A visit with PATRICIA JOUDRY and JOHN STEELE
What happens when a Canadian playwright emerges from five years of flops and frustrations to crash Broadway and capture a $250,000 Hollywood contract? Here’s an intimate glimpse into the lives of a couple who get the clearest view of their homeland from a London hilltop
FAMOUS FAMILIES AT HOME
FIVE YEARS AGO, Patricia Joudry, a young, Alberta-born, Montreal-raised and Toronto-based playwright, stood outside New York's Theatre de Lys and saw her name in lights. It was a scene straight out of soap opera: the radio hack who turned legitimate had won an off-Broadway production of her first stage play, Teach Me How To Cry. The play sold to Hollywood, and her future seemed assured. But, instead, she entered a fiveyear drought of flops and frustrations until even she began wondering if her first success hadn't been simply a fluke.
Now, at last, a true happy ending seems in sight. Semi-Detached, her new play due to open this month on Broadway, has been bought by Hollywood for a sum that has left even blasé New York producers gasping with disbelief. Her deal with Warner Brothers calls for a down payment of a hundred thousand dollars, plus weekly payments up to a total of $ 150,000, depending on how long the play runs on Broadway.
At $250,000, Patricia Joudry would be as handsomely paid as Ernest Hemingway was for his biggest Hollywood sale — The Old Man and the Sea. Even the late Neville Shute's widely touted On the Beach brought him only $100.000 from Hollywood.
But it is not only for this one coup that she can claim to be Canada’s most up-andcoming playwright. In the last year, in addition to Semi-Detached, she has written three other new plays. One of these, Walk Alone
Together, won second prize in the Stratford (Ont.) Shakespearean Festival competition and will be produced this spring, under a different title, in London’s West End. Her other new plays are being read by producers. Besides these, she has also done a complete rewrite of one of her old plays, The Sand Castle, and producers in New York and London arc interested in it.
Since June 1957, Miss Joudry and her husband, producer John Steele, the former Toronto photographer, have been living in London. Their family includes their two daughters—five-year-old Stephanie and twoyear-old Melanie—and sixteen-year-old Gay, one of Miss Joudry’s daughters by a previous marriage that ended in divorce.
The plays are written, and the daughters raised, in a rambling, three-story house on a gracefully decaying street overlooking wind-swept Primrose Hill, north of Regents Park. Indoors, the accent is on the casual. Much of the furniture was picked up at auction sales; a few pieces are old stage properties, reconditioned by John. “An interior decorator would be horrified — it’s such a hodgepodge,” says Patricia.
She is now thirty-eight. John forty-three. With her pony tail, harlequin glasses and colorful slacks, Patricia looks more like a young actress than a playwright and mother. Professionally, her outstanding qualities arc an extra-sensitive sympathy and a liking for hard work.
CONTINUED ON PAGE 32
Continued from page 24
“I write about Canadians, but I wanted to get away from them — to see them in perspective”
Tt was in 1954 that Patricia Joudry turned to serious writing after eight lucrative years as a writer of radio serials. For four years in New York she wrote scripts for the Aldrich Family series at $1,750 apiece. Then she spent another four years in Toronto, grinding out Affectionately Jenny, a CBC heart-warmer. With encouragement from CBC's drama boss, Andrew Allan. Patricia began writing serious radio scripts—among them Teach Me How To Cry, her non-tragic version of the Romeo and Juliet legend, set in the Canadian west.
Rewritten as a stage play and submitted off-Broadway, Teach Me How To Cry was sold at the first try. While many critics had reservations, all agreed with Walter Kerr of the Herald-Tribune that “Patricia Joudry's writing is everywhere marked by talent." Universal-International bought the movie rights for $25.000 and produced a film version called The Restless Years.
"All that success made me over-confident,’’ Patricia now admits. "I thought the whole business was a cinch, and I could write a string of Broadway hits.”
Back in Toronto she discovered she couldn't. Her second play and John's first production. Three Rings for Michele, came a cropper and lost the Canadian backers all their ten thousand dollars. Critics complained of tangled imagery, audiences stayed away, and a hoped-for move to Broadway never materialized.
One of the few consolations was the continuing success of Teach Me How To Cry, which soon became a favorite with amateur groups all over North America. To date, it has had about a hundred amateur productions and brings in up to two thousand dollars a year in royalties.
