When Michael Slade was a little boy, he and his grandmother would sit in New York’s Central Park and make up stories about passers-by.
“We would imagine their lives,” Slade said. “It’s a wonderful game to play with kids, and it fosters the power of observation and imagination.”
Dayton will get the chance to experience Slade’s vivid imagination first-hand when three of his scripts will be produced locally: two at The Human Race Theatre Company and one at the Zoot Theatre Company.
“I couldn’t be happier; it’s a wonderful life,” said the New York playwright, who’s been in town “tinkering” with the script and working with the cast and director for the world premiere of “Under A Red Moon.” The three-character show opens as a Loft Season Extra on Thursday, Oct. 18 and will run through Oct. 27.
‘Under A Red Moon’
The production is being co-produced by the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center. After the show closes in Dayton, actors and scenery will pack up and head for Covington, Ky. for a three-weekend run.
You’d never guess from chatting with the genial Slade that he’s written a chilling psychological thriller inspired by the true events of Britain’s notorious 1949 “Acid Bath Murderer.” It’s the story of confessed serial killer John George Haigh and takes place while he is in prison awaiting trial and Dr. Ruth Covington arrives to determine his mental state for the court.
Slade’s decision to write the play came about it a most unusual way. While having lunch with a wealthy theater producer, he was told that she and a friend nearly became Haigh’s victims when they met him on a European tour in the 1940s. They’d come close to taking a day-trip with him and a few weeks later learned from newspaper reports that he routinely befriended rich victims, lured them to the country, killed them and disposed of the bodies in vats of acid.
Haigh’s “confession” and his insanity plea intrigued Slade. “Can any serial killer be considered truly sane? And how does one prove oneself insane?” he wondered.
Slade is excited about seeing his play on stage for the first time.
“A play is meant to be fully performed and seen by an audience,” he said. “A play — unlike a novel — isn’t complete without that audience.”
Slade, who was given final approval on the choice of director for the show, says it’s important to choose a director who really likes and “gets” the play.
“You almost have to ask yourself if this is someone you want to be dating because you are creating a child together in a sense,” he explained. “It’s about trust and communication. Margaret Perry and I look at the world in similar ways and have a similar sense of humor.”
Playing the role of serial killer John George Haigh is Bradford Cover, a newcomer to the Human Race stage. Others in the cast include Daniel C. Britt and Dee Pelletier.
Slade, who has written dozens of dramas, comedies and musicals, says children and children’s issues are recurrent themes in his work, whether they are created for young adults, families or adults.
“I often think of myself as an advocate for children, as I believe that we as a society — lip service to the contrary — tend to devalue them,” he said. ” Just look at how quickly we cut funding for school and after-school programs, not to mention the number of children we allow to live in poverty, and to be physically, emotionally and verbally abused.”
Slade will return to Dayton for a staged reading of the “Gingerbread Children,” a drama that weaves together four stories to explore child abuse and the ways in which our society — through denial, folk tale and religion — tacitly condones it.
That show, which will have two public performances March 9-10 in The Loft Theatre, was inspired by the children he sees as a volunteer in the New York City foster care system, where he spends time with those who’ve been removed from their families and are awaiting placement in foster homes.
‘And A Child Shall Lead’
Although his play “And a Child Shall Lead” has been produced for the past six years — both in America and abroad — the folks at the Zoot Theatre Company will create the first-ever puppet production of the play. It’s slated for April 5-15 at the Dayton Art Institute.
Inspired by the writings and drawings of children who where prisoners at Terezin concentration camp, the play tells the story of how the children fought back in the only way they could: by documenting their lives, their thoughts and their dreams. “They risked their lives to document their existence,” he said.
“The play uses the specificity of their experience to make a universal statement about children in war and the ways in which they have, and continue to, become the victims of adult political policies,” Slade said.
In some ways, all three of this year’s Dayton plays center around the theme of evil.
“All three could also be said to deal with what we do to children… blatantly in ‘Gingerbread Children’ and ‘And a Child Shall Lead,’ and more subtly in ‘Under a Red Moon,’ he says. “It could be argued that John Haigh’s childhood and upbringing set him on a course that led to his becoming a serial killer.”
Building a partnership
Slade says this is the first time in his career that a city has decided to stage so many of his plays in one theatrical season. He credits his relationship with The Human Race and its producing artistic director Kevin Moore. The two met when Slade first came to Dayton with the musical theater production of “The Black Crook Project” in 2008.
“I remember the talk-back session, and it was fabulous,” he said, adding that he is not usually a big fan of audience talk-backs because the are often more about “a whole lot of egos.”
“Here it was an exciting conversation; the audience members were astute and incredibly helpful,” said Slade, who will interact with audiences following the matinee performance on Sunday, Oct. 21.
Moore said when his theater determined to begin establishing ongoing relationships with writers and provide them with a theatrical home, Slade immediately came to mind. Last year, in conjunction with the production of “Caroline or Change,” Slade was commissioned to write a script for an in-school tour titled “Change.”
Slade insists art should be a springboard for conversation at any age.
“If after seeing one of my plays, people leave, have dinner and talk about the elections, I feel like I failed,” he said. “I like to push the envelope. I hope they’re entertained, but I also hope that something in my plays makes a little change in how they look at the world.”
For more information on the playwright, see MichaelSladeWriter.com