Planet Talk: Playwright Neil KoenigsbergPrint This
As a cofounder of the PR megafirm PMK, Neil Koenigsberg helped revolutionize the world of Hollywood public relations. Now 70 and largely retired from the publicity game, he is debuting his first full-length play in New York: “Off the King’s Road” (pictured above), which plays February 9 through February 23 at the East Village’s Theater for the New City. See Calendar for details
Senior Planet talked to Koenigsberg shortly before his play’s opening night.
Briefly, how would you describe “Off the King’s Road?”
The play takes place in a week in London, where an American businessman comes to take a respite after a hard year. His wife has died and he’s retired, all in the same six-month period, and he’s been going through a lot of anxiety and depression. So he checks into this small hotel – one of those converted townhouses – and then things take a turn. In the readings we’ve done, a lot of people have come up and said it’s nice to see a story dealing with, you know, older people.
It’s rare to see playwrights begin their careers at your age. Do you have any roots in New York theater?
I was born in the Bronx, but grew up in a town called Valley Stream, about an hour from the city. By the time I was 14 or 15, I would get on these trains on Saturday and Sunday mornings and go to foreign films in the West Village by myself. I thought I wanted to be an actor or a director or a writer – but I was kind of a chicken. I was from a conventional family: You’ve got to pay your bills! So I got a job as an assistant at a small entertainment PR company, for literally around $75 a week.
When you eventually co-founded PMK in California, were you able to stay in touch with the New York arts scene?
Even though the three partners at PMK were in L.A., we had great ties to New York – we’d all worked there – and we started attracting all these New York actors. It was a time when people like Richard Gere, John Lithgow, Treat Williams, Jimmy Woods and Glenn Close were coming out of the theater and didn’t have publicists; they didn’t believe in it, but we kind of convinced them. So I was around New York constantly.
What’s the hardest thing about becoming a playwright?
In the profession I was in, there were always things to keep you jumping: Somebody wants this, somebody wants that. But writing is sitting down alone and conjuring something up without being distracted, and having discipline. You have to write three pages a day, and nobody’s there to validate you. And then submitting it and trying to get your work done in a theater – I never understood how actors could stand the rejection. What a bitch it is to be an artist!
Are there new challenges now that you’re actually doing a full-length production?
The hardest part now is that everyone has an opinion. It’s such a collaboration. Sometimes an actor comes up with something that you never thought of, and sometimes an actor comes up with something that is… not in the best interest of the play. It’s very intense, very exciting – the world sort of goes away. This is my new family for three months. But I’ve always had an artsy bent, so I’m not surprised that I’ve landed here now, traipsing down to the funky Theater for the New City in the East Village, and discovering little Japanese restaurants with four seats and 100-year-old pastry shops and whatever. I feel like this was what was in my head when I first moved to New York.
Do you regret that you didn’t pursue writing more before now?
Part of me gets angry that I didn’t try to do this earlier, but I try to get rid of the anger. The nice thing about being older is that you’ve been through so many highs and lows, you sort of take it all in stride. I’m just not so hungry anymore. And I’m learning that New York City is a great place to be older. You can be in a retirement village in Vermont, but if you love culture, look what’s here! You open a New York Times on Sunday, and you’ve got 27 things to do every day. And if you want a little Vermont, you can go sit in a corner in the park.
Adam Feldman is a theater critic at Time Out New York