While Patricia was writing in Toronto, John was becoming fed up with photography, although his theatrical portraits were winning him a reputation.
"After twenty years of taking pictures, I got bored,” he told me when I visited him and Patricia recently. “I'd always had the theatre bug — I used to put on plays and act in them as a kid — so I decided to try producing full time. Of course, it helped to have a playwright in the house."
In the spring of 1957 the Steeles sold their coach house and John’s photography business and moved to London.
“I decided that Teach Me How To Cry was something of a fluke and that I had to learn the whole business of writing plays from scratch,” Patricia explained. “I write about Canadians, but 1 wanted to get away from them, to sec them in perspective."
At first, the Steeles were very much two innocents in a notoriously bloodthirsty theatrical capital. "It's a very tight little world," John said. "British producers don't go out of their way to welcome newcomers.”
Teach Me How To Cry, provided a convenient wedge. Before he left Canada, John had raised enough backing from Canadian. U.S. and British sources for a production at London's Arts Theatre, a West End club with a reputation for prestige shows.
Renamed Noon Has No Shadows and featuring an all-Canadian cast, the play opened in the summer of 1958 with high hopes of a speedy transfer to a larger theatre. Once again, critics killed the dream. "We had quite a few good reviews, but they were from the wrong critics,” John recalled.
Discouraged, but far from defeated, the Steeles retired to Primrose Hill to prepare for another assault on the West End.
"It wasn't easy,” John told me. "I wanted to learn the business, and I was willing to start as a stage hand. But no one would hire me. They said I had too much prestige even to be a stage manager. So I realized I had to be a producer, or nothing.”
"And I realized that John had nothing to produce,” Patricia added. "So 1 got back to writing plays.”
Both Steeles claim that keeping family and work close together is an important ingredient of their success — both as a
family and as a professional theatrical team.
"The title of one of my plays — Walk Alone Together — is very meaningful.” Patricia explained. “It’s exactly what we’re trying to do: be together but stand up on our own feet as individuals.”
"It’s a case of having some interests in common and always building bridges to link the others,” John added. "You can't have everything in common — falling in love is partly a case of admiring the qualities in someone which you find lacking in yourself.”
But their marriage is far from a union of complete opposites—imaginative playwright and practical producer. Patricia relies on John for criticism of her first drafts, and according to John, Patricia has an intuitive sense of what will sell in theatrical markets.
At home, the Steeles follow a firm daily routine. John rises first, makes breakfast and serves it to Patricia in bed. After breakfast. Patricia spreads her papers out on the bed. sits in an arm chair, and begins to work. She writes in longhand, with a bold scrawl, on sheets of yellow paper held on a clipboard. She's closeted in the bedroom from 9.30 to 1 p.m.
In theory, their two servants look after the children in the morning, but in practice, John does much of the work. "He’s a very important part of Stephanie and Melanie’s life, and that wouldn't be 'he case if he was away in an office all day,” Patricia said.
READY CASH When I have any, This I know: It’s not only ready, But set to go. R. H. GRENVILLE
But selling plays is as time-consuming as writing them, and John spends much of the day in his cubbyhole of an office. Nearly all his negotiating with producers is done by letter. "English producers get nervous if you phone them up, and they don’t really want to meet you. So I write letters — endlessly. For one play alone — The Sand Castle — I’ve got four bulky files of letters.”
After lunch, Patricia devotes the afternoon to the children, especially Stephanie and Melanie. Sometimes John joins them. At sixteen, Gay has begun to develop her own life. She’s already a successful fashion model and her picture has appeared in Vogue and several leading British magazines, although she has kept up her studies at the American School in London.
In spite of the age differences, and the fact that she seems the most introverted of a generally extroverted family. Gay is very close to Stephanie and Melanie. "It’s not all sweetness and light at home, you know,” John said. “The two kids often fight, and Gay is the only one who can always pacify them.” As if on cue, Stephanie and Melanie began exchanging mild blows, and Gay broke it up.
Most evenings, after dinner, Patricia gets back to writing — in the bath. For as long as three hours, she sits, soaks and writes on a board.
“It’s my most creative period,” she said.
