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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Green Bay Community Theater hosting playwright

Jay Huling fills us in about his comedy, “Hard Luck Sings the Blues.”

PHOTO: Jay Huling lives in Jacksonville, Fla., where he writes ad copy and plays.

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – William Shakespeare wrote plays. He’s dead. Jay Huling writes plays. He’s alive. Huling is so alive that he is coming from Florida to see a play he wrote, “Hard Luck Sings the Blues,” being put on by Green Bay Community Theater.

Performances run Nov. 14 to 24. Info: www.gbcommunitytheater.com. Huling will be on hand Nov. 20 and 21 an hour before performances and at intermission.

In a telephone interview, Huling said he likes to catch performance of his plays when possible. He’s an interesting person, and you’ll learn more as you read on, but let’s first dig into this play through a question to him:

What precipitated “Hard Luck Sings the Blues”?

“I really liked the idea somehow of putting myself in the play, and I don’t mean that as one of the characters. ‘Hard Luck Sings the Blues’ is really a self-conscious play. What I mean by that is the main character, Heinz, is self-aware that he’s a character in a play and he’s self-aware that he’s been created by a playwright and all these bad things that are happening to him are the result of the playwright’s hand. I kind of like the idea that I – me personally – am there in spirit when the production is done, even when I’m not there. Like if I didn’t come to Green Bay I would still be there because the play’s all about the playwright.”

That’s pretty cosmic.

“Yeah, and it’s kind of like our everyday struggles that a lot of us have where we wonder Why me? Why am I here? Why is this happening to me? Why didn’t I get what I want? That’s what the character goes through. Of course, he goes through a lot of extreme comedy things to try to achieve what he wants – and almost fight the playwright. But I like the idea. Originally it was just the idea, How could I make a playwright a character without the playwright ever being seen? So the characters talk about the theater, they talk about the audience, they know there’s a backstage. There’s a lot of self-conscious references in the play about the play itself, which I think is very interesting, but it’s all metaphor for how we kind of live our lives.”

Directing the Green Bay Community Theater production is Lee Kerwin. The cast consists of Ian Wisneski, Heinz (Hard Luck Heinz); Jason Mencheski, his Muse; Azure Hall, Linda, a waitress; Ron Lhotte, Dr. Marvin, a direct-mail minister; Ann Retzlaff, Penelope; Stephanie Mencheski, Stage Hand; Gary Wisneski, Stage Hand; Paul Theys, Stage Hand.

In the story, Heinz is infatuated by a waitress but goes mute when he talks with her. Heinz has never dated. His Muse “helps” him. Expect disasters. Huling writes comedies.

When Huling comes to see “Hard Luck Sings the Blues,” it will be his first time in Wisconsin. When we spoke, he was concerned about the weather and appropriate clothing for it. He had hoped to stay into the weekend but couldn’t get a room. The Green Bay Packers are playing in town. Ah, the struggles of a playwright. Mostly, Huling is coming for enjoyment – an end point of writing.

“There’s something about the creative, almost God-like, power that you have over these characters that you’re writing. Which is what the character in ‘Hard Luck Sings the Blues’ is actually experiencing. It’s such a self-conscious play. Almost the process of playwriting is revealed in the play.

“There’s a line early on in the play where the guy is talking to the audience and he shows them their stage, and there’s no set, because the set is actually built as the play goes on. People bring in props – chairs and things – as needed. At some point, before the audience’s eyes, the play is built. But at first there is no set, and he says, to the audience the playwright wanted this to be easy to produce – which is true. I mean, you don’t want an elaborate set with all these different pieces that someone can’t produce.

“I think you write because there’s this sense of control. But there’s also the sense of, for me, wanting to entertain people. And the good feeling.

“That’s another reason why you (the playwright) go to these things, because they can’t really come to life until somebody produces them. Somebody can read them and say, ‘Wow, you did a great job on this play, I really love your writing,’ but it doesn’t really come to life until someone acts it and produces it and does everything that needs to be done. And it feels really good to be there and hear an audience laugh and hear their applause and be a part of it. I think it’s just like the way an actor acts. At some point, that applause is addictive.

“And it’s a good play, and I know they’re going to love it. You have confidence in it and you kind of go there thinking, ‘I’m really happy that these people are going to be happy when see this play.’ I think that’s why you ultimately do it.”

Huling wears many hats. He’s written a bunch of comedy plays that include “Elvis of Nazareth,” “The Church of Diminishing Marginal Returns,” “The Sing Sing Suite” and “Twelve Bar Blues.” But the butter on his bread comes from other writing.

