With the playwright in attendance, Visalia Players’ production of ‘The Norma Conquests’ takes on special meaning
One of the charms of live theater can be seeing a play that’s never been performed before. A world premiere of a new play is something special: You’re seeing something fresh and original. Audiences at Visalia’s Ice House Theatre, home of the Visalia Players, have been experiencing what it’s like to watch such a premiere. The company is heading into its final weekend of “The Norma Conquests,” a play by Los Angeles playwright Rom Watson. The comedy-parody imagines life after the movie “Sunset Boulevard” for main character Norma Desmond, one of the most famous female roles in movie history.
The last we see of Norma in the movie is her being led away by police for committing murder. In Watson’s play, which is constructed in a series of three interrelated acts, she’s been in prison for 16 years and is now eligible for work-release programs that let her get back into the community. The scenarios include her appearing on a game show, teaching an acting class and working as a maid.
I was asked by Visalia Players director Hugh Munro Neely to see the show during the opening weekend and moderate a talk-back discussion with the playwright. Here are excerpts of my conversation with Rom Watson in front of the audience:
Q: Have you been a fan of the character of Norma for a while? What was the normal connection?
A: Well, I’ve always liked the movie. I saw it for the first time in a movie theater or revival house in the days before videotapes. And it was excellent. I was very impressed with it. And then I’ve seen it a few more times over the years. And then when I was writing this play, I actually got the DVD so I could make notes.
Q: I teach college, and sometimes I try to throw in references in from the past. I wanted my students to watch the famous scene from “WKRP in Cincinnati” when they throw the turkeys out of the helicopter, and not one of them had even heard of that show. I’m wondering if you have to educate people on what “Sunset Boulevard” was and who Norma Desmond was.
A: I tried to write the piece so that even people who have never seen “Sunset Boulevard” could still follow along. They don’t have to see the movie. But I think if you’ve seen “Sunset Boulevard,” you will get more out of it. There are little Easter eggs for you in the play.
Q: What are your thoughts on the character of Norma?
A: I think it’s one of the greatest film roles for a woman ever. And one thing I wanted to do with this play was to give actresses a chance to play that character. I mean, a lot of men play Hamlet, a lot of men play Ebenezer Scrooge. The character of Norma Desmond is just as good as those characters. And unless you were a woman who sings and were in the musical production of “Sunset Boulevard,” you never get a chance to play her. Now with this play, women can.
Q: I like what you do with the character of Max. We kind of watched him grow from the first act to the third. I don’t know if you planned it that way. But by the third one, he’s got a backbone. He’s a little saucy.
A: I don’t think that was something I planned. If you’ve seen the movie a few times, you know he has a very strong character. He’s silent and stoic. But he conveys a lot. I had a clearer picture of his character in my mind. Writing him was easy.
Q: A question from the audience: Was there a reason you chose to make most of the characters in this play based on real people?
A: Because there are so many real people in “Sunset Boulevard.” There’s Hedda Hopper. There is Cecil DeMille. There’s Buster Keaton. There are other actors from the silent film era. But my play is in 1967. So I had to make certain choices. Like with Marsha Mason and Harrison Ford. I chose them because they were the right age to be taking an acting class in 1967. And I wanted them to be people who would eventually be famous but weren’t famous then.
Q: This question is a spoiler if you haven’t seen the play: There’s a point that Norma Desmond winds up wrestling with Nancy Reagan, which is not an encounter I ever expected to see. How did you dream up that twist?
A: I got the idea in the third act that Norma should work as a maid. I thought, well, what she wants is a pardon. If she gets a job in the governor’s mansion, she can ask the governor for a pardon. Who was governor in 1967? Ronald Reagan. I thought, OK, I can work with this.
Q: What has it been like having your play performed in Visalia?
A: I’ve been to Visalia many times over the years, because my parents, when they were alive, lived here for a few years. So on holidays, we would drive up, you know, and spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them. But mostly I was just at their place, and visiting with them. And so I didn’t know that the Ice House was here. I’m not even sure we went to eat out of a restaurant, because my mother was a very good cook, and she would make all the meals. So it’s nice to see more of Visalia and realize how much is actually going on here. The other part of the experience was a dream come true for me to finally see one of my full length plays, you know, fully professionally staged and have it turn out so well.