Artist Spotlight: Ray Werner

The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company’s Ray Werner Play Festival opens TOMORROW, Thursday, November 8, and runs through December 2, 2018. Featuring five world premieres, Raphael’s Angels, SumiSami, Our Lady of Drubbleduffy, Christmas Tassel Bell, and The Stuttering Pig, RayFest caps nine years of collaboration and friendship between Ray Werner, Festival Coordinator Monteze Freeland, and Producing Artistic Director Mark Clayton Southers.

“Who exactly is Ray Werner?” you ask. Werner grew up watching Philco Television Playhouse productions on his family’s black and white tv in the 1950s. At the age of 14, he started writing down ideas for tv shows, stories, monologues and dreamed of being another Paddy Chayefsky or Rod Serling. After high school, Ray worked in a local mill, then joined the Army, and later earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and English from Duquesne University.

All throughout college Ray continued to write scripts. For his senior project, he wrote and produced a half-hour radio show that won first prize in a national competition. Based on that success, his college professor suggested Ray study playwriting at Yale School of Drama. Ray applied to the program and was accepted. He spent a year and a half working with then Dean of Playwriting John Gassner. What he learned from Gassner has served him throughout his career, namely, “Write for actors. Give them something to sink their teeth into. Use their talent.” Ray explains, “A play is simply a template for actors, a blueprint. It’s not a play until it gets in their hands and they read it, and they own it. Up until then, it’s just an idea on paper.”

Upon leaving Yale, Ray began working as a copywriter for BBDO Advertising in Pittsburgh. He changed employers three years later and became a copywriter for Ketchum, Inc. Ray worked at Ketchum from 1966 to 1985, ending his time there as the executive creative director.  Ray went on to found his own advertising company, Werner Brother, later Werner Chepelsy, and served as co-creative director for the company from 1986 to 1996.

During his career in advertising, Ray regularly wrote advertising copy, worked with directors, and art directors; he even put his hand to writing lyrics for several product jingles in his time – but always, always, Ray was writing.

He has been a freelance writer and playwright since around 2001. In addition to the plays produced at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, he has had staged readings at The Theater in the Square, Capetown, SA and off The WALL Productions in Carnegie, PA, and productions at The Source in Washington, DC, Bricolage and the Indiana, PA Regional Theater. In January 2019, Ray’s Run the Rabbit Path will receive its world premiere at PICT, directed by Artistic and Executive Director Alan Stanford.

So, who is Ray Werner? He’s a playwright. He’s an advertising man. He’s also a bit of a musician. Not to mention a baker of bread. If you ask Ray directly, he’ll tell you he is a husband, a father, and a grandfather first and foremost. He is a soft-spoken gentleman, who expresses his gratitude for life’s opportunities and his deep admiration for his artistic collaborators whenever he gets a chance. He is a lover of theater, of the playwriting process, and of the creative community in Pittsburgh. “It’s a very generous culture, the creative culture,” Ray confides.

He is quick to praise the vision and work ethic of Mark Clayton Southers and Monteze Freeland. He rhapsodizes about the writing talent of fellow local playwrights like Rob Zellers and Tammy Ryan and is proud to consider himself a student of Tammy’s. And no one could be more surprised that PPTCo is featuring his work in a festival that Ray himself.

I met up with Ray recently to talk about RayFest. Here’s is the first part of our conversation:

PitR: Tell me about your work with Playwrights Theatre.

RW: Several years ago, I had a staged reading in Capetown, South Africa. Mark had spent time in South Africa with August Wilson, so he was interested in what I had done there. We ended up doing a staged reading of my Elder Hostages trilogy as a benefit for PPTCo in November 2010 at the New Hazlett Theater. The show was produced by Mark C. Southers and directed by Mark, John Shepherd, and the late Marci Woodruff. It marked the first time Bingo O’Malley and Ted Atkins were together on stage and also featured the amazing Susie MacGregor Laine and Teri Bridgett. It was a wonderful evening, so Mark said, “Let’s produce the plays,” just as PPTCo was moving into their new performance space. Elder Hostages was fully produced and christened PPTCo’s new space on Liberty Avenue in February 2012.

Over the years, I’ve had several one acts in the Festival in Black and White, beginning with Felled Family Tree in 2011. Then there was Redneck Revenge in 2012, Christmas Star in 2013, and Stay in 2016. I expanded Christmas Star to a full-length play for PPTCo, and it was performed in December 2014 under the direction of Monteze Freeland.

PitR: What do you like most about working with PPTCo?

RW: They Get It Done. They find a way to get it done even on small budgets. They build relationships with people in the city. I really like what they have done with diversity in this theater. Pittsburgh needs more diversity. They like my work. They have gone out of their way to support me. They have introduced me to great actors and designers and playwrights. It’s a community really. And what [Mark] has done with August Wilson’s plays is world-shattering. Mark is a fine writer himself; his take on Miss Julie, [titled Miss Julie, Clarissa, and John] was amazing. It’s a very powerful play.

PitR: How did the idea of the Ray Werner Play Festival come about?

RW: Mark called me in December and said he wanted to do a festival of my work to celebrate Playwrights’ 15th anniversary. I thought it would be just a couple of plays. I didn’t catch on to it at first that he wanted to produce a full roster of my work. It took me a while to have that sink in.

None of the shows in the festival have ever been produced before. All are new premieres. There was debate about exactly which of my plays to include in the festival. We considered a play called Two Stand Up Comics Perform an Autopsy, but that play isn’t really family friendly, and I wanted something for kids. I wanted my grandchildren to be able to come and see a show. So we chose Christmas Tassel Bell instead. I would tell my kids and grandkids Ishmael stories when they were growing up, and that’s the inspiration behind Christmas Tassel Bell.

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