Trying on Shoes

How Adam Pettle's Zadie's Shoes travelled from student exercise to the Winter Garden

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What are the odds that a script by a playwright fresh out of theatre school would end up at the Winter Garden? Just ask Adam Pettle, whose play Zadie’s Shoes, about a Jewish man with a sick partner, a gambling addiction and a crisis of faith, was picked up by the Mirvishes after its successful Factory Theatre production last year. Here’s a look at the brief history of Pettle’s hit play.

— December 1997, The National Theatre School First-year NTS student Adam Pettle gets a writing exercise about structure: “A wants X, and B opposes.” In his short scene, set in a synagogue, a Jewish man named Benjamin confesses that he needs money, and the older Eli gives him a tip on a horse.

— Summer 1998 Pettle writes an opening monologue for a character named Ruth, Benjamin’s partner, who’s battling cancer. Ruth has two sisters.

— September 1998 Pettle’s graduation project is to write a play with exactly nine characters, clocking in at less than 80 minutes. He decides to expand his structure exercise. One of his characters is the lesbian girlfriend of one of the sisters, later dropped.

— November 1998 Pettle misses his script’s first-draft deadline, but the class proceeds to workshop the first 25 pages. Pettle finishes the draft over Christmas and comes up with the title. Guest director Allen MacInnis helps him discover that the story is Benjamin’s, not Ruth’s, and Pettle is relieved, though he realizes he has to kill tons of good material.

— May 1999 The NTS production, whose cast includes a very not-Jewish Graeme Somerville as the Jewish Benjamin, is a success, with lots of yuks. Pettle realizes the storylines and relationships are underdeveloped. MacInnis encourages Pettle to keep working on the script.

— September 1999 Back in Toronto, Pettle uses his Zadie’s Shoes script to apply for a writer-in-residency grant at CanStage. He gets it, and CanStage’s Iris Turcott tells him, “Shut up, stupid, it’s not ready to produce. Fuck off, make