With five plays in the hands of producers, the Steeles are beginning to slacken the pace. There is more time to listen to music. They brought a hi-fi set from Canada and have a small record collection, mostly Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.
There is also more time to read. Patricia is now rereading all of Shakespeare and a large number of other classic dramatists. She also reads books on psychology and on playwrighting.
Unlike most Canadian expatriates, the Steeles do little grumbling about English food. They even find the coffee acceptable.
On Sundays, John cooks dinner. When I visited them, he produced a roast of beef that would have done credit to a cordon bleu.
About once a week, Patricia and John go to the theatre. This way, they see about half the plays in London. But their social life is kept to a minimum.
“We never go to cocktail parties,” Patricia said, “and when we have people in, it’s never more than two or three at a time, so we can really talk.”
For Patricia, even small gatherings have their limitations. “I can see so much going on behind their faces. But there are some questions you don’t ask, not even of friends. Those are the questions I ask in my plays.”
This concern with people, rather than ideas or situations, is the keynote of her plays, especially the early ones.
"I cut out anything which is not pertaining to people and their emotions,” she explained. “I attract emotions like a magnet, and I reject everything which is purely factual and concrete.”
Patricia speaks frankly and without artifice about her intense feeling for nature and for people, especially children. She refuses to thumb through Britain’s mass-circulation newspapers in search of reviews, for fear of finding stories of tragedies involving children. "They make me suffer for weeks,” she said.
Empathy with young people is especially important in all her plays, and in her later ones, sadness and even tragedy are increasingly evident. Patricia describes
Semi-Detached, the Broadway play, as “serious but not solemn — my first tragic drama." Set in Montreal, it concerns two families, one English, the other French, who share a semi-detached house. The drama springs not only from the intolerance between the families, but also from their own personal frustrations.
It’s not as heavy as it might sound. When Philip Rose, the Broadway producer of Raisin In The Sun, snapped up the first draft of Semi-Detached, he wrote lo Patricia: “This is a play that has humanity, humor and something to say.”
For her, it also represents an important technical advance. "This is the first play that I’ve written around an essentially dramatic situation, as well as around interesting people,” Patricia explained to me. “In the past. I’ve concentrated on the people, which is why some critics have complained about a lack of form.”
Semi-Detached is also her most "Canadian" play. “That’s a difficult thing to define. But my earlier plays didn’t bring out all the little differences in background and everyday life that make Canadians different from Americans or anyone else. In Semi-Detached, I’ve dealt with a situation that could only be Canadian, and I hope I’ve done it without losing universal appeal.
Again, she tried to define a “Canadian” play: “Partly it’s the dialogue. We speak a mixture of English and American and a peculiar Canadian quality which I know instinctively but can’t really describe. There is also a Canadian quality of imagination. It has something to do with a feeling of space and freedom, the elements of nature, and our rapid growth as a nation.”
Although they arc far from bitter, the Steeles have been discouraged by their dealings with Canadian producers and potential Canadian backers.
"A lot of Canadian backers were badly burned in the past,” John admitted. American angels have proved more courageous. Many lost heavily on Noon Has No Shadows, but they have already pledged about six thousand dollars toward a London production of The Sand Castle.
When he was selling Semi-Detached, John sent copies to the Crest Theatre in Toronto, and Gratiën Gelinas’ bilingual Comedie Canadienne in Montreal. Neither showed any immediate interest. Somewhat discouraged, John sent a copy to Philip Rose in New York and received an immediate acceptance.
Now that they are breaking into the big time, the Steeles hope that productions and hacking will be easier to arrange. Because of his success with Raisin In The Sun, Philip Rose needed only a week to raise $75,000 of the $100,000 needed to produce Semi-Detached.
Since completing Semi-Detached, Patricia has written the first draft of a new play. The Immortal Rose, which concerns a Hollywood movie queen who suddenly realizes she has wasted her life.
‘Tve never been to Hollywood, but it’s a theme that means a lot to me,” Patricia said. ‘'I've always been afraid of wasting my life—something keeps driving me on.”
Like many expatriates, the Steeles may have reached the point of becoming too successful to return to Canada.
“Will you go back some day?” I asked them.
"Sure, we’ll go back," John said. “In ten or twenty years — whenever there is real theatre in Canada.” it
In the Joudry-Steele team, he criticizes her scripts and she suggests how he can sell them