From a Playwright's Perspective - Charles Dennis on Altman's Last Stand

 

Author/actor/director/producer Charles Dennis has had a long, varied, and acclaimed career in theater, film, and television dating from his pre-teen years and continuing to this very moment. After a career as a child actor on the radio, he became a teenage journalist, and eventually wrote a dozen novels. He has written and directed several feature films including “Hard Four” and “Chicanery, for which he received the 2015 Innovation Award at the Durham Region Film Festival. His web series, “Atwill,” is about to begin its second season. Dennis has written a number of plays which have been presented in New York, London, and Los Angeles. On February 6, 2016, his latest production, ALTMAN’S LAST STAND, opens at the Zephyr Theatre here in Los Angeles. This may just be one of his best!  

Charles Dennis was interviewed on 1/18/16 about ALTMAN’S LAST STAND. Here are some of his thoughts on his latest project and his illustrious career.

 

 

 

WHO IS FRANZ ALTMAN? WAS HE A REAL PERSON?  

This is the question people always ask me when I described ALTMAN’S LAST STAND. The answer: yes and no.  

Some years ago, a now famous psychiatrist in London told me about a patient he had seen that morning - an elderly Jew, an Auschwitz survivor, who had attempted suicide. “All my life,” he told the doctor, “I have been a failure. Even as a suicide, I am a failure.” That was all I needed. I gave this anonymous senior a name and created an eleven page history. I tried slipping him into books...(but) he had nothing to do with the plot. What was I going to do about Franz Altman? His sense of failure had seeped into my work like an oil spill.  

WHY DO YOU THINK THIS WAS THE TIME FOR YOUR PLAY TO HAVE ITS AMERICAN PREMIERE?  

I didn’t know what to do with Franz Altman. Enter Eric Donkin, a star of Canada’s Stratford Festival, and my first friend in professional theater. He’d been touring successfully in a one-man show - correction, one woman show - for years. He asked if I had a one-person show he could do. I removed Franz Altman’s story from a drawer; our old friend, John Wood, commissioned the play. John was the artistic director of Canada's National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where the play was first produced. We were a hit and later moved the show to Toronto. That was 1982 or 1983.  

After that, I optioned it out and kept renewing the option for 12 years. Finally, I stopped at the time that Michael Laskin and I were working together on a show in 2011. I’d known him for a couple of years, and then I discovered what a great actor he was - and perfect casting for Franz Altman. At first, he balked and said it was too many lines to memorize. Towards the end of the “Chicanery” shoot a year and a half ago, Laskin said he was ready to play Franz Altman and recommended Charlie Haid to direct it. I was thrilled.

 

 

Altman's Last Stand Poster - Photo by Ellen Giamportone

 

ALTMAN BECOMES SOMETHING OF A MEDIA CELEBRITY IN THE PLAY. HOW WAS THAT TWIST INSPIRED?  

When I write, I try to follow the logic of the story. What would happen if a man of that age got into a David vs. Goliath fight? There’s a great story here: an Old Jew who won’t give up. I followed the logic, and that’s what would happen. Television gave me the idea. It was a “60 Minutes” kind of human interest story. They would talk to all the main characters and other obscure people - and suddenly Altman becomes a celebrity. The catalyst might be his ex-wife, and his world would turn upside-down.  

ARE YOU CONSIDERING TAKING ALTMAN’S CHARACTER AND TRANSITIONING HIM INTO A BOOK OR FILM?  

Not at all. I tried making this guy part of a bigger story, and it never worked. Franz Altman is now a creature of the theater in a play I hope will catch on and be produced in San Francisco and New York. 

 

Michael Laskin - Photo by Ellen Giamportone

 

 

AS A PLAYWRIGHT, WHAT DO YOU HOPE THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL TAKE AWAY FROM ALTMAN’S LAST STAND? 

I want them to go home and say I saw the most amazing play and tell people to go and see it. I want the play to go viral. But seriously, I want the audience to see Altman’s indomitable spirit. When I started with his character in the 80's, people asked me what a young man can know about old people. But I didn’t really feel any different at 35 or 15. We are who we are. As we get older, I’m sure it’s just a number. Franz Altman was once a seven-year old who was studied by Freud. He was a clever kid, and he grew up to be a clever man.  

ARE YOU WORKING ON ANY OTHER PROJECTS AT THIS TIME?  

I made this film, “Chicanery,” with a slew of wonderful actors. I shot it on an iPad and won an Innovation Award in Canada. I have a web series called “Atwill,” and I’m trying to get some funding so I can pay the actors this time. The iPad was great fun, but money must come from somewhere. When I saw what the people who shot the promo for ALTMAN’S LAST STAND accomplished, it was like night and day.  

My latest novel, "Hollywood Raj," has been optioned by Carnival Films, who hope it will be the successor to its mega TV hit, "Downton Abbey." The hero is a British actor living in Hollywood on the eve of World War II who is drafted into service as a spy in the movie colony.

 

ALTMAN’S LAST STAND opens at 8 p.m. on February 6, 2016 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays through March 13, 2016. Tickets cost $25. For reservations, call 323-960-4412 or go online at www.plays411.com/altman.

 

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