For local screenwriters Steven Gottlieb and Howard Walper, the second season of HBO’s Project Greenlight produced many fond memories: Meeting Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, attending the Sundance Film Festival, catching a glimpse of J.Lo. What their involvement with the show during the winter of 2002 didn’t produce, however, was a feature-length film.
Though it was a Top 10 finalist on the show, the script for Renaissance—the story of the relationship between Shalom, a World War II veteran who has developed amnesia, and Emma, a concentration camp survivor who wants to forget the very years her husband wishes he could remember—eventually lost out to more Hollywood-friendly fare. “We were happy to get as far as we did,” Gottlieb says. “It was an incredible experience that allowed us to get our work out there and to acquire representation, which not everyone gets.”
So, in January 2003, Gottlieb and Walper returned to their respective regular lives as a Bethesda lawyer and Olney marketing director. In his spare time, Walper kept his hand in showbiz, playing guitar for Landless Theatre Company’s production of Frozty the Abominable Snowman. He mentioned the script to Landless artistic director Andrew Lloyd Baughman, who liked the Greenlight allure.
“Everything we do has to have a unique hook so that we can stand out in the crowd,” Baughman says. “Renaissance, being a fairly mainstream type of work, is also a little off the beaten path for Landless. Our audiences are more used to camp or shock theater.”
In 2006, two years after he first thought about rewriting the script for stage, a break in Baughman’s normally hectic schedule provided him with the opportunity to work on Gottlieb and Walper’s screenplay. For almost a year, he streamlined the story, shuffling scenes, shifting focus, and dropping characters. “After my initial crack at the script, we bounced it around between the three of us and worked through at least three different drafts,” Baughman says.
New script in hand, the trio set out in search of a director. “The initial intent was for me to direct the play, but in my experience with original work, it is often best for a first production to be directed by someone outside of the writing process with a fresh pair of eyes,” Baughman says in an e-mail. “John-Paul Pizzica had applied to direct for the Landless season, and—although, coming from distinguished academia, he seemed an unlikely match for the usual Landless material—I knew he was perfect for this particular play.”
Casting the play, however, was no such easy task. “This story requires several cast members to play multiple characters and for several characters to play roles that span a quarter century,” Walper says. “Then we had the added challenge of looking for older actors in a city where most of the talent pool is in their mid-20s.” At a chilly casting session in February, seasoned actor Alan Kulakow landed the role of Shalom. Penny Peterson was picked to play Emma. Peterson, auditioning via a Skype call from Italy, was the last actress considered, out of more than 60. “John-Paul wanted to hold out for the perfect cast,” says Baughman, “and I’m so glad he pushed for that.”
Gottlieb and Walper are more than happy with the final result. “Our characters kept their voices, and the themes and story itself remained unchanged,” Gottlieb says.
“Of course, when we were writing this as a movie, we had certain actors in mind. I personally saw Anthony Hopkins as the lead,” Walper adds. “Who knows—maybe someday Anthony Hopkins will get a shot at performing the lead role. But he’s going to have a hell of a big pair of shoes to fill.”
Renaissance runs Thursdays through Saturdays (no performance May 3) at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., to Saturday, May 19, at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. $18. (202) 462-7833.