Friday, June 26, 2015

Robert Lautz (feature story)

Playwright Robert Lautz is living with prostate cancer.

“I’m terrible,” he laughed when I asked him how he was doing. “It’s terminal, but at least this is a slow-growing cancer.”

Lautz is a longtime Davis resident who moved his family to Minnesota a month ago, where his wife’s family lives, but he was back in town briefly to watch the opening of his new play, “Third Date” at the Wilkerson Theater in Sacramento.

Lautz’s first play, “The Meaning of it All” ran at the Wilkerson in 2012.

“You did a review where you didn’t trash it,” he reminded me. “You encouraged me to keep writing, so that’s why I wrote a second play. It was as a great learning experience as my first play.

“I’ve written a comedy about cancer,” he said “ ‘Fun with mutant cells’ is the alternate title.”

Some may think it’s odd to be writing a comedy about cancer, but Lautz explained that initially, it was a series of notes to keep track of all of his medical records, but so many bizarre things happened during his treatment that he thought it might make a funny play.

And it is.

The show opened two weeks ago, and Lautz was there for the opening.

“I was thrilled,” he said. They had full houses on opening weekend and “the performance just got better and better.” He was most pleased that the audience “got it.” The point had been made.

Lautz stresses that “cancer has some clout. Doctors and nurses make a point of being very courteous and very gracious. You even get valet parking.”

But the play does hit home with doctors.

“My GP who has been my doctor for 20 years came to see it,” the playwright said. “Afterwards he said that ‘Generally we’re in the habit of creating a distance between ourselves and the patients. This reminded me not to do so.’ ”

Director Maggie Adair Upton added that a lot of cancer survivor groups have been attending.

“They either like it or they hate it,” she said, adding that one of her friends saw a preview and had to leave. There had been enough cancer in her life and she had just had enough.

“It’s a tricky show to do, but I think it’s important and I’m glad we are doing it,” Upton said.
“One woman at a talk-back after the show said parts of the play made her squirm,” said Lautz, laughing. He told her his alternate title would have been “Caution: Sections of this play may make you squirm.”

Many of those who were uncomfortable were Lautz’s friends and co-workers from the California Arts Council, where he worked for many years, who felt it was difficult to watch, knowing that these were his own experiences.

“It happened to me. Everything,” he said.

“I’m a musician,” he told me, adding that he played the vibraphone and drums and graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1976, with a degree in composition. In fact, the incidental music before and after the show was composed and performed by Lautz.

He grew up in California, but moved back East with his family for high school and college. Then he decided to return to California.

“I borrowed my father’s car and drove to Santa Cruz,” he said, adding that his father never got the car back.

He became a street musician, playing on the streets and in malls and performing gigs up and down the California coast, whenever he could find work, supporting himself for some 20 years. During that time, he met his wife in a jazz club.

It was after his wife became pregnant that he decided that “this jazz musician thing may not work out financially.”

In 1995, he ended up on the California Arts Council, a move that would bring him to Davis. By this time he had two daughters, ages 4 and 2, and real estate agents took him all over Sacramento looking for a house.

“Then I drove out to Davis, first getting lost on Olive Drive. But we fell in love with the town. It was a great place to raise our daughters,” he said.

Friends in Sacramento warned him that Davis was where the liberals were, “but we came from Santa Cruz!” he added, laughing.

He worked for the Arts Council for eight years “and then the budget went way south” so he worked for another state agency for a while and then returned to the Arts Council, where he continued to work after his 2007 cancer diagnosis until his family’s move to Minnesota.

Lautz said his character, Richard Montauk, is kind of a sexist pig who has a teenaged daughter with whom he has little relationship and a wife from whom he is divorced. Through the course of the play he is very subtly transformed by his experiences.

“A friend said he really didn’t like Montauk, but toward the end he did.”

So Lautz achieved his ultimate goal, and can a playwright ask for more than that?

The show runs 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays through July 4 in the Dennis Wilkerson Theater at California Stage’s R25 Arts Complex. Visit for information.

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