS SEND...
I doze off exhausted from the excitement, but also from the past week's 5 performances. The play was a gauntlet filled with visceral emotion. After every performance it would take me hours to fall asleep, only to be met with getting back on this horse five nights a week. I never felt more alive in my life. Deborah, Michael, and our production team were all elated with what we had accomplished in three short weeks. We had only one more week left before we closed the show.
I wake up three hours later, still in my clothes. I get out of bed and go over to my laptop... And there it is in my inbox, a reply email from Shanley.
I think to myself, "Am I dreaming?" I rub my eyes and look again. The email is still in my inbox. My heart beats fast. I open the email...
It reads: "Thank you for your lovely note, I am on the fence. Let me talk to my agent at CAA.
Best regards, Shanley"
I think to myself, "Oh my god... there's a chance. But how would this work out? We only have one week left to perform, there's no time. And what if Shanley is merely being kind and I get stonewalled by CAA (Creative Artist Agency)?"
It's now 9 am Monday, and I immediately call Martin Landau only to get his voice mail. I leave a detailed message including Shanley's email address in the hopes that he'll write on our behalf to support the cause. I then call The Actors Studio and speak with Helen Sanders, our beloved administrator, and explain that Shanley responded to my email. But before I could finish, Helen interrupted me to say that she got my message and had already shared with Landau and Rydell, further explaining that they wrote a letter together affirming my request for the professional rights and emailed it to Shanley just minutes before I called her.
I was on fire with excitement. I thanked Helen profusely for her help. Just then, my phone beeped with an incoming call from Landau. I clicked over. He assured me that he believed Shanley would grant our production the professional rights. I thanked him with all my heart for his unwavering support and love.
Now we wait for Shanley to reply.
PART 4 I ask myself, “What is this all for? What is it all about, and why is this happening? Why is this so intense, what is driving me? Is it the character coming through me subliminally, or is it me, or both?”
I had such an incredible attachment to Danny, and it psychologically manifested as a great need to express all that had built up inside of me for years. Frustration. Anger. Love. I was gaining enlightenment within my acting craft at light speed working on this character. What is unique about Shanley’s play as an actor is that there is no place to hide – not even in the character. And when you add a live audience, the actor has a living mirror before them.
By the end of the play, we would receive without fail an outpouring of emotion from the audience. Some people would be crying as if something died inside and they were letting it go. Others appeared stunned, utterly silenced by the 2-act drama.
This personal healing – and the ability to heal others through art – this was what was driving me. I was trying to heal myself, and in the course of doing so, others would heal by observing. Pure catharsis. Years ago in acting class, while studying with Michael, he told me, "Daniel, to be a great artist you have to be willing to walk down the street naked and expose your deepest vulnerabilities.” It's now late Monday afternoon, and still no word from Shanley. With 3 hours of sleep over 2 days and doing everything possible to move this artistic ship forward, I am totally spent and crash to sleep. Fifteen hours later, it’s Tuesday morning and I wake from a dream that Shanley grants us the rights. I’m momentarily uplifted, but then remember that there is no more money to produce the show or pay for the theater rental. With one week left, how would this play out?
I lie in my bed still physically exhausted from the play. My body aches. Staring at the ceiling, the morning sun pours through. I pick up my cell phone and check for messages – there are none. I turn on the ringer from silent mode. I lie back down. My cell phone rings, I don't know the number but recognize the area code 917 for New York. My mind quickly wonders, “I did leave Shanley my phone number in my email, could this be him calling me?” It rings a second time, I answer. "Hello." A woman's voice asks, "Hi, am I speaking with Mr. DeWeldon?" I reply, "Yes this is he." She then said, "I am calling from CAA, I’m the assistant to George Lane, John Patrick Shanley's agent. Can you hold please?" I said, "Yes of course." I overheard the assistant say, “Mr. Lane, I have Mr. DeWeldon on the line, I'll put him through." I think to myself, “Wow, this is happening, nothing to prepare other than feeling well rested and being in the moment.”
