Q&A: Playwright Tony Finstrom

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Tony Finstrom is one of Florida’s most innovative, creative and distinguished playwrights, with scripts produced by countless theatre companies throughout the state. In 2006 he was awarded the Remy Award for his outstanding service to the local theater community, and he also received a Silver Palm Award for his outstanding contribution to the 2008 South Florida Theatre Festival.

His most recent play, “Wave Your Flag!,” premieres Friday as part of his staged reading series at Lynn University. It’s set in World War II and unravels the story of movie stars on a train tour selling war bonds. It includes vintage WWII songs a performance by one of the most distinguished members of Florida’s drama community, Jan McArt.

I had the chance to speak to Finstrom about this unique production, what it’s like working with some of Florida’s most amazing actors, and the crazy process behind the scenes.

What is a staged reading series? 

A true staged reading series is when we have actors up on their feet using bits of costumes and scenery—almost like a full production, expect the actors are carrying their scripts. We spend six days putting it together, rehearsing and giving the playwright a chance to rewrite it. It’s kind of like a workshop. This process gives the playwright a chance to work with the director and the actors on a day-to-day basis. The writer can add new scenes and make changes over that week until they have a fairly polished product [by the night of the reading].

How do you feel putting on this performance months after it was supposed to premiere? 

It was supposed to be put on April 4, but it was pushed to April 6 and pushed again to June 10. Now it’s two months later, and I think it was too long of a wait for me. I almost feel like we have a little cloud over this production because it’s been postponed so many times and we have never postponed anything before. We also have never done it on a Friday or after Memorial Day, which is off-season. It’s been frustrating for me to wait that long, but I have used the time to rewrite, and I’m at the point where I know I have to leave it alone.

Does the six-day process of rehearsing and re-writing add a lot of stress to the actors?

I always tell them to come into this with a light heart, and they do. It’s like an exercise, almost a challenge for them, but it’s fun. They are thrown new pages everyday, including the director (who probably has the biggest headache), but we all have fun. We get to view some of the best actors of South Florida through this series, and everybody at the end says to me “I want to come back, let me know what’s next!” because we all have such a good time.

Do you like this form of performance as opposed to a traditional production?

What is good about this kind of performance is that from the audience’s standpoint, they only pay $10 and they are really getting a full production. We are getting very big crowds, because the reputation has grown over the four years I have been involved with it. We are now getting almost 500 people every time we do this. This is a one-night show, so it’s a real bargain for the audience, which is why I like these staged readings, and so does the audience.

You mentioned you get to work with some of South Florida’s best actors through this series. How was working with Jan McArt? 

She is amazing! Working with her is great, because she has more energy than any of us. She ran five or six theaters in South Florida, from Key West to Boca, at one time, and she often starred in the productions! She is a legend. She is like a Bernadette Peters, only she’s local. She always wants to rehearse a little longer and go through it another time, [when] we are ready to go home and go to sleep. It is fun working with her—she is a true living legend.

I read about you casting a two-month old baby, how does that work?

Jan McArt plays the part of this movie star who doesn’t like to be around babies or children, because she had a baby kidnapped many years ago. So we were going to have someone come onstage with a baby doll, but as it turns out, Amy Miller Brennan, an actress in South Florida who actually played Jan McArt in the play “Glamour Girl!,” just had a baby. I thought, maybe we can use their baby instead of a doll. I said to Amy, “How would you like to have Daisy [her two-month-old daughter] have a stage debut with Jan McArt?” Amy got very excited and thought it was a wonderful idea. It’s really quite sweet.

How is this play different than others plays you have been a part of? 

For me, it’s different because I had read something years ago about World War II train tours with movie stars on them trying to sell war bonds. At the time I thought that should be a play, and I always had that in the back of my head. When it came to me actually writing it, I realized I didn’t have a plot! I started from scratch, and it has turned into this elaborate story with an almost Alice in Wonderland feel, where a young girl watches a movie and falls through the looking glass and into the film.

What is your favorite part about this play?

I hope it’s yet to come, because the most fun we have is when the actors are staging it. It’s a very complicated play for the actors in six days to deal with learning these old World War II songs and the play. My favorite part is going to be when I see them singing the songs and get to see how the songs fit into the play and how they work.

“Wave Your Flag!” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 10, at the Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University, 3601 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $10. Call 561/237-9000 or visit lynn.edu/events.