Local playwright plans to stage his hangman musical ‘Rope’ in 2016 at San Diego’s Tenth Avenue Arts Center
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For La Jolla playwright Mark Sickman, seeing a production go from page to stage means paying close attention to what theater companies are looking for at any given moment.
“It’s a difficult situation for the local playwright,” said the retired Chicago and San Diego advertising professional, who also runs a website for people who pen sports-themed poetry, baseballbard.com.
“People like me are writing and scrambling to make contacts and to get our work through the door of the theaters. The theaters, on the other hand, are overwhelmed with submissions. You have to go where you think your work is going to be accepted.”
Although Sickman has submitted to local companies, and has at times had his work accepted, he casts a wide, thoughtful net.
“There are theaters all over the country looking for work,” he said. “I subscribe to a number of industry publications and newsletters, and there are websites where they have listings of theaters that are looking for (specific types of) submissions.”
That sense of focused diligence has paid off for Sickman, who has had his plays and musicals produced from Los Angeles to Lewisburg, West Virginia and, most recently, at Robert Moss Theater in New York City’s East Village, where his musical “Rope” entered the finals of the Venus Theater Festival, garnering four awards.
Sickman received word last November that “Rope” had been accepted into the festival while he was doing a staged reading (without sets or full costumes) of “Rope” at San Diego’s Tenth Avenue Arts Center, where he also plans to do a full production of the musical in March 2016.
“Having done the reading here first made it a little bit easier to do the production in New York,” he said. “It was very fortuitous.”
Like several of Sickman’s other works, including “Kiss Them and Wish Them Goodbye” (staged at Coronado Playhouse), “Rope” is based on historical events. His musical “Greenbrier” was set in a luxury resort near the Allegheny Mountains during World War II, where 1,000 Axis personnel and their families were detained for nearly six months. It received standing ovations and sold out the theatre several nights when performed in Lewisburg.
Written last year, “Rope” is based loosely on the story of George Maledon, a hangman who oversaw the executions of more than 60 convicted criminals, landing him the moniker “The Prince of Hangmen.”
“He really was very good at his job,” Sickman said. “He had a catchphrase, ‘justice with dignity.’ What that meant to him was that the prisoner had to be made as comfortable as possible, to be put completely at ease — no sudden movements, nothing frightening. These events typically would draw a large crowd, so he maintained absolute silence from the crowd, spoke in a very practiced and soft voice, and even wore shoes that wouldn’t make noise as he moved across the platform to do his work. He actually conceived of the prisoner as a partner in the event.”
Although the real George Maledon worked in the federal court of Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Sickman’s character, William Maledon, plies his trade throughout the southwestern United States. The setting is 1895 in Summit City, Arizona, where Maledon is set to hang his last man, a convicted murderer.
While William Maledon eschews the typical spectacle of public executions, his wife, Mildred, revels in the spotlight she has created for herself as the “hangman’s wife,” and is vehemently opposed to her husband’s impending retirement.
“Mildred Maledon is my creation,” Sickman clarifies. “She is an early master at using the media to create an image and an impression. When she travels with Maledon, the first thing she does when she goes into town is call on the newspaper. She makes a concerted effort to create this myth. Then, after the event is over, she’ll follow up very carefully to make sure that Maledon himself is described in the most flattering terms.”
The “Rope” score is Broadway, with hints of folk, gospel and country, including two songs sung by Mildred that aptly describe her dark aspirations.
In one song she boasts, “I’m as pleased as can be, with this life of mine/ladies whisper and compare, but I’m the hangman’s wife — so there!”
“She’s much more of a celebrity than any of (the other ladies) will ever hope to be, so this sort of idea is conveyed in her first song,” Sickman said, stressing, “In a musical it’s very important that the songs move the story along. They either describe a new event or fill in some background that you need to know to move forward.”
Sickman, who said he typically pays costs upfront and is reimbursed via ticket sales, is in negotiations with Debra Whitfield and Dennis Holland, the director and lead actor from the New York production of “Rope,” whom he hopes to bring to San Diego for next year’s production.
His other works include “Taxi to Jannah” (Arabic for paradise), a play he describes as “the adventures of a Muslim taxi driver in the United States, all the people he runs into and the discrimination he faces,” which was produced Off-Broadway after Sickman submitted it to a contest and, later, at Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
“Space Number Nine,” his dramedy about a divorced couple who wind up vacationing at the same RV park and contemplate a romantic reconciliation, is making the rounds of RV parks in Arizona and California.
“RV parks can be quite luxurious,” Sickman said. “Some of them will have a ballroom and a stage equivalent to anything you’d find in a Hilton. It’s been performed in Lake Havasu, Casa Grande and Mesa, Arizona. We get good crowds for this thing.”