Punchy dialogue

Writers Institute schedule begins with Capital Region natives' play about female boxer

Features editor

The New York State Writers Institute plans to begin its Irish-influenced spring schedule with the dramatic arts in early February -- in collaboration with Capital Repertory Co. and the University at Albany Theater Department.

But before Ireland, storied land of fine playwrights, poets and novelists, takes hold, the first entry comes from once local writers and concerns an American prizefighter.

Next Monday, Feb. 1, a staged reading of "Blackjack'' will be presented at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, a play-in-progress about a female boxer's rise to fame. It comes from the pens of Erin Marie Tschantret, an Albany native, actor and nascent playwright, and Stephen de Seve, musician, screenwriter, Raymertown native.

"It is a comedy. I call it a drama/comedy,'' Tschantret said in a recent phone call from Manasquan, N.J., "a little beach town'' where she was appearing in "Thieves Carnival'' at the Algonquin Theater. "And it's racy. I'd say it's rated R. It's not for kids.''

"It's basically a story about a female boxer in New York, and she really . . . there's a line in the play that says you're only as great as your greatest challenge, and I think all the characters face that,'' Tschantret said. "Either you have to face being mediocre or get your a-- off the couch.''

It also contains a couple of love stories, as well as addiction, betrayal, friendship and unrequited love, said the playwright, who declined to give away the twists and turns. "It's really a slice of life. It's not meant to be 'ha, ha.' I really didn't write it as a comedy, but I guess my sense of humor just came out. And Stephen has a bizarre sense of humor.''

De Seve, 36, said he's been in New York eight years and is currently writing a New York City transportation diary -- writing only when he's on a subway, bus or cab: "The hardest thing is deciphering it'' -- and commercially, co-writing a movie for Paramount with writers from the old "Beavis and Butt-Head'' television show.

The reading of their full-length play, with one intermission, should last about an hour and 50 minutes; it has five characters, and Tschantret said she hopes to be reading the part of the boxer.

Off the couch

For two years she worked out at a boxing gym in Manhattan, the Excelsior Athletic Club, where she met the boxer Ricky Young. "He taught this boxing class, so I started studying with him. After the first class, I couldn't lift my arms for a week it was so hard, and I didn't go back for like four months.'' But she did get off the couch and go back. She even did some sparring with Young: "It was funny, it was like a cat with a mouse. . . . He didn't really take a swing at me, because I can't afford to -- my face.''

An actress needs her face, and Tschantret, 29, was acting long before she started writing about boxing. Born and raised in Albany, she attended Emma Willard School and received a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance from Ohio State University. She started doing commercials in college in Ohio. She moved to New York in 1990 and decided to give acting a try. "Dancing was really harsh, really hard to get in anywhere. And people I knew were working for really good companies were not making a living; they had to have side jobs.''

She studied acting for several years, kept doing commercials -- for White Castle and Diet Dr Pepper, and a regional BMW ad among them -- "nothing you've been seeing lately 'cause I keep getting in shows.''

Before that, when she couldn't get in shows, she and a friend formed their own theater company and produced eight of their own. "The cool thing is you have complete creative control. We had to do everything,'' Tschantret said. "The only thing I'd produce now if I have to is 'Blackjack' . . . if somebody doesn't pick it up.''

After a preliminary reading in December, and some changes suggested by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, the Albany theater company's artistic director, and William Kennedy, head of the Writers Institute, among others, it will get a staged reading, free to the public, at 7:30 p.m. next Monday, Capital Rep, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany.

Tschantret has been at Cap Rep twice before, and the first appearance was critical to her career. Two years ago in "The Importance of Being Earnest,'' the actress said she got good reviews and made Metroland newspaper's list of top 10 actresses. She sent copies of the clippings and her picture to several talent agencies, got called back by six, and chose the agent she's working with now, who has kept her acting for the past two years.

"I don't know that they (reviews) can (make/or) break your career, but they can help you. You have to be ready, you have to be able to back it up. You have to have the skills to say, 'Yeah I am that good.'

A side job

Tschantret returned to Cap Rep in "A Christmas Carol,'' playing three roles last year. "I am mostly acting, but I still keep a side job because acting is not dependable, and I like to know that I have another source of income if I need it.'' On the side, she's a bookkeeper for two firms, using skills she acquired with the theater company.

And now a playwright. "I got the idea for it I guess like three years ago. I'd always wanted to write something and I didn't have an idea. I was jogging around the reservoir in Central Park and was thinking about this boxer, and it was kind of an epiphany.''

Then at a birthday party in New York for her friend Karen de Seve, she met her brother Stephen, a writer. They began meeting almost weekly at a little Mexican restaurant to talk about the play. "He'd say like, 'Who's the bad guy?' and 'What happens when this happens?' We really hammered out the whole play in about six months. We had an outline -- what has to happen in every scene to justify the next scene.''

Tschantret then sat on it for three months, and when her sister took her to the Green Valley Spa in Utah as a birthday present, the actress started writing dialogue. She showed de Seve.

"Some of the scenes we wrote together,'' she said. "But most of it I wrote and he polished. Stephen has a lot of one-liners in the play.''

De Seve said the co-writing combination of writer and actor, which he'd been in once before, "gets you all kinds of insights into the characters and stuff and makes a really good writing team.''

"The only screenwriting I've ever done has been collaborative,'' said de Seve, who attended Cornell University "on the 10-year plan'' after attending Catholic Central High School in Lansingburgh. "I'm also a musician. Most musicians do things collaboratively. And most writing is a solo project where someone locks themselves away.''


The writing became even more collaborative once Cap Rep got involved.

"Its a very unique subject matter, I mean a female boxer, and it's funny,'' Mancinelli-Cahill said. "And those are the elements that all of us at the Writers Institute responded to. We also asked the playwrights if they would highlight those elements -- as much boxing in the piece, and emphasize the humor in the piece, and they said they were game. And we were happy: They really wanted to do rewrites.'' A lot of playwrights, she added, don't.

There followed an informal reading in December, more discussion "about where we wanted the play to go, things to make it more solid,'' Tschantret said. And so the play still in progress will get another reading.

The Institute has two additional Authors Theatre readings upcoming:

On Monday, Feb. 8, Irish actress Anna Manahan, 1998 Tony Award winner for her portrayal of Mag in the Broadway production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," will present scenes from past roles and discuss her life in the theater, at 7:30 p.m., in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, U Albany uptown campus.

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, Merlin Holland, grandson of Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde, will discuss his famous forebear in "Confounding the Critics and Surviving the Scandal," at 7:30 p.m. in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, U Albany uptown campus.

First published on Monday, January 25, 1999

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Copyright 1999, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.