By KAYLA J. MARSH
MIDDLETOWN — A local teacher has combined his love of an F. Scott Fitzgerald classic and theater to create a piece of work that allowed students to perform something new and create characters never before seen on a stage.
“This story [Fitzgerald’s ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’] I read in an anthology … and loved it,” said Alexis Kozak, a theater arts teacher at Middletown High School South. “I photocopied it and carried it around with me for years.”
Kozak holds a Master in Fine Arts degree in playwriting from Boston University and runs the Black Box of Asbury Park’s New Works Playwriting Initiative. Last year, he had the idea to write the play the students would do in the fall — an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”
“One student I had, who has actually since graduated college and is a stage manager in New York, said to me, ‘Are you going to keep talking about this story or are you going to write it already?’ That for me was the moment where I was like, ‘Am I going to keep talking about it or am I going to go ahead and do it?’”
Published in 1922, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” follows John Unger, a young man who has been invited by fellow prep school friend Percy Washington to summer at his family’s estate.
There he meets Percy’s family, including his sister Kismine, whom he falls quickly in love with. As the duo makes plans for the future, Unger discovers the source of the family’s wealth is a secret many have died for, and it leaves him to wonder if he will survive the summer.
“I didn’t know whether the story was actually in the public domain or not, and I had already written most of [the play] before I actually looked into whether it was available, and as luck would have it, it had become available and came into public domain and out of copyright protection that year,” Kozak said.
“I feel though that it was an important enough story in me that I would’ve gone ahead and written an adaptation of it anyway.
“I had never really taken a story and been so enthralled with it that I was like, ‘It didn’t matter,’ and I just had to sort of do it for myself which was interesting.”
After settling his nerves about going ahead with the play, Kozak said he knew it was going to have to be good, so he came in with a draft in September and held auditions and rewrites.
“We probably went through some three more drafts,” he said. “About every two weeks we would have a new draft and we would rehearse a scene, and sometimes I would have a kid improvise it, talk about what worked and what didn’t work and did the dialogue feel honest, did it feel false, and we would take those things into account … so they were really instrumental in shaping the characters and shaping the story.
“The story’s really weird and disjointed and not chronological and tries to tackle almost every scene that is out there, but I do really feel like I wrote my own play almost as opposed to sort of using a story as a jumping-off point.
“We did add a lot of scenes and we added a lot of dialogue and … I feel we did definitely flesh it out and make it work dramatically.”
Kozak was adamant that his students have the opportunity to work on a new play and on a piece no one had ever done before.
“It was kind of cool because as far as I have been able to find, this story has not been effectively dramatized before,” he said. “There was a 1945 Orson Welles radio version done, there was supposed to be a Broadway musical version … but I don’t think that has come to fruition, so it was also important to me that we get ours done and on the stage before that.”
Kozak said his students were excited to create characters never before seen on a stage.
“It was a relatively small cast and for a lot of the kids they were like, ‘This was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had because I got to create something, inhabit a character that nobody else has ever done before,’” he said.
“Broadway musicals — there’s only a handful done every year, and you can go online and you can see what the Broadway actors did and … what we inadvertently do is we just sort of copy those things because we think it is the way it is supposed to be done … as opposed to creating our own best work … but I think one of my strengths as a teacher is that I try to teach students how to [channel] themselves and their own emotions and point of view … because otherwise you are just doing copies of what other people have done instead of introducing something new into the world.”
Kozak’s play, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,’” has just been published by Eldridge Publishing and can be found at www.hiStage.com and recently went on to win the Basie Award for Outstanding Dramatic Production in Monmouth County.
“I was shocked,” Kozak said. “We really went out on a limb, I feel, like in doing it and … it absolutely far surpassed anything that I’ve done.
“I was very honored that they selected it, and I think that is really a testament to the work that both the actors did and to the work that the tech crew and the lighting crew did.
“We might not be technically perfect, but I think that the heart and the art of what we have rivals or equals the technical skills and the technical perfection that some of the other performing schools go for.
“There is technique and then there is art, and our technique might not be as good as some other places, but our art is.”