For Bruce Graham, playwriting begins with eavesdropping.
From childhood the playwright — who will see his new play at Trenton’s Passage Theater — was drawn to what people said and how they said it, perhaps a clue to Graham’s widespread reputation for possessing a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. Colorful or unintentionally funny phrases uttered by his family amused Graham to the point he mimicked them and put them into plays, one-acts he would put on in lecture halls at suburban Philadelphia’s Ridley High School for the 50 or so classmates who would come to see them.
A film buff, Graham was also influenced by the scripts of vintage movies he saw on “The Early Show” and “Late Show.” As he talks about his appetite for movies, he hums the “Syncopated Clock” theme every person of his generation and older — he’s 59 — associates with Golden Age Hollywood on Golden Age television.
Conversing in the sunlit basement room that serves as his office and primary writing area in the South Philadelphia home he shares with his wife, Stephanie, Graham goes into how listening turned to writing and various kinds of performance, from stand-up comedy to acting, and how being produced as a playwright led to a busy, prolific career that expanded to movies and television.
Words, or colloquial language, may have been Graham’s attraction to myriad writing and performing, but the driving factor of any work, he says, is the story.
Graham reads as voraciously as he listens. He is constantly on the lookout for stories or circumstances that trigger his dramatic impulse, that place a person in a situation or predicament from which a play can emerge.
Often ideas have to percolate in Graham’s mind before they find manifest form on the typed page. He says his play “Any Given Monday” rattled in his imagination for 25 years before he batted out a script. “Then it took only two weeks to write,” he adds.
He says he likes the luxury of being able to think a play through. Commissions mean he continues to write occasionally on some sort of deadline, but it’s different from earlier in his 30-plus-year career when plays had to be delivered annually on demand. He also says his literary maturity has led to a policy of never starting a piece unless he knows he is going to finish it.
For “White Guy on the Bus,” opening Thursday, May 5, at Passage, Graham’s impetus was a magazine article he had read about how difficult it was for families to visit prisoners and which mentioned the bus to New York City’s prison colony on Rikers Island.
Graham says he was fascinated that once they enter the bus to Rikers, visitors have to stay aboard until they arrive, at which time they are subjected to barked orders and searches and other indignities, and that when released prisoners leave Rikers, they are taken to a single destination where they quickly spend what money they have on soda, snacks, cigarettes, and women.
Per his habit, Graham put the Rikers bus article aside for a while, a long while. But the idea stuck with him, and once he committed to see if there was any material for a play, he had to find the story that would made it stageworthy.
To do this he took the ride to Rikers and back, if only to settle his curiosity. The experience piqued it. Graham noticed several telling peculiarities. “The bus to Rikers,” he says,” was filled entirely with women, black and Hispanic women, who were visiting prisoners. At a given point on the journey, as if on cue, most of the women opened their pocketbooks, took out their compacts, and began applying makeup or fixing their hair.
“Guys coming back from prison are deposited at this one stop. After being told what to do for whatever period, they’re suddenly on their own in a spot that has nothing to do with them but from which they begin a new phase of their lives as released men.
“My task was to find the play in all of this. I began thinking of the two sides of the Rikers fence. There were the prisoners and the women visiting them, and there was me, the lone white guy, a source of curiosity. What was a white guy — who meant to get off at the last stop before the prison but couldn’t — doing on the Rikers bus? In asking the question, I thought of white privilege and a reason a white suburban man of comparative means would be there. That reason gave the play some mystery. As the play proceeds, you see it develop a theme of racial divide.”
Graham would not spoil his mystery, but the guy is there to choose a woman to woo so she will persuade her boyfriend to commit a criminal act for pay.
During an early reading of “White Guy on the Bus,” the audience was struck with the directness and honesty of Graham’s look at a member of one race strategically manipulating someone from another — and of one person using money to take advantage of someone in relative poverty.
Graham says that reading — held not at Passage but at nearby Bristol Riverside Theater — was one stage in three years of writing the play. It gave him ideas that led to extensive rewriting for a 2015 Chicago production. “The structure is the same as it was in Bristol, but the play became more relevant as it evolved,” he says.
