Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : November 2005

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Of Murder, Morals and the World's First Vegetarians
By Patrick Tandy

As a behind-the-scenes Special Projects attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Williams & Connolly LLP, Rich Amada doesn’t see much courtroom drama firsthand.

But that hasn’t stopped the playwright from making his own.

“I stumbled across Mary Surratt’s story years ago, by accident, while looking up something else in the library,” Amada explains of the inspiration behind his most recent work, The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt. “She was tied up in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy; she was implicated, and she was arrested and tried and holds the dubious distinction of being the first woman [to be] judicially executed by the United States of America. Of course, [John Wilkes] Booth gets all of the publicity as far as the assassination goes, and a lot of people also know the story of Dr. [Samuel] Mudd. [But] you almost never hear of Mary Surratt – the only woman involved – and most people, when I mention her to them, don’t have any idea who she was.”

Amada, who has authored more than 20 plays in the 15 years that he has been writing them, spent two years exhaustively researching the case, including the complete transcript of the trial, in preparation for his work, which premiered this past July.

“The fact that this woman was the first woman judicially executed by our government and that I had never heard her story before made it very intriguing to me,” he admits. “You know that whenever something is done for the very first time there’s always a story behind it, and something big has to have occurred for people to suddenly do something that before they thought unthinkable. Hang a woman? Unheard of. Most people, even while she was being tried, I’m told, never dreamed that the government would go so far as to hang her. It had to be a pretty cataclysmic moment in history.

If you
have the
compulsion,
you will
do it.

Rich Amada

“She ran a boarding house on H Street in Washington,” he continues. “The building is still there; it’s currently the Wok and Roll Restaurant – [a] Chinese/Japanese restaurant in Chinatown. But this was her boarding house, and although the inside is nothing like what it once was, the exterior of the building is pretty much the way it looked then. It’s within those walls [that] John Wilkes Booth and the others are said to have conspired and plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”

Amada’s choice of venue in which to debut his dramatization of those events was, therefore, only natural. “It was only after I had written the play that, like a bolt of lightning out of the sky, it occurred to me, ‘Hey, the building’s still there – we can do the play in her old home!’ So that’s what we did this past July 7. I got a cast together, made arrangements with the restaurant, and on July 7 – the 140th anniversary of Mary Surratt’s execution – we performed the play in that building.”

Amada chuckles dryly. “She returned home after 140 years.”

♦♦♦

Amada drafted his first play in 1989 while working as a television news reporter in Tucson, Arizona. “I saw an advertisement for a one-act playwriting competition in Tucson, and the theme of the competition was ‘The Arizona Story’,” he explains. “That’s a pretty wide-open theme, but having covered the American Indian reservations as a beat, I had a good opportunity to talk with a lot of American Indians about the things that were important to them. I also attended a number of traditional events both on the reservation and in other places where American Indians were involved in things.

“I just got this idea for a story about an American Indian father and son who have an argument about whether to continue a tribal ritual into the next generation. [Now,] I cannot claim to be a spokesperson for the American Indian, but the theme, I believe, is one that is common to everybody, regardless of ancestry: the conflict of old and new, progressive versus traditional. Those things I understand – those things everybody understands and can relate to, and so I wrote it from that perspective. I was fortunate in that it was one of the winners of that playwriting competition. It received a staged reading and was later fully-produced by that theater company. So it gave me a great incentive to continue writing plays.”

Since then, Amada has had numerous works translated to staged readings and full productions. And outside of The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt, this year has been a particularly busy one for the New Jersey-native; his 10-minute comedy The World’s First Vegetarians by Moral Conviction was recently included as one of the nine works to be staged for a three-week run as part of the New York-based Triangle Theatre Company’s annual “Beast Festival”.

“The premise of all of the short plays in the festival has to be that an animal is at the center of the dramatic conflict – but the animal can’t appear on stage,” Amada explains. “[Vegetarians] is a comedy about a Stone Age couple that has vowed to have a meatless life. However, the man has strayed, and it results in some domestic squabbles in the cave. It’s not so much a play about vegetarians as it is about contemporary society’s ability to have an argument over just about any noble conviction that we make, because we all take ourselves a bit too seriously sometimes. The comedy of the play is based on anachronism; it’s all written in contemporary American speech and slang, even though it’s set in the Stone Age, with actors wearing skins and wild wigs. It was kind of fun to watch it take place.”

