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Bo Wilson's "War Story" finally comes to life on stage.

The Birth of a Play

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It is not often one is present for the birth of a play, the first time its words come off the page and are heard aloud. Naturally, when the play finally ventures out into the world one feels a sense of kinship.

Imagine then how hopeful one feels when that play, with national recognition under its belt, comes home for its world premiere, in this case at Barksdale Theatre.

By good fortune, I was privy to the first toddling steps of the play, "War Story," by Richmonder Bo Wilson. I was in the lobby of Barksdale four years ago when actors Dawn Ursula and Jerry Guarino (Wilson's father-in-law) read the first draft for members of The Richmond Playwrights Forum.

The setup was simple: a crusty old Army general stuck in a room with a female cadet who sued her way into the general's alma mater. Just as I suspected, it didn't take long for a skirmish to break out between the two. I remember thinking, Wilson has conceived something good and this baby might go somewhere.

Later that year, I was present for "War Story's" first staged reading at Barksdale. The story was compelling, the characters strong, the dialogue snappy, but the script needed trimming. Wilson, knowing the importance of exposing those tender pages to the public, listened to the feedback.

However, he says, "I get more from sensing the audience mood. You can feel when they're getting bored." From that reading, Wilson went back to the keyboard, reworked the script "to hook" the audience and made substantial cuts.

Next he developed a tactical plan. He set up a database of theaters and sent out a massive mailing — 80 letters of inquiry. Out of 70 responses, 50 theater companies wanted to see the script.

Within a few months Wilson's maneuvers began to pay off. In March 2000, "War Story" was selected for the U.S. West Theatre Fest in Denver. A month later it was tapped for a new play festival in Rockford, Ill. and a workshop in Lansing, Mich.

In June 2000 — on the very day "War Story" received the only standing ovation at the Denver festival — Wilson's wife called to relay a message: Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke had awarded him a $1,000 prize and four workshop performances of his play. "War Story" was going places.

Back home, Barksdale artistic director Bruce Miller was in the midst of scheduling the theater's season. He had seen the reading a few years before. He also had commissioned Wilson to write plays for young audiences. Wilson told Miller he made significant rewrites. "I think Bruce wanted a new play," Wilson says, "and was keen on producing a local playwright." Obviously so. Barksdale's glossy publicity brochures went out announcing the world premiere of "War Story."

Director John Moon cast the show. "We were very lucky to get exactly what we wanted," Wilson says, "Darryl Clarke Phillips as the general and University of Richmond student Needra McClyde as the cadet." Wilson, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in theater arts, says he has been amazingly lucky never to have held a "real" job: "I've always had some theater-based job to support me while I write."

Wilson has written dozens of plays, some produced, including over a dozen commissioned works for Theatre IV and the Science Museum of Virginia. His work includes scripts for corporate training films, 40 films in the safety and human resources areas. As a stage manager, he has staged more than 55 productions with the League of Regional Theatres and as a professional voice talent he has been heard nationwide in over 500 broadcast ads.

Now Wilson will have the opportunity to see what the hometown audience thinks of his work. Like a proud aunt who was there for the birth, I'll be at Barksdale, along with members of the Richmond Playwrights Forum, to cheer on Wilson and his baby, "War Story."

"I'll be a wreck," Wilson says. "I'll be living and dying with every laugh or cry." Regardless of the outcome, Wilson says, he knows he put up a good fight. "At the end of the day, somebody did my play," he adds. "How great is that?"



"War Story" runs through Jan. 27 at the Barksdale Theatre, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive. For ticket information, call 282-2620.

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