Q&A: The Making of an A Train Play

Lawrence Feeney

Lawrence Feeney, creator and producer of the A Train Plays. hide caption

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The one-day works of art known as "theAtrainplays" are the brain child of Lawrence Feeney, who produces the shows and also performs in them. He talks to NPR about how the concept of producing these fast-shows on the subway came about, and what keeps him and his fellow artists motivated.

When was the first A train production performed? How did the concept come about?

The first show consisted of six plays in May of 2002 at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre [in New York City].

A few months before, I was on the W train at 5:00 a.m. I had no newspaper, crossword puzzle or book to occupy my time. All I had was the subway — and the people around me.

At one point, a homeless man entered the train. He looked tired and as if he hadn't bathed in a week. He sat and proceeded to take off his white(ish) tennis shoes. What caught my attention was that he wouldn't let his feet touch the dirty subway floor. At that moment, I wished I had a pen so that I could write that personality trait down, so I wouldn't forget it… and, maybe, use it later in a performance.

That thought morphed into "I wish I had my friends (and talented playwrights) Craig Pospisil and David Riedy with me." A few days later, I asked them: What if we put a couple of writers on the train, and in the time it takes to go from end to end, they have to come up with a script? They both laughed, then said that if we do that to the writers, then we have to put restrictions on everyone else. And there it was.

Each A train event contains multiple plays and musicals. How many of these productions have actually taken place?

We have produced roughly 27 individual productions, consisting of 115 individual plays and musicals that were written on the A train, the Staten Island Ferry and a mail boat off the coast of Maine.

New York seems to be in a kind of fad of fast productions: 24-hour novels, films and plays. Were theAtrainplays the first of these?

Not at all. And I don't see it as a fad. There are so many talented people in this city — some you may have heard of, and some you haven't. This type of show, going up and down so quickly, allows them to challenge themselves and have some fun, while still working on whatever they're working on, or while seeking out their next gig. I think these types of productions will be around for some time.

Is there something about the pace of New York City that is conducive to fast musicals and plays?

I don't think this style has to be exclusive to New York. For example, we did a fund raiser for the Stonington Opera House in Maine two summers ago and had a ball. One of my goals is to do a version of the show in every city with a major transportation system, nationally and internationally. I already have London's title, thePiccadillyplays.

Are all the actors professionals? No one gets paid.

Most everyone involved works as a performer. Some of us have a "day job" to help pay the rent, but all in all, everyone is a professional. Everyone who has participated has been a referral from someone in the group, and they know walking in what it takes. I am always amazed at the willingness, thoughtfulness and desire to be a part of the show — regardless of pay — that all the participants, both on the stage and off, bring with them. The funniest part is that, after going through the pangs of a six-week rehearsal process in a 24-hour period, most people say to me, "When can we do this again?!"

What's the hardest part about putting one of these events together?

Financing. I've never been able to heed the first rule of producing, "Never use your own money." Most of it I've had to save from the day job and residuals. Borrowing and begging from friends and family has saved me a few times, as well.

What's the best part of creating these fast plays and musicals?

I have a favorite time during the writing night: when we all sit down for the first — and only — time as a company and do the read-through of scripts and hear the music. Where, only a few short hours before, there were blank pages, the writers and lyricist/composers create these works of art that the directors, choreographers and performers get to play with. I get the chills every time.

How long do you think you can this keep going?

Who knows? But I'll stay in the game as long as I am fortunate enough to.

Many people yearn for the musicals of old, the kind with great songs and snappy lyrics — the kind A Train musicals tend to feature — as opposed to the more operatic style of today. Why don't we hear more of these snappy songs on Broadway?

I'm not sure why. I do know that we usually have a wonderful blend of styles when it comes to the music in our shows. Maybe I'll work on the Broadway thing for you so you have someplace to go!

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