By Kevin T. Baldwin
The Majestic Theatre
By Stan Freeman
"The Pitch" by Stan Freeman. Presented by the Majestic Theater, 131 Elm St, West Springfield, MA 01089 Performances: Feb. 27 through April 5. Ticket prices range from $24 to $31. For tickets and more information: https://www.majestictheater.com/boxoffice.html#tickets or contact the box office at (413) 747-7797. You may also visit the box office when it is open (Monday through Friday 10:00am to 5:00pm, Saturdays 10:00am through 1:00pm).
Written by Stan Freeman. Directed by Danny Eaton.
Cast: John Haag and Julian Findlay.
With the Majestic Theatre’s upcoming production of Stan Freeman’s “The Pitch” the theatre has the distinction of producing the world premiere of Freeman’s play.
Freeman lives in Northampton. As a journalist, his articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His historical novel, "The Dutton Girl," was published by Coffeetown Press of Seattle in 2018. "The Pitch" is his first play.
METR caught up with Freeman who discussed his career, the evolution of "The Pitch" and how his collaboration with the Majestic came about.
“We had a reading in Northampton, where I live, at Forbes Library and, knowing the Majestic is about the only resident professional theater in the area, I emailed Danny Eaton, the producing director, to see if he wanted to come,” Freeman recalls. “He said he couldn’t but requested to read the script. The next day he made me an offer.”
According to Freeman's bio, he did not begin working at newspapers until his thirties, starting at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton then eventually moving down the river to the Springfield Morning Union and Sunday Republican, where he spent the next twenty-eight years, winning several journalism awards along the way.
Freeman, now 71, discusses the inspiration of the story.
“In 2009, I was still working at a reporter at the ‘Springfield Newspapers,’ where I’d worked for nearly 30 years,” Freeman says. “The paper was losing circulation and there had been several rounds of layoffs, so I started looking for other writing opportunities.”
According to Freeman, he was briefly a sportswriter in high school covering his school’s football team for a local paper in Huntington, N.Y., where he grew up.
However, at the time, this inspired no journalistic ambitions in him. Then, while in his 20s, he had been involved in the MFA in fiction writing program at University of Massachusetts and periodically still did a bit of fiction writing.
“I had a short story sitting in a drawer about two sportswriters collaborating on a book about an obscure baseball player, except they spent most of their time arguing,” Freeman recollects. “I thought it might be a good screenplay, so I wrote the screenplay and sent it to about 30 producers whose emails I could find online.”
Unfortunately, Freeman got almost no response for his story. However, he remembers one stage and film producer based in New York, Norman Twain, who got in touch and said that, while he didn’t think it would make for a compelling film, he did think it might make for a good stage play.
“He said I should write about 20 pages of a play and send it to him,” Freeman says. “I’d never written a play so I got hold of about a dozen at the library, read them, and wrote the opening.”
According to Freeman, Norman liked it and over the next six months, Freeman would work on it, email the pages to Norman and his wife, Deanna, who was also a Broadway producer.
“We’d get in the phone on Sunday and they’d give me notes,” Freeman says. "They were very good in that they never told me what to write but they prodded in me the direction they knew the play had to go. They were frequently telling me ‘less chitchat and more drama’ or something to that effect.”
Once completed, Norman optioned it. But over the next year, he wasn’t able to get a production going.
“I don’t think he was interested in Off-Off-Broadway or even Off-Broadway,” Freeman recalls. “He was nearly 80 and near the end of his career and I think only a major Broadway play interested him. And that didn’t pan out. So eventually, he went on to other projects and so did I.”
However, a couple of years ago, Freeman took the play out of a drawer, read it and quickly thought of several ways to improve it. Eventually, he let a few friends read it and one passed it to John Haag, a New York actor who moved up to the area with his wife.
“John loved the play and especially the role of the retired sportswriter, so we started talking about a reading, which lead to the Forbes Library reading and the Majestic offer,” Freeman says.
Freeman recalls the main inspiration for the play, which could be described as a human story against the backdrop of baseball.
“I have always been a baseball fan, so the inspiration partially came out of that, but it may have started because I ran across an obituary of someone local who spent a few years in pro baseball but never had a sustained career,” Freeman says.
