It’s not unusual for actors to become playwrights – Sam Shepard, Noel Coward, even Chekhov all began their theatre careers on stage, but playwrights hardly ever become actors.
“I made my acting debut and farewell on Broadway, as everyone should,” said playwright Jay Reiss, who recently immigrated to Los Angeles.
Reiss – whose play That May Well Be True will open at Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica on February 10 – found himself on the Great White Way through a series of serendipitous events.
It started as a lark. At the urging of his fiancée, director Rebecca Feldman, Reiss agreed to help create and act in a quirky, improv-heavy show called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E about a Spelling Bee competition. The play ran three weeks at Theatorium in downtown New York in 2004. And that should have been that.
But playwright Wendy Wasserstein came to the show, loved it and hooked the company up with composer/lyricist Bill Finn of Falsettos fame. After seeing a videotape of the show, Finn said he wanted to write songs for it.
Reiss and several of his co-creators went off to Barrington Stage in the Berkshires to work with Finn on what was to become The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When the show did well at Barrington, director James Lapine helmed an off-Broadway production before the show moved to Circle in the Square last April.
Riess starred in the Broadway production for six months as Douglas Panch, the character he created for the original play. He also performed at the Tony Awards last spring.
It was the kind of success that countless actors dream about, but Reiss didn’t want to be an actor, had no prior on-stage experience, and majored in cinema, not theatre at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
A graduate of the Juilliard School’s playwriting program, he has written several plays, including The Tulip Craze (Manhattan Theatre Club), Meanwhile, on the Other Side of Mount Vesuvius (Adobe Theatre in New York), and The Romantics, as well as That May Well Be True, which was commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club. He also recently sold a screenplay to Warner Brothers.
Reiss could have stayed on in Spelling Bee, but he bid farewell to fellow cast members last October and moved to L.A. to focus on screenplays.
“Acting was good fun, but it was never the most fulfilling thing,” he says. “But for a playwright, it was an invaluable experience. I told the people at Juilliard that the final part of the playwriting program should be acting in a Broadway musical.”