Like many great beginnings, it happened over drinks at a cocktail party. The details are fuzzy, but it was definitely 1988, in Manhattan, and inside Greg Johnson's apartment. The theater director was hosting the usual assortment of actors, producers, playwrights and the like, and someone introduced Johnson to a writer named Roger Hedden.
"We hit it off," recalls Johnson. "Ever on the lookout for new material, I asked if he had anything I could read."
"I had a one-act, Terry Neal's Future," says Hedden.
"And it's great, it's wonderful, and we end up putting it on at the West Bank Theatre Bar," says Johnson.
"It was an old basement theater run by Rusty Magee and Lewis Black, the comedian," adds Hedden.
"That was really the beginning ... ," says Johnson
"... the beginning of all this," concludes Hedden, grandly, and a little in jest, realizing that the two had just pulled off an impromptu routine of building on each other's sentences.
Hedden's "all this" refers to the culmination of a single project—and a friendship—that started with that introduction in Johnson's apartment. Over the last 23 years, there have been plenty other drinks, dozens of different projects, and countless conversations where Hedden, now an accomplished playwright and screenwriter, completes a thought for Johnson, now the longtime artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre. But it staggers both of them to realize that next week's debut of Direct, a trio of one-acts written by Hedden and directed by Johnson, tracks their entire history working together.
"It's the premiere of the dream we had from literally the time we met," says Johnson. "I always knew it would happen."
"Well, sure—eventually," adds Hedden.
Direct withstood years on the backburner mostly because of the buzz and promise generated from Hedden's first two one-acts. Terry Neal's Future features an enigmatic film director ("Think Terrence Malick," says Hedden) talking with a popular young actor who's about to prematurely land on the cover of Time magazine ("Think Tom Cruise," says Johnson). Early runs in New York starred Sarah Jessica Parker in the role of the young actor's girlfriend, and the late J. T. Walsh (A Few Good Men) as the director.
"It's a perfect study of the cross-section of art, vision and commerce," says Johnson, adding the dialogue holds as true today as it did in the late '80s.
The second one-act, Artistic Direction, hit the Manhattan Punch Line stage in 1989, and focused on a different type of backstage dynamic. A bombastic Off-Broadway director shares post-show drinks with a second-string New York Times theater critic in hopes of coaxing a positive review. The company, it turns out, could fold if the show gets trashed. Audiences adored the manic main character—as did the Times, which actually sent its second-string critic to review the play. (True story: The critic was less kind to the overall production, calling it an implausible narrative, and instead heaped praise on a one-act musical titled The Fertilization Opera. "I mean, why didn't I think of that?" jokes Hedden. "Singing sperm are so real!")
The Times review aside, Johnson thought he and Hedden had something great to work with. Artistic Direction could be paired with Terry Neal's Future, creating a vehicle for a star playing both director roles. If Hedden could pen a third one-act along the same lines, there'd be an evening's worth of material.
"We just needed another solid idea," Hedden says.
That was in 1990, and things slowly changed for both director and writer. Hedden's work pulled him toward Los Angeles, where he went to work for Warner Brothers and wrote screenplays for indie films Bodies, Rest & Motion, Sleep With Me and Hi-Life. Although he was working on other projects, the one-acts still lived on, albeit in an unlikely locale. "We held readings in Roger's living room," says Johnson.
If a Manhattan cocktail party marked the beginning of Direct, the idea found its foothold on the floor of Hedden's modest West Hollywood apartment. It was there that Elisabeth Shue (Adventures in Babysitting, Leaving Las Vegas) reprised the role Sarah Jessica Parker had played in New York. A smattering of friends and colleagues—most from talent agency CAA—watched the double-bill from seat cushions on the floor. "It was only 30, 35 people squished into this room, but the reaction was great," says Johnson. "Our reaction was that this needed to continue."
"We just needed the third idea," says Hedden.
The third idea didn't come for another 10 years. In the meantime, while Hedden wrote in L.A., Johnson moved to Missoula in 1991, took over the Rep and began teaching at the University of Montana. In 1996 he co-founded the Missoula Colony, an annual workshop for playwrights, directors and actors, and continued to work regularly with Hedden.
Finally, in 2000, Hedden hatched an idea for a third one-act about a daytime soap opera director desperately trying to move into prime-time programming. The script debuted during a reading at the Colony in 2005.
"It was perfect because we had the film director and the Off-Broadway director, and now we had a good story based on a television director," says Johnson.
"I just needed the idea," says Hedden.
The last piece came together for a Missoula premiere when Johnson saw Jeff Medley. Johnson and Hedden had always envisioned a distinct and forceful actor playing the lead director roles. "Think Al Pacino," says Johnson.
"Except Pacino is way too old now," says Hedden.
Medley stood out in local productions of Oliver!, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Rocky Horror Show.
"Jeff has that quality where you can't take your eyes off him while he's on stage, and that's the type of actor we needed," says Johnson. "It'll be a challenge for him."
For Johnson and Hedden, the challenge will be finally seeing something 23 years in the making come to fruition. Hedden, who spent last winter writing for television's "Criminal Minds," is still tinkering with two jokes that may be outdated. Johnson is already talking about where Direct could be produced next. When they stop to reflect, both sound relieved it's finally reached its premiere.
"It took a lot of work," says Johnson.
"And a lot of patience," says Hedden.
"And a lot of cocktails," says Johnson.
Just as the good ideas usually do.
Montana Rep Missoula stages Direct at the Masquer Theatre inside the PARTV Building on the UM campus Thu., Sept. 22– Sat., 24, and Tues., Sept. 27– Sat., Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m. $11/Friday and Saturday shows $16/student rush $6.