Early Serling play gets a staged reading

Heidi Weeks, Jim Hull

By George Basler

The night of Jan. 12, 1955, was one that changed Rod Serling’s life.

On that night, his teleplay, “Patterns,” appeared on the Kraft Television Theatre during what is  now called “the Golden Age” of live television. The play, which focuses on psychological bloodletting in the corporate boardroom, was an immediate smash hit and won Serling the first of his six Emmy Awards, said Larry Kassan, director of special projects for the Binghamton City School District and founder and director of the Rod Serling Video Festival.

Almost overnight, Serling, who grew up in Binghamton, went from being a struggling writer to a hot commodity in the television world. He would follow up the success a year later with another Emmy Award-winning drama, “Requiem for the Heavyweight,” and would be on his way to a stellar, two decade-long writing career, tragically cut shot by a heart attack in 1975.

Audiences will get a chance to view Serling’s early success this Thursday and Friday (Oct. 11 and 12) when the Rod Serling Video Festival and Southern Tier Actors Read present a staged reading of “Patterns” in Binghamton High School’s Black Box Theatre. Both performances will begin at 7:30 p.m.

“I wanted to find a way to continue Rod Serling’s legacy, and I wanted to present to audiences that Serling’s career was not just the Twilight Zone,” said Kassan, who helped organize the reading.

In fact, Serling was a major figure in television’s early years before the groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy series, Kassan said. He was one of a group of writers who worked to bring the immediacy of live theater to television. Their work included “12 Angry Men” by Reginald Rose and “Marty” by Paddy Chayefsky, both of which were turned into acclaimed films.

“Patterns,” with its story of corporate morality and ambition, fits this mold and was also turned into a film, although critics thought the movie fell short of the teleplay in its impact.

“Patterns” is not science fiction, but a story grounded in the reality of American business, not just in the 1950’s, but today as well, said Bill Gorman, who is directing the staged reading.

“It remains a relevant play,” he said. “It’s the old story that goes back to Macbeth and questions the price someone is willing to pay for ambition.”

Southern Tier Actors Read was formed in May 2010 as a way for local actors to read quality plays from the past  to the present and keep their acting skills honed. Under the leadership of co-founders Judy McMahon and Heidi Weeks, the group has done a number of staged readings over the past several years, including two Twilight Zone teleplays.

The production of “Patterns” was adapted for the stage by American author and playwright James Reach. A staged reading means the actors will use scripts during the performance and work in a stripped-down set. But don’t expect a static presentation, Gorman said. “It’s a fully acted production. The actors are not standing at lecterns,” he said.

Jim Hull, who is playing one of the lead roles, signed on after watching a kinescope copy of the television play from 1955 and being impressed by its emotional power.

“The dialogue written by Rod Serling just sent chills up my spine,” he said.

Mitch Tiffany, who is playing another lead, alsois  impressed with how well Serling’s work holds up more than 50 years after it was first written. “Serling has got the uncanny ability to observe the human condition and bring it forward,” he said.

“Patterns” was so well received in 1955 that Jack Gould, of New York Times television, urged an immediate rebroadcast. Amazingly enough, the Kraft Television Theatre followed his advice and reconvened the cast a month later to redo the play — a major undertaking in the days when television programs were all done live. A kinescope copy was made of the second broadcast.

The issues raised by “Patterns” are just as timely today as they were in 1955, Kassan believes. “It’s about corporate greed and what responsibilities a company has to its employees, to the community and to its shareholders,” he said.

And it shows Serling’s legacy goes well beyond the Twilight Zone.

IF YOU GO: Tickets for the staged reading are $10. The Black Box Theatre has only 99 seats, so attendees are urged to buy in advance by calling (607) 762-8202.

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