Real Life Drama
Allston James’ wild journeys bring depth and soul to his playwrighting.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
“Boys will apply all sorts of pressures on young girls,” says a father in Allston James’ new one-act Garden Talk. “Exploit every stripe of their emotion, every category of natural reflexes, whet precisely the wrong—and best—appetites, provoke the worst strains of curiosity. Take advantage, break hearts, fertilize eggs, deposit diseases, smash hopes, destroy pride. Make her hate herself. Maybe even make her want to die…rattle her soul like the cold dead branches of a pear tree in winter.”
Breathtaking dialogue drives Allston James’ plays. His ear for rhythm and eye for imagery, coupled with his compelling characters, have put James in the enviable position of premiering two separate plays this year, one in New York and one here in Monterey County.
Not bad for a guy who began thinking of himself as a playwright just two years ago.
“I’ve always kind of danced around the idea of dramatic writing,” James says. “The idea of collaboration did not appeal to me. I felt I’d have to give something up, so I historically avoided it.”
James, who has taught literature at Monterey Peninsula College for the past 25 years, says that eventually two things led him to try his hand writing for the stage.
“First off, I’m an unabashed Shakespeare addict, and I knew eventually that was going to take its toll,” he says. “The second thing is, I’ve had editors who’ve published my stories over the years and told me that dialogue is my strong suit.”
And having seen enough theater over the years to know the difference between bad and good plays, James began working with MPC’s resident drama diva, the inimitable Ms. Lee Brady, on some short plays. After only two short years of concentrated work, James’ first big break came last summer when the New York Collective for the Arts produced Drive Time, his snappy modern one-act about life after divorce. While in New York overseeing the production, he had an epiphany about the dramatic process.
“Contrary to what I’d thought, that I’d have to give something up to collaborate, I found the creative stream of drama to be much more sustained. With a story you finish it and it’s done. With theater it’s this drawn out, organic, immensely satisfying thing. Not only did I get to write it, but I got to witness the production be built from the ground up. It was really amazing.”
James’s own story is no less amazing. Born in Atlanta, Ga. in the late ‘40s, he moved to Montgomery, Ala. and then wound up in Florida in the ‘60s, where he discovered his life’s first passion: surfing.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in government from Florida State in 1969, James joined the military and went to Vietnam as an artillery forward observer in the 1st Infantry.
“I was hoping against hope the war would be over by the time I got out of officer’s training,” he says.
No such luck. James went to war.
Four months into his tour, James was returning from a mission along the Cambodian border when the jeep he was riding in overturned. He would have been killed if not for the fact that the man riding behind him absorbed the impact. James escaped with his life, but his right foot was left a mashed and twisted hunk of flesh, muscle and bone, and doctors told him he would never be able to walk again.
After 15 months in various hospitals, months of physical rehab and a nightmarish slow-motion tussle with Demerol addiction, James recovered much of the use in his foot, a process that he poignantly recounts in his short story “Waterbed.”
“The damage to the foot played hell with surfing,” James says.
James returned to school, receiving an master’s in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1972. Upon graduation, he moved to the French Quarter in New Orleans, wrote for a weekly newspaper, and started working on a novel called Attic Light.
Then in 1973, in an effort to escape the summer heat, James got in his car and drove west, coming through Monterey at the age of 26.
“I was very, very influenced by Henry Miller,” he says. “He was a real icon to me and Big Sur left a huge imprint on me. I went back to New Orleans, packed everything up, moved out here, and rented a house for $120 a month.”
In Monterey, James finished Attic Light, his partly autobiographical novel set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
In addition to teaching at MPC, James wrote fiction for surf magazines. While on assignment in Hawaii in the ‘90s, he was nearly killed by a tidal surge that spun off Hurricane Iwa and smashed into the condo he was staying in.
“All of sudden this wall of whitewater hit the building and went up across the highway behind us,” James says. “There was this pause, this dead silence, then the water started receding—it was coming back, rushing back through the building. I remember the sound of exploding doors and TVs more than anything. It was a really powerful experience.”
Then in 2003, James began thinking about drama. He’d tried his hand at writing for the stage as an undergraduate back at Florida State and had “dabbled” a little over the years, but after a particularly rewarding stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two years ago, he decided to approach it in earnest. With the help of Lee Brady, who showed him the basics of dramatic writing, he began working on one-acts. Then last year, inspired by the success of Drive Time, he began work on his first full-length play, The Pink Brothers.
This summer, his short, potent drama Garden Talk will be produced by the New York Collective for the Arts, and this fall, his full-length comedy The Pink Brothers will premiere at the Carl Cherry Center stage, under the direction of Rosemary Lukes.
The Pink Brothers is the story of two brothers who are, each in his way, trapped in a zone between ignorance and enlightenment in regards to women.
“This play is like a carnival ride,” James says. “It don’t stop ‘til we been ‘round the last twist of track.”
Not unlike James’ own life.