Backstory: Owen & George Play Chess
It is safe (and accurate) to say that Owen & George Play Chess got written solely because of boredom. I was working a temp job proofing car oil filter packages in West Warwick, RI. The only benefits to this job were that it was a walk in the park and it was near the ocean. I had long stretches of downtime, and at one point they put me in the office of some exec who was on vacation. Which gave me access to a computer. One mindless afternoon that first image jumped into my head: two old guys playing chess. And with it came "I could kill you right now."
From there I just followed the flow, keeping everything short, punctuating it with long pauses. I was committed to this, just as I became committed to the idea that these guys would not move leave their seats. And I just let the oddness take me on its ride.
Owen & George is like the ugly, unloved kid in the family--and it's honestly one of my favorite plays. The play probably shouldn't work. It doesn't give the audience anything. It's static save for that one burst toward the end. I think it demands attention. And from the acting side it's just as problematic because playing these roles requires actors to do something counter-intuitive and not react. The obvious reaction to "I could kill you" is to go on the defensive, maybe get upset--to respond! But George's reply, when Owen makes his intention clear, is "Oh. It's your move."
When I first directed this show I told the actors, Mike Legge and Bert Cayer, that Owen and George existed in a snow globe. That this globe was the only place, safely separated from the real, logical world, where this conversation could actually take place. And they could not leave the snow globe until George got upset.
Pacing is everything in this show. I want it to take twenty minutes, despite there being ten minutes' worth of dialogue. I want the pauses to hang. I want the audience to have to invest in the silence and wait for the words. I want it deliberate. I want them to wonder why they're laughing--and they do laugh. Matter of fact, when we first put it up I was surprised at how funny it turned out to be. A friend came up to me after and said, "When I read this play, I was sure it couldn't work. But it does." Give the ugly kid a chance.
Owen & George taught me an interesting lesson. When I cast it, I picked two actors who didn't play chess. They moved arbitrarily. I told them I didn't care as long as they took turns moving so to the audience it looked like they were playing. Stacey tried to tell me that they had to play. They had to know where the pieces went. I said--and I remember this distinctly--that if the audience was paying attention to the chess game, then I wrote a bad play. And she insisted that although the play was good, they would watch the game.
After the premiere, there was a question and answer session for this and its companion piece, Waiting for the End of the World. And one of the first questions was about the chess game and why the players weren't making legitimate moves.
My wife has not let me live this one down. I since have gone so far as to post a request on an internet boardgame site for someone to basically choreograph the match for me and give the players legitimate moves. (I've had no takers, but you can't say I didn't try.)
Owen & George, along with Waiting... was one of my first published plays, put out by a small-press publisher. I took it back from them at one point, and haven't really pushed it back into the dance yet to try to get it re-published. I'm having a hard enough time getting it on stage. But I'll tell you this--it might be the ugly, unloved kid but when you put it under the lights, it simply shines.
I won't point out where, but there is one line in this play that is a callout to the memory of my father.