Like most playwrights, I get asked a lot where the idea for a play comes from. For me, every play is different, but all are similar in that there is a spark that takes hold. Once it miraculously does, obsession sets in and I know I have no choice but to stay on it till I write “curtain.”
In 2010, retiring from episodic TV writing, I returned to my first love— the theatre. I had given myself a goal to write a trio of plays about the 1960s. Since this is a time I know intimately, I thought I could add something new to the conversation. I wanted to stage immersive, narrative, nonfiction pieces about seminal, forgotten people with hopefully great entertainment value and emotional reality— and you’d learn something to boot. The first play I wrote was The Screenwriter’s Daughter; a heart-breaking, father-daughter story about the great Hollywood screenwriter and human rights activist Ben Hecht, and his daughter, the actress and 1960s revolutionary icon, Jenny Hecht. She was a core member of The Living Theatre—a group of infamous and dangerous anarchists in Europe and America. I had an idea to incorporate the style of Ben Hecht’s witty, movie repartee with the constructivist, confrontational style of the Living Theatre in a fight for the audience and Jenny Hecht’s doomed soul. It was a piece that had been percolating in me for decades, as I had seen Jenny perform with the Living Theatre in 1968 at least six times. Naked, charismatic, powerful, she personified all the degrees of liberation— personal, political, and sexual. With the troupe, she incited the audience into action against the system. It was a signature of the time. I was infatuated with her and what the theatre was doing. I felt haunted to write The Screenwriter’s Daughter and feel blessed to have had the thrill of seeing it produced twice; at its premiere at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in summer 2011, and again in London’s West End in 2014.
For the second leg of the ‘60s trilogy, I auditioned ideas in my head: Kennedy assassination conspiracy farces, an opera about all the rock stars who died at 27, the radical Weathermen townhouse explosion from the bomb’s point of view, or anything with LSD. I researched them all to see which one had the goods, but all the effort only produced diminishing returns. Nothing called to me.
Search: Paul Clayton came out of a lunch I had with the writer/journalist Dennis McDougal. Dennis wanted to pitch me an idea he had for a movie in the hopes that I would collaborate on the screenplay with him. Dennis was midway through a massive Bob Dylan biography and told me a Dylan story I did not know. He wanted to do a screen story of a winter 1964 road trip that Bob took cross country with three other men in a Ford station wagon at the beginning of his fame. Along for the “roadmap of the soul” cruise was Bob’s bodyguard and his girlfriend’s cousin to make sure he didn’t stray. The third man was one of Dylan’s best friends and earliest musical mentors, the folk singer Paul Clayton, who was there for musical inspiration and fun. The fun and friendship ended abruptly halfway across the country, the morning after a Mardi Gras orgy in a New Orleans brothel. Paul was booted off the ride, and Dylan continued on without him for more adventures. Dennis was interested in the Dylan angle and is today one of the foremost authorities on all things Bob.
I was interested in the forgotten folk singer Paul Clayton. He had twelve folk albums and one hit song before Dylan was even Dylan, yet I had never even heard of him. Folk songs in the 1950s consisted of tunes passed down through generations; oral sagas and local ballads regionally morphing from their Scottish, Irish, and English origins to suit local circumstance and instrumentation. Paul introduced Bob to this rich folk world. Clayton was a folk song scholar who had paid his dues getting a Masters in Folklore from UVA. He spent years “song catching” in the back hills and knew every version of every folk ditty. He also was a gay man in an “ungay” time, and fell madly in love with Dylan during their years together as friends. The road trip story was picaresque and revealing about Bob, but I wasn’t interested in writing a movie. I was curious about the men’s relationship during the Greenwich days, when all the folk singers gathered every Sunday at Washington Square and folk became the rage. I starting thinking there was a small folk musical that could tell this love story between Paul and Bob that never was. Dennis and I agreed that I would only cover the Dylan road trip story as a song, so as not to step on his plans to write it as a film. From that day on, I was in full Search: Paul Clayton mode.
It was fascinating because so little was known of this artist whom Dylan himself in his autobiography called the “…best damned folk balladeer on the planet… the real thing.” I had to do extensive detective work to see if a story would hold.
Broken by Dylan’s ultimate rejection of him, and by the rise of electrified folk-rock, Paul Clayton was a dinosaur by the mid ‘60s. The circumstances of his tragic suicide in 1967 dominated my every waking moment. I sought out the autopsy reports to find out everything and started working backwards on a timeline. Before I knew it, the clues to a dynamite story really started emerging. Different mentions in different biographies of Dylan questioned his plagiarizing from Paul the hit song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” their participation in the Washington Square folksinger riot, their shared love of drugs and debauchery, and the musical riches of the Village’s emerging folk community, with all its talented musicians in their own struggles for love and fame. The potential for good scenes began piling up.
And then the play’s opening came into crystal clear view when I discovered that eight years after Paul’s death, Bob dedicated the encore of his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue to Paul Clayton and performed Paul’s one hit song, “Gotta Travel On.” I could only imagine that 99.9% of the Rolling Thunder crowd had no idea who Paul was. But like the narrator of my play tells our audience at the beginning— “Tonight, you are going to find out.”
Paul Clayton’s Wikipedia page became my bible and I realized that its index of Paul’s life provided a convenient structure for the mixed media musical I was envisioning. And then the fun part beckoned. I could incorporate the best folk songs already written, and my own personal favorites, for the cast to perform. The road trip part of the story, as I promised Dennis, is the one original song in the play— “Talkin’ Bob Dylan Cross Country Blues,” and it is a showstopper for this foot-stomping, good time tragedy.
One more thing: Once I finished writing, I panicked, believing that I had written a play that would be impossible to cast: six actors/acoustic musicians, performing twelve great folk songs while portraying the folk stars of the time— Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Rev Gary Davis, Paul, etc. What had I done? But, two productions later, I can tell you that there is so much talent everywhere in this country, and this play gives a great opportunity to showcase it. So “Don’t Think Twice…” Check it out.