|Robert Weston Ackerman,
author of both the screenplay for the new Nickoll Arcade
Films production, ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, as well as
the play from which it was adapted, is at work on an
Oil of Olay commercial, wearing his daytime hat of Property
Master. I am taking advantage of his lunch break
both to speak to him about the two Origins and to cadge
a free lunch. As I extol the virtuous combination
of fresh whipped cream and fruit, Rob suddenly breaks
into my monologue. “What do you think of the title:
Origin? They want me to change it. But I
He should like the title.
It perfectly fits the work, which evolved from an
emotional response, to an idea, to a script, a staged
reading, a produced play, an optioned screenplay,
and now a finished film. “This has not been
an even progression either. The project has
really verified the punctuated equilibrium theory
of evolution,” where there are long periods of dormancy
in the development of an organism, broken up by specific
and radical moves forward.
Ackerman says that the germination
of Origin came as a result of the suicide of a friend
in November of 1991. “I came to NYC 14 years
ago, after spending four years in Chicago directing
every genre of play possible, from Euripides’ Racchae
to Lanford Wilson’s Home Free. But I had no
idea of myself as a playwright, or even wanting to
be one.” Then he received the news of a friend’s
death at her own hands. “I had a strong reaction
to this, and it crystallized some thoughts for me.
I wanted to do a project, about the truth of a specific
lifespace: the time in peoples’ lives when they are
in their late 20’s, which is the time in our society
when we are forcibly separated from the cult of protracted
adolescence at which our culture worships. There
comes an age when we are pushed and dragged into adulthood,
and you either survive it or it kills you.”
Out of this experience was
born the script for Origin. “It had a nine month
gestation period -- the same as a human being.”
Ackerman says that he felt successful, that he had
captured the truth about the loss of innocence that
he wanted to communicate.
When he found out that he shared
a dentist with one of his dramatic idols, A.R. Gurney,
Ackerman left a script with the dentist. “Gurney
wrote me a two page letter which opened with the statement
that he wasn’t particularly pleased to get a script
from his dentist, but that he liked the play very
| When Alchemy Courthouse
Theatre presented a staged reading on December 15, 1992 at the Harold Clurman
Theatre, in the Theatre Row section of West 42nd Street, Gurney was there.
Gurney’s attendance was mentioned along with a favorable review of the
play in a fax newsletter on hot theatrical properties, and Ackerman’s phone
started ringing. But after that the mechanics of the evolution of
Origin became punctuated and the project stalled.
“Then one day I was walking in Riverside
Park and there was this beautiful woman whose parrot was stuck in a tree.”
The woman at first refused Rob’s offer to help, but the presence of his
two small children convinced her that he was, at least, not a dangerous
weirdo, and the episode ended with both the rescued parrot and Rob’s script
in the hands of the woman, an actor who reminded him of one of the play’s
A few days later, the woman called
and said that she and her friends loved the work, and wanted to do a full-scale
production. This led to the play being staged at the Village’s Hamlet
of Bank Street Theatre in December ‘96, a showcase attended by several
producers, and the play was optioned by David Nickoll.
Ackerman said that this too paralleled
the path of evolution of an organism, which doesn’t get to choose the forces
which shape its development. “They could have fired me at any point
and kept the right to make the film with a different author of the screenplay.
Instead, Ackerman stayed a part of the project right to the end.
He said that he achieved this by knowing when to let go and surrender control
into the hands of Nickoll and the film’s director, Andrés Heinz.
“It was the right thing to do,
because although I learned a lot about the language of film working on
the project, it was not my area of expertise and it was my admitting this
which allowed Origin to follow its correct path of evolution.” Seeing
how things turned out, Rob feels that it belonged as a film. “I’m
just glad that the process took long enough that I was 38 instead of 28,
at which point I wouldn’t have had the wisdom necessary to let go.”
Rob says that although he still
thinks of himself as a playwright, he would like to see his other plays
made into films as well. He has since had three plays reach the staged
reading level at Playwright’s Horizons and Manhattan Theater Club.
How these organisms will evolve remains to be seen.