Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the

May 9, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Tales of the Victor Talking Machine Co.

It is a truism that theater is the most collaborative

of the arts. For proof one need look no further than Passage Theater’s

upcoming production of Thomas Dunn’s new play, "Victor and the

Virgin."

Getting a new play in shape for its first production is often a dicey

affair. Dialogue that seems to soar off the page when read quietly

in the playwright’s workroom often falls as flat as a dead dodo when

coming out of an actor’s mouth. But director Russell Kaplan believes

that this is all just part of the playmaking process.

"Without a doubt there has been rewriting going on throughout

the rehearsal process," explains Kaplan. "At this morning’s

rehearsal, the actors and I sat around and talked about the scene

we were working on and we all came to an agreement that we wanted

to do a rewrite here and some switching around of dialogue. So I let

the actors take a break while I worked with the playwright. He’s

rewriting

it now, and hopefully, when we all get together after lunch, we’ll

have a new scene to work on."

Strictly speaking, "Victor and the Virgin" isn’t a new play.

It had a production at a small theater in Florida a number of years

ago. But now, with a revamped script that has been shaped and guided

by strong input from Kaplan, dramaturgs, and the cast, it is new and

improved, and ready to hit the stage for a run by Passage Theater

at Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton. Previews begin Wednesday, May 9,

and opening night is Friday, May 11, for the show that runs through

Sunday, May 27.

Playwright Dunn, who also directs, writes short stories and

nonfiction,

lives in New Hampshire and teaches at Hampshire College. He is

artistic

director of the Alchemists’ Workshop and has had his work produced

in New York, California, and Florida.

"Victor and the Virgin" is a two-person drama set in the back

room of a New Orleans honky-tonk in 1925 during the early days of

jazz. Tom Flynn (played by Brennan Brown), a recording engineer for

the Victor Talking Machine Company, has been sent on a long distance

field trip from New York City to New Orleans to search for vibrant

and talented musical artists to record on the Victor label. Among

the recording hopefuls is a sassy young girl with a big voice named

Connee Perente (Lori Prince) who has honed her vocal skills singing

in the whorehouses of the city’s lively red-light district. Of course,

she is quick to point out that she has managed to preserve her

virginity,

earning her keep strictly as a vocal entertainer.

Flynn is impressed with her vocal skills, but a problem arises when

he learns that Connee’s band includes black and Creole musicians.

In 1925 it was considered inappropriate to record a band of mixed

race and, "for marketing reasons," Flynn has been instructed

to record only white musicians. But Flynn knows in his heart that

if he were to succumb to these guidelines he would be missing out

on recording some of the greatest musical talent to be found in New

Orleans.

While the basic story of "Victor and the Virgin" is

characterized

as historical fiction, it is the fiction that dominates.

"This is fiction with a capital F," says Kaplan. "There

are definite references to real people and real events. And the field

trip that was taken to New Orleans really did happen in 1925. But

we sort of blurred some of the historical truth to support the story

of our play. The issues in the play were really dealt with over a

20-year span, so we had to condense things down to make them more

immediate and bring them to a head at the point in which the play

is set."

Fictionalizing history in order to more clearly bring out the human

element is something that theater has been doing for centuries, and

Kaplan believes it is especially valid in this case.

"So much has been written about the history of jazz," he

continues.

"Look at the recent Ken Burns documentary series. A lot of what

was said in that film had such a mythic quality to it. Not much is

really known about the early pioneers of jazz. It’s mostly just

sketchy

references that we have from people who had been there. One of the

things that really attracted me to `Victor and the Virgin’ was the

opportunity to fill in some of the gaps. We’re painting in pieces

of the story that may have or may not have happened, but still

answering

fundamental questions about how we got from there to here."

Although "Victor and the Virgin" is not a musical as such,

music — especially jazz — is a huge part of the play.

"Music

is sort of the third character," says Kaplan. "It might not

be in the room necessarily, but it is hovering right beyond the walls.

Music is the energy that is going to knock down those walls."

Kaplan was born in 1967 and grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. He

graduated

from Emory University in Atlanta and headed straight to New York City

where he began directing plays at Playwright’s Horizons on the

Off-Broadway

stage. Since then, he has worked on classical and modern plays at

regional theaters all across the country; he served as assistant

director

for the Broadway production of "The Secret Garden." His

parents

both currently work for the New Jersey Board of Education in Trenton.

The play is set during a period of great technological and economic

change that swept over America after World War I. Eldridge Johnson,

president of the Victor Talking Machine Company, won a court battle

with Seaman/Columbia group over gramophone technology and soon brought

out the "Victrola," a high-quality record player.

Victor also manufactured and sold records, so as

phonograph

sales exploded in America between 1914 and 1921, the company

prospered.

But when Victor lost its patent suit, the number of phonograph

manufacturers

and record labels also skyrocketed. Then the Victor Talking Machine

Company, symbolized by Nipper, the lovable Jack Russell terrier

listening

attentively to "His Master’s Voice," began to lose its hold

on the market. With the rising popularity of radio, Victor’s fortunes

declined even further. In 1925 phonograph sales collapsed and Victor

was forced to lay off 8,000 workers.

David Sarnoff, then general manager of the Radio Corporation of

America

(RCA), was the visionary who saw radio and the music industries as

natural allies. Between 1923 and 1925, Sarnoff had tried to persuade

Victor to license GE/RCA’s electronic sound recording and reproduction

process, to no avail. Finally, in the spring of 1925, Victor’s

managers

bargained with Sarnoff and AT&T representatives, who had a system

of electronic recording and logarithmic acoustic reproduction. Victor

licensed both.

Using this new technology, Victor manufactured the new

"orthophonic"

Victrola. Sales dramatically improved and the company’s stock quickly

doubled. In 1927, Eldridge Johnson sold the Victor Talking Machine

Company to two Wall Street banks for $28 million dollars. In 1930,

RCA purchased Victor for $150 million, and David Sarnoff became

president

of RCA-Victor.

Now today’s Sarnoff Corporation has provided Passage Theater with

support during the current development of "Victor and the

Virgin."

Alexander Magoun, curator of the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton,

who wrote his dissertation on the Victor Recording Company, has

provided

extensive research and dramaturgy assistance. Sarnoff has provided

financial support as well by buying the 120-seat house for employees

and others for the performance of Thursday, May 17, at which Magoun,

will give a before-curtain talk on the history and technology of the

era (www.sarnoff.com).

Kaplan feels that "Victor and the Virgin" is in many ways

the quintessential American play, with a strong unspoken message that

one mustn’t be afraid to take risks.

"As human beings, you can’t be afraid to step off that cliff.

You’ll only fly if you do that. If you’re content to keep your heels

dug into the ground you’ll never get airborne. This is the type of

invention and vision that America has always been famous for. That’s

what both characters do in the play."

Despite the added workload required in developing a new play, Kaplan

feels it is all worth it.

"We are looking at this as a work in progress," says Kaplan.

"The joy of working on a new play is that you have a living

playwright

and you also have actors contributing their energies. It’s an

incredibly

exciting way to work."

— Jack Florek

Victor and the Virgin, Passage Theater Company,

Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton,

609-392-0766. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, May 9 and 10, at 8 p.m.

Opening Friday, May 11, 8 p.m. Through Sunday, May 27.


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