Amada’s own subject-interests are as varied as the several thousand years between Vegetarians and Surratt, and he approaches whatever genre strikes his fancy with little reservation.

Amada
It's not
going to be
perfect on
the first draft.
It's not
going to be
perfect on
the tenth draft.

Rich Amada

[Comedy and drama] both have their pluses and minuses in terms of difficulty,” he admits. “Comedy is typically more difficult to write because it has to be funny. If a drama is not working well, the audience is quiet, and they may just be attentive. If a comedy’s not working well and the audience is quiet, you do not have a good situation. With drama, you don’t have to worry about getting laughs, but you do have to have a situation that your audience will buy into and care about. It’s something that we talk about quite frequently at the playwright organizations that I belong to: I, as an audience member watching your play, don’t start with the same interests and fascinations that you may have, so you have to get me interested. You have to get me to care about characters. I have to care about what happens to them, I have to think that there’s a significant stake in what happens, and carrying that through for the duration of the play is a real challenge.”

Amada has, in fact, built his life upon seeking out new challenges. “This is actually my third career,” he says with regard to his practice of law. “I started in journalism…got out of that and went into public relations, working for the University of Arizona, doing communications for them. And while I was there I took advantage of the tuition waiver that employees get and went to the law school. So I literally worked my way through law school.”

For his playwriting, Amada draws from all corners of his experience. “I think it’s a combination of always having enjoyed creative writing and having been trained as a broadcast journalist to write for the visuals that appear on the television screen,” he explains of his chosen medium. “I was writing for the ear – which is what we’re trained to write for in television, as opposed to the longer compound sentences that are acceptable for print – so I was already writing in a dialogue-type fashion in my professional career. And writing for visuals, and putting that together for something that would appear onstage where an audience is going to both see and hear the action – it just seemed like a natural way to go. I find this to be a great outlet for creativity.”

As for uncharted waters, Amada admits that he’s mulling a possible stab at horror. In the meantime, his next staged production, Free Shot, will mark a return to drama.

“Set in the near future, [Free Shot] takes place in a society where government has determined that victims of violent crimes who do not get what might be considered ‘real justice’ in the courtroom get a new form of justice: a permit that allows them to kill one person of their choice,” Amada explains of Free Shot, which has undergone numerous revisions in the decade or so since the concept first took root. “The protagonist is a woman who has lost her family due to senseless gang violence – a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time kind of situation. She’s morally outraged by the notion of vigilantism being a way to deal with these things, but she’s pressured by her own parents, who want justice for the loss of their granddaughter and son-in-law; by her boss, who sees this as a really good business opportunity to bump off his principal business competition, since she’s got a license to kill; and by her own government, which is anxious for her to use the card so they can take it back from her when she’s finished and [restore] equilibrium.”

The world-premiere, full production of Free Shot will be staged this January by Theatre Conspiracy this January in Fort Myers, Florida

♦♦♦

But when exactly does an attorney with a busy, high-profile firm find the time to write award-winning plays?

“I carve out the time,” Amada says. “I have to think it out in my head and maybe outline it on paper. And I have to know what the last line of the play is going to be before I sit down to type the first line. Once I’ve got it all in my head as to how it’s going to go, I will usually pick a weekend so I can get a good running start at it. And I will just write all day, through the whole weekend. And depending on the length of the play, it may take me a couple of weeks to get through that first draft, but it goes pretty quickly for me from there. I don’t try to make it perfect on the first draft. I know that no matter how hard I try it’s not going to be perfect on the first draft. It’s not going to be perfect on the tenth draft. So I just plow through and get it done. Then I take it to groups like the Playwright’s Forum, where I can have it read before my peers and have them give me honest critique. ‘Loved your show, babe,’ is wonderful to hear, and it’s a good ego-stroke, but it doesn’t help you fix the problems in your play. And the people in these groups know that.

“Every writer I know says exactly the same thing: you have to be compelled to write. If you have the compulsion, you will do it. You will make the time. The hardest thing to do is to sit down and type “Act I” or “Chapter I” – whatever it is – to just get started.

“Unless you are Neil Simon or David Mamet, you can’t make a living as a playwright. You could make much more money working a minimum-wage job at any fast-food restaurant than you can in being a playwright, but I feel the compulsion to do it.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: November 2005

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