“White Guy on the Bus” is one of three new pieces Graham debuted this season. His “Rizzo” opened at Philadelphia’s Theater Exile and is scheduled for production by the Philadelphia Theater Company in the fall. His “Funnyman” earned broad acclaim at Arden Theater. Another work, “Stella and Lou” was performed superbly at People’s Light & Theater Company. Act II Playhouse mounted a revelatory staging of “According to Goldman,” and Montgomery Theater revived Graham’s tribute to the ultimate diehard, “The Philly Fan.” “White Guy on the Bus” will be seen at Wilmington’s Delaware Theater Company next spring.
Bruce Graham is that prolific. Tell him you can count more than 25 plays written since “Burkie” appeared at the Philadelphia Festival for New Plays in 1984, and he will tell you about movies he has written and the two television programs he does for the Hallmark network, “Cedar Cove” and “Good Witch.”
Posters in Graham’s office remind one of his industry, and Graham speaks of productions done all over the world and performed in Dutch, Swedish, and Japanese. He jokes that he is often so aware of productions, he will look at a clock, notice it’s 9:15, and say, “I should be getting a big laugh in Atlanta around now.”
Graham says his ideas come from various sources. Reading and hearing stories is one. Another is his life. “Burkie,” his first play, was built around people he knew, as was a recent work, “North of the Boulevard,” based on a garage his cousin ran in a town outside Philadelphia.
“I’m like the Chekhov character in Neil Simon’s ‘The Good Doctor,’” Graham says. “I have to write. Or at least to express. I’ve always done it. I acted. I took lessons with Rose Schuman at Hedgerow. I toured weekends on a comedy circuit. I’m an entertainer. I have stories to tell and phrases a character has to say.”
Graham says he got the idea he could write when he was about 10. “I was always an insomniac and watched movies for years before I saw a Broadway play. I also went to the movies with my parents. One day I saw Jack Lemmon in a crappy movie, ‘Good Neighbor Sam,’ and I said to myself, ‘Writing’s not so hard’ and began.” His parents, Al, a plumber, and Jane, a homemaker, encouraged him.
While composing, Graham says he frequently acts out a script as he writes. “My wife and daughter got used to hearing me and realized I wasn’t just talking to myself down here. Sometimes they listen, and then I have critics in the house. I like to act the parts. Not only am I writing dialogue, but I get a sense of how easy a line is to say and how well it follows the line before it.”
In recent years Graham has appeared on local stages as an actor. He played the lead role during half the original run of “Any Given Monday” and did three Neil Simon plays at Bristol Riverside — “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” “Lost in Yonkers,” and the recently closed “Rumors.”
“Remember I started as an actor,” Graham says. “I performed in the one-acts I wrote. At one point acting interested me more than writing. I grew up in Delaware County (on the southern border of Philadelphia), and one of my father’s plumbing customers was Hedgerow Theater. I found a place there. I saw every play done there in the ’70s, and I studied there while my father tended to their water needs.
Although he is a former teacher — like his only sibling, Bonnie — and a college instructor, Graham’s references are mainly about writing for a live audience. “I enjoy all phases of the theater. I can write for the stage, movies, or television, but I am so keyed to character and dialogue, I cannot be a novelist. I think in scenes, about what people want and about what people say.
“Words are my medium. And characters. I wrote two novels, but they taught me how much I need to write for the theater. One reason is I can tell a story. But I can’t describe a room. I’m in this office a lot, and I could not put it into words. I’m a visual idiot. My wife’s a designer. She can see a kitchen before it exists and tell you all about a furniture arrangement. I don’t describe. I have people talk.”
Graham has been married to Stephanie for 35 years. “My wife is a good audience,” he says. “We luckily found the right pursuits for our talents. Stephanie is a great designer, but I can count on one hand how many times a year she’ll be funny.
“Our daughter, Kendall, on the other hand, is very funny. She’s 25 now and a psychology major at Drexel. She and I can crack each other up while Stephanie appreciates our humor without feeling a need to join in.”
Kendall lives in the same neighborhood as her parents, and Graham says he considers it lucky that while he is produced all over and has regular business in New York and Los Angeles, he can live in Philadelphia and make a living in the theater.
Philadelphia is his home, but his refuge is a bayside home he and Stephanie have in Elkton, Maryland “It’s more than a getaway,” Graham says. “It’s where I can relax while getting work done.” Graham says he does all of his writing in his office or in a place he can be alone and private, composing aloud notwithstanding. “I don’t understand writers who work in public at a coffee shop or book store. I can’t do that,” he says.
White Guy on the Bus, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton, Thursday, May 5 through Sunday, May 22, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. $30 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.