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Writing for the stage

Published June 17, 2008 2:43 am

Cancer survivor's play among locally-rooted works embraced by Utah theaters
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In 2003, Jeff Metcalf dealt with the diagnosis of prostate cancer the only way he knew how: He didn't talk about it. Not to his grown daughter, who was heading off for an Italian adventure. Not to his best tennis buddies. Not to his wife of 20-some years, Alana, a decision he now describes as "the greatest moment of stupidity in my married life."

"I didn't tell anybody, and I'm a person who feels comfortable talking," says Metcalf, 58. It won't be the affable yarn-spinner's only understatement in a wide-ranging phone interview.



Instead, the University of Utah assistant professor spent the summer after his diagnosis teaching in France and directing plays in Croatia. Along the way, he practiced what he had taught for years in his English classes: He began capturing his emotions about his relationship with cancer in a journal.

Later, after he revealed the cancer to his wife and family, after aggressive medical treatments, including operations and radiation and injections of female hormones, after all that, he began writing a short piece of nonfiction. "Sort of a comedy about cancer" is how he thought of the work, which he later honed through readings and stand-up comedy stints.

Now it's as if the writer can't quit talking about his medical journey through cancer world.

Producers at Salt Lake Acting Company heard an early reading, then commissioned Metcalf to shape his experiences into a play. They were interested in how the work illuminated a kind of male reticence in expressing psychic and physical pain. "Of course it didn't hurt that he's just a very funny guy, which opened the topic to be more accessible to people," says literary manager David Mong.

Metcalf's "A Slight Discomfort: My Prostate Diaries" will premiere at the theater company in October, with Utah-based actor Paul Kiernan taking on the one-man role. "Normally, a lot of guys are dragged to plays," says Craig Wirth, a U. teaching colleague of Metcalf's who filmed an early version of the play. "This is one where you go: 'Wait a minute. I'm listening.' "

Metcalf's work is just one development in a larger trend of theaters commissioning locally rooted stories from Utah writers. Pioneer Theatre Company, the state's oldest professional theater, plans to hire a literary manager to work with artistic director Charles Morey to build its own development series. The company's finances are in shape for a programming expansion, thanks to the box-office popularity of 2007's long-running production of "Les Misérables."

Another significant marker of the trend is Plan-B Theatre Company's plan to devote an entire season premiering plays by playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett, a Taylorsville High and Southern Utah University graduate.

In October, the company will produce a radio drama based on Bennett's adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, followed by the February run of "Block 8," a new play about the Topaz internment camp. Then in April comes "Di Esperienza," an examination of the creative successes and failures of Leonardo da Vinci, a project sparked through a partnership with the city's fledgling science museum.

That lineup demonstrates Plan-B's artistic investment in Bennett, the company's playwright-in-residence for three years. Even more significant is the box-office gamble of basing an entire season on the work of one emerging young writer, since it's considered more difficult to sell tickets for new plays with no name-brand track record.

Jerry Rapier, producing director, credited Plan-B's annual 24-hour play short-play festival, Slam - now in its fifth year - as the catalyst for helping the company learn how to develop new work. The company's relationship with Bennett began when he was hired to write a play for the festival overnight. He later developed several of his Slam shorts into longer plays, which received staged readings from the company.

What's also unusual is that Bennett's "Block 8" is already scheduled for a production before the play is even finished. That's an anomaly in an industry recently criticized by writers for the practice of workshopping new plays, rather than gambling on productions.

The next draft of the play is due in June. "I feel very flattered that they're willing to produce a play I haven't written, and that they have that kind of confidence in me," says the playwright, who moonlights by day as the assistant business/concessions manager at Pioneer Theatre Company.

At 30, Bennett has written some 20 one-act and 11 full-length plays in the past decade. Though several scripts are under consideration at Philadelphia and Chicago theater companies, none of Bennett's full-length plays have yet received a full-scale production.

"I think Matt is unique in that he has a voice so early," Rapier says. "I love his point of view. I love his energy."

-- ELLEN FAGG can be contacted at ellenf@sltrib.com or 801-257-8621. Send comments to livingeditor@sltrib.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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