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"From Stage to Screen"
by Chris Mentz
New York Independent Film Monitor

 
 
 
Chris Mentz talks to Robert Weston Ackerman in our continuing series on New York theatre company’s invasion of the film industry.
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 like it....”  

     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 much.”  
 

     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 central characters.  

     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.