A little about the story:
"The Pitch" is a play about baseball, best friends ... and betrayal.
Retired sportswriter Roger Pennell (John Haag) reluctantly agrees to collaborate with a young reporter, Mike Resnick (Julian Findlay), on the biography of a boyhood friend of his.
That friend, Vernon Peters, was a pitcher—a lefty who could throw a fastball.
He'd been languishing in Triple-A on a farm team for the New York Yankees, but then came "the call" and he was in the "Bigs", and on the mound at Yankee Stadium. In the batter's box was Boston's Carl Yastrzemski.
Peters threw only one pitch on that day nearly fifty years ago, and then his career in the Major Leagues abruptly ended.
In digging into the story, the young writer discovers a secret at the heart of it all—a secret the older writer fiercely intends to protect.
A lifelong baseball fan, Freeman’s first reporting assignments were to cover his high school football team for a local sports paper when he was a senior. However, he says he had no inkling that journalism was going to be in his future.
“I didn’t turn to newspapers until my early 30s when I finally realized I wasn’t going to make a career as a fiction writer,” Freeman says. “I never did any sports writing again and, in fact, did mainly science and environmental writing.”
The first time an actual audience heard “The Pitch,” at the Forbes Library reading, was the first time Freeman says he realized it would connect with an audience.
“The reaction to that reading from the audience was terrific. You can ask John Haag and Julian Findlay about that. They both had the same parts in the reading as they do at the Majestic,” Freeman says. “In total, it took me about a year to finish, if you add up all the months at different times that I worked on it.”
Findlay plays the younger sportswriter and John Haag plays the older sportswriter in “The Pitch.” While Haag's character was not based on anyone in particular, according to Freeman, when he began developing the story, he interviewed longtime city editor at the Springfield newspaper, Bill Whitney, who had recently retired.
“Great guy - He began his career as a sportswriter. I based the retired sportswriter (in “The Pitch”) on him - only as a character though. The story has nothing to do with him,” Freeman says. “Unfortunately, Bill died a few years ago and won’t get to see the play.”
Danny Eaton, the producing director of the Majestic, is directing “The Pitch.” He invited Freeman to attend rehearsals, but Freeman says he probably will not attend too many rehearsals until closer to opening.
“I think a director will have an easier time working with actors if the playwright isn’t hovering over the process,” Freeman says.
Does Freeman feel Eaton’s vision and the direction he is taking with this staging matches Freeman’s own vision of the piece?
“Danny is very good about following the script. So, as much as a performance can follow the playwright’s vision, I’m sure this will,” Freeman says.
Audiences will need to decide if “The Pitch” is more a comment on journalism, baseball or about male bonding relationships in general or if there is something else entirely going on. But Freeman advises that is it really is “all rolled into one.”
“Life has a whole lot of threads running through it, but you experience it as whole, not as a lot of distinct separate threads, if you know what I mean,” Freeman says. “I think the play is more or less like that.”
Even though Haag and Findlay were at the initial reading at Forbes Library in Sept. 2018, according to Freeman, the two appear to, “Perfectly fit the roles.”
“And, oddly, they got the roles when reading for the parts at an open audition at the Majestic, even though actors from New York to Boston came to audition,” Freeman recalls.
Now that Freeman is actually seeing his story brought to life for the first time, does what he has seen so far match whatever expectations he might have had? Also, do the performances of Haag and Findlay fall short or exceed those expectations in any way?
“I think my vision of the play has been linked to them for quite a while, so I’m very happy with where this is going,” Freeman says.
Freeman applauds the staff at the Majestic which he describes as, “Very competent people, very professional.” And the theatre he considers a “jewel.”
“I’ve been to the Majestic several times over the years and always felt (the show) was as good a production as I’ve seen in NY, and I’ve been to quite a few of those,” Freeman says.
Freeman hopes that audiences come away with a sense of enjoyment and something to think about after seeing “The Pitch.”
“A lot of times you go to a play and it was good to get out of the house for a night, but you don’t feel much else beyond that,” Freeman says. “I hope someone leaving this play looks on it as memorable in that they know it will stay with them for awhile. We’ll see.”
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)