George Lane connects to the call and sounds like a high-powered attorney. He starts with, "Mr. DeWeldon, I don't know how the hell you did it, but Shanley's giving you the full professional rights to Danny and The Deep Blue Sea. He hasn’t released rights in LA for over 12 years. Congratulations." Overwhelmed, I simply say, "Thank you, sir." Mr. Lane finishes with, "You will deal directly with the DPS right's holder to process the paperwork. Have a good day."
Now I am the one experiencing an outpouring of emotions. I can't contain myself and fall to my knees crying. This was one of my most extraordinary moments I have ever experienced in my life and career as an actor. I went to my laptop to read Shanley's last email and replied to thank him for entrusting me with his precious play, and a promise that I would not disappoint him. His reply simply said, "You're welcome. Don't fuck it up. :) Best, Shanley."
The first people I call are Martin Landau and our director, Michael. I leave a message for Landau sharing the news and thanking him and Rydell for their tremendous letter of recommendation to Shanley. When I reach Michael to share the news, he is ecstatic but also cautiously aware of our obstacles extending the show.
In a moment of optimism, Michael had already reached out to a reputable theater producer in LA named David Fofie, owner of the Elephant Theater. Michael scheduled David to see the next performance with the hope that, if he liked the play, he would co-produce and move the show to the larger Elephant Theater. I acknowledged to myself how the pressure simply would not relent... but it will surely make for a great story one day! We also strategized around press coverage. With zero press to date, no money to spend, nor a publicist to help promote the production (a cost of $20k), Michael suggested that he would send personal invitations to all the top press agents that had reviewed him years past in the hopes that they would review the play.
As planned, David Fofie attended the last weekend of the show. His reaction? Blown away. To demonstrate his belief in our production, David agreed to co-produce and move the play to the Elephant Theater. Moreover, he graciously offered his theater at no cost with a 50/50 split of the ticket sales. For context, this was unheard of – especially in LA where theater is challenging (to put it mildly). I was beyond grateful. After closing at our original theatre, it took two weeks to move the play into our new space. This allowed time for Michael to secure press for the reopening of the show. Backstage West was the first to confirm and would be sending their top critic Dave DePino. “Here it comes,” I thought, “the real moment of truth: our first public review.”
The review from Backstage West did not get published until the following Wednesday, and it was nothing less than torture waiting. In the meantime, Michael confirmed additional press for our second weekend. Everything was moving right along.
Then Wednesday arrived. Our first public review hot off the presses – finally. DePino’s review in Backstage West not only praised the production but also gave us critic’s choice:
“Daniel DeWeldon's performance is wonderfully layered, peeling Danny's years of hurt away quite painfully. Deborah Dir's Roberta is filled not only with loneliness but also with unfathomable guilt, which she shares for the first time, with Danny. She gives Roberta many different dimensions as a woman desperately reaching out and seeking forgiveness. Michael Arabian's direction keeps everything in perfect balance-the drama from spilling into melodrama-targeting the humor to help us like this couple and laugh with them, not at them.”
With this, we launched into a wonderful next chapter of our journey that lasted for an 8-month run. Awarded 15 critic's choice nods and featured articles in the LA Times, all my dreams came true. I learned more than ever imagined from the process, and this phenomenal experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was a true life lesson that anything is possible if you really want it.
My need, my “really wanting it” became my greatest inspiration. In retrospect, everything felt effortless from this drive. While there certainly were doubts, they drove me as much as my need did. To this day, I wonder, “Was I doing the play, or was the play doing me?” I believe this to be a metaphor for life: “Life is the dancer and you are the dance.” (Eckhart Tolle)
When I reflect on all the creative projects I’ve been part of, I recognize the same driving force. Yes, I went after these projects – but I feel they were looking for me, too. A collective consciousness unfolding to reveal spiritual and karmic lessons. This was further confirmed when I consider how Danny affected my co-star Deborah. She transformed before my eyes and was further empowered as an actress and a person. Over eight months, we became creative soul mates dancing on the edge of creation with Michael orchestrating the symphony. What you're looking for is looking for you.