“I write a lot of television commercials and radio commercials for clients. Play writing is a big part of what I do, but I basically make my living as a writer, and a lot of that requires marketing. But usually my writing is something theatrical, whether it’s radio or television or direct mail.”

As a marketing person, Huling tries to pitch to theater troupes rather than having them find him.

“Quite honestly, when stopped learning to think like a playwright and starting to learning to think like a marketer is when I was getting more successful.”

He pitched Green Bay Community Theater.

“I wrote them a letter and asked them if they wanted to read the play, and they wrote back and said, yeah, they’d love to. And I sent it to them. And it didn’t take very long. I was very surprised. It usually takes a long time. A lot of times people call me, they go, ‘We’d love to consider this for our 2015 season,’ or something like that. You’re going, ‘Great,’ it just seems so far away.” Green Bay Community Theater contacted me earlier this year.”

Why die he pitch “Hard Luck Sings the Blues” to Green Bay?

“I try to find the places that I think might do it, that have done similar type things. You’ve got to find somebody that is willing to do a play that their audience might not know. I mean, it’s a no brainer to do a Neil Simon play if you want to put on ‘The Odd Couple.’ Anybody can put that on in their season and draw an audience because there’s a name and there’s a famous. Even though you’ve never seen it, you’ve heard of it, heard of the playwright. A guy like me, they might not know who I am or ‘Hard Luck Sings the Blues,’ which has been done before, but it’s not a well-known, famous play. So you’ve got to find places where the audience and the market are receptive to new works and are interested and are turned on by something that they haven’t seen before. And it seemed that Green Bay was that way. I mean, they do some stuff that people have seen before, and they do some stuff that you never heard of. So I thought it was a good match, and they thought so, too, and I’m just thrilled that they’re doing it.”

Huling pitches professional companies as well.

“There are resources out there. There’s the Internet, of course, which makes it a little easier. But the Dramatists Guild, which I’m a member of, has resources, and there are other resources out there where you can research what people are looking for and how they want it. Everybody wants you to approach them differently. Some people just want you to send them the script. Some people just want you to send them a letter telling you about the script and then they’ll ask for it if they want to read it. Some people don’t want you to approach them at all. (Chuckles). And there are so many out there, and there are only so many hours in the day and so many dollars in my wallet to actually spend the money to try to approach these people, so you just pick and choose.”
Huling is talking two different things here. He’s talking marketing and then being a playwright.

“That’s what I mean. In all honesty, if somebody asked me about what advice I would give the young playwrights, I would say you need to learn how to market. I think playwrights actually spend too much time trying to be better playwrights. They’re perpetually learning, which is good. But they’re perpetually trying to read the ‘How to Write a Play’ book or working on endless revisions of the same play, and they never get it out there. They need to learn to how to actually market your play, especially if you don’t have somebody else doing it for you. And even if you do, you’ve got to learn it.”

Huling calls himself “The Consulting Direct Response Copywriter” on his website, www.jayhuling.com. Whatever your image of a playwright is, that probably wasn’t part of the picture. And what is that picture? It reminds me of the time I was walking out of a performance at the professional Peninsula Players Theatre in Door County, and the people directly behind me were talking about the play and wondering what the reviewer would say. The guy behind me said, “I didn’t see anybody here who looks like a reviewer.”

When Huling comes to see “Hard Luck Sings the Blues,” his presence will be known. What does he hope to learn from the visit?

“It’s different every time you go see a play, and that’s what’s great about live theater. The actors are different, the directors are different, the audiences are different. And not only they’re different doing the productions, they’re different every night. That’s what’s really cool when you get to see a couple of performances in a row. You almost see a different play every night. The audience doesn’t know that, though. They only see what they see. So it’s fascinating to see what they react to and what they’ll laugh at and what they’ll hold their breath at and all that kind of stuff. I just enjoy being there with the actors and the really talented people who kind of bring it to life.”

Is he asked for suggestions by companies?

“I’m just there to watch. I learned a long time ago to stay out of the way. These people are much more talented than I am, really. I do my job writing the words. But when you write, you’re just kind of putting words on paper and you really place it in the hands of people you hope you can trust who are going to bring their talent to it, and that’s everybody involved – actors, directors, lighting people, tech people. And you just kind of hope that you have a good experience and that what you see comes to life in a way that everybody’s happy with because no one can ever get inside your head and you can’t expect them to. So you can’t really sit there and say, ‘That’s not how I envisioned it,’ because they’ll never know how you envisioned it. All you’ve got is words on paper and you just hope that they take their talents and lift it to another level. Almost always that’s what happens, especially if you just stay out of it. To fiddle with it, you mess everything up.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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