Lawrence Feeney on The A Train Plays, one of the oddest theatrical projects ever devised.
"The first time we did this, in May, we had six writers, six directors, and 16 actors involved," says Feeney. "Now we have 12 writers, 12 directors, and 30 actors. It starts when all of the writers get on the train at 207th Street and Broadway -- that's the last stop on the A. I have a bag with numbers in it: two, three, or four. They each pick a number and that's how many characters are in their play. In another bag, I have the headshots of every actor who's participating. So, if they pull out the number three, they then pull out three headshots and those are the actors they'll use. Then the writers take the train to Far Rockaway, which is the last stop in the opposite direction, writing their plays on the way down. At Far Rock, we meet up with the directors, and the writers pull numbers out of a bag to see which director they'll get."
Next, these intrepid folks take the train back to 59th Street/Columbus Circle and meet the actors. "They're waiting for us right by the subway turnstiles at 58th and Eighth," says Feeney. "Then we go to Kinko's and copy the scripts. Then we head over to the Neighborhood Playhouse and read three pages of each play so we can set the order for the performance. Nobody's required to be back until 4:00 in the afternoon on the next day, and the show is at 8pm that night. This year, we'll be doing 12 brand new plays over two performances on September 13 and 14 -- six each night." Rather amazingly, the plays to be seen in the second performance will be written by a second set of writers while the first set is being performed.
This fascinating venture, appropriately titled The A Train Plays, was initiated by the dynamic Feeney and is produced by him through the workshop at The Neighborhood Playhouse. But how did Feeney come up with such a wild scheme in the first place? "I was on the train at five o'clock in the morning, and I was actually sober, which was the first time that's ever happened to me," he recalls. "I was going out to Silver Cup studios, where I was standing in and photo-doubling for Joe Pantoliano on The Sopranos. I saw all of these neat characters on the train and I thought, 'Man, I wish I had a pen!' Later, I told my buddies about it and said, 'I wish I had had a couple of writers there with me.' They started laughing, but then we all thought, 'Hey -- why don't we do it?'"
Feeney's moment of inspiration actually occurred on the W train, but he chose the A as the venue for his project because, he says, "It sounded better. And Michael Pemberton [a noted composer-lyricist and a friend of Feeney's] has a song called 'The A Train.' We use that as our theme song."
The highly concentrated, very public nature of this unique creative process has yielded dividends. "I think the actors have a sense of heightened reality because of the format of the show," says Feeney. "There's no closing the curtain or bringing the lights down between the plays; it's straight through. We take six short one-acts -- six vignettes -- and turn them into one full-length play. The writers come up with whatever they can, using the environment of the train. When they're on the train, writing, I separate them into six separate cars so they can observe six separate groups of passengers; my function is to go back and forth between cars to make sure everybody is okay."