Capital Fringe: Madam Ambassador

— by guest writer Henry “Duke” Ryan —

I admit it, I am an addicted writer.  If I don’t write, I get nervous, upset, irritable. So one day, with nothing to write I thought, “how about a play for an actress friend. It will start with her asking for a divorce, while her husband is working out at a punching bag.” 

OK, but why does she want a divorce? Ah! Why? Motive and all that. Well, let me see.  I know, she wants to be a diplomat; that’s it, an ambassador, and he, a rough diamond, former boxer, could never cut it in diplomatic circles.  Furthermore, you have to buy the kind of really neat European post she wants by putting buckets of money in the president’s campaign fund, and she hardly has bus fare.  Alas, what to do?  She desperately needs more money and less husband.

Click for tickets to Madam Ambassador

Click for tickets to Madam Ambassador

OK, I thought, that’s good. Now, let’s see what she does. But wait, I can’t tell you here because that will be the story, and I mustn’t give it away.  But once I got this far, I found I was writing “a comedy of serious intent,” as I like to say.  I am a retired Foreign Service Officer, who served with the late U.S. Information Agency for 25 years. (It has since been dragged kicking and screaming into the State Department.) So, with this play, I was on the road to lampooning a really bad system, the sale of top diplomatic posts, but always with a light touch.  It had to be an amusing story, never a screed.

A Cambridge (UK) don who saw a reading called it “brilliantly witty,” while his colleagues asked, “Do you really pick ambassadors like that?” Given a little artistic license, the answer is “yes” at least to the nice posts, where the natives are friendly, social life swings, and you can drink the water.

So the play had a reading here and there, and I workshopped it with a local group called Playwrights’ Forum, but then I got into other things and put it in a drawer for ages.  A couple of years ago I joined a group called Playwrights’ Collaborative, writers who work on developing new plays.  I hauled out Madam Ambassador, and we were off.

I massaged it here and there, and then held a staged reading at the Writers’ Center in Bethesda. That went well, and Patsy Magno, whom I asked to play the lead this time, a very big role, did a spectacular job. Then, more or less by accident, Cambridge (UK) was next. I was going to be there in the summer. (I always am. I’m a life member of a college at the university.)  Patsy was going to be there for a conference.  So it seemed ordained that we do a reading of the play there.   Ordained maybe, but I hadn’t worked that hard on anything for years–trying to put all the parts of a show together in mid summer in England. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m pleased to say it was a great success.

That led me to think of doing it in the DC Capital Fringe this summer.  I asked Patsy if she was interested, and she thought it was a superb idea.  I found a capable director and we were off—well, wait, no we weren’t.

In May, my director developed serious health problems—in May!!  June is heavy-duty rehearsal month, and I had no director. Furthermore, everyone I tried was in some wretched show or other, especially since we were coming up on two festivals, Source Theatre’s and the Capital Fringe.  But just then, like Lochinvar, out of the West (Glover Park anyway) stepped the young and talented George Grant.  He had an opening in his schedule.  We agreed to dance together.

Next, get a cast. The retiring director, bless her heart, had auditioned and taped a bevy of candidates, so we were in pretty good shape.  We selected Doug Graupman, a capable and strong actor, to play opposite Patsy; Jim Epstein to be a downstate Illinois political fixer; Richard Fiske to play a really loathsome K Street political lawyer, and Diana Partridge to be a sweet Danish maid with a thieving tendency.

Madam Ambassador
by Duke Ryan
90 minutesz
at Fort Fringe – The Shop
607 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
But alas, bad health was dogging us; our stage manager and do-it-all IT genius, John Sowalsky, had to drop out to undergo what is apparently the Mount Everest of dental surgery.  But he agreed, nevertheless, to provide invaluable help with the graphics involved in the publicity.  So George filled the gap with two energetic and capable young women, both from this year’s graduating classes, Tracey Erbacher from Vassar and Joanna Cross from Frostburg State, both theater majors.  They split the job of assistant director/stage manager.

So now we are in a frenzy of learning lines, fine tuning blocking, and carving up the script so that we don’t run over the 90 minute limit the Fringe has given us. We are told that Fringe “enforcers” will turn on the lights and tell us to get off the stage if we run long. Really, they say they will, and you have to believe them.

As of this moment, however, we are sure we have a really good show.  Come and see what you think.  We open July 11 and will have five performances at “The Shop.” It is at 607 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20001. Look for the colorful awning. The price is $17.00 and you must also buy a “button,” a pass, in effect, that is good for all Fringe shows.  Buttons cost $5.00 until July 11 and $7.00 thereafter.

Finally, the Fringe asks me to tell anyone who will listen that the show is part of the Washington, DC, non-profit Capital Fringe, running July 11-28, 2013.

See you at the show.


– Washington writer Henry “Duke” Ryan is an historian and former diplomat who has written two books plus numerous shorter works on historical topics. He has written commentaries heard on National Public Radio stations and the Voice of America, and is a frequent guest, on BBC Radio in Cambridge, UK. –

Part of Fringe Peeks, our “in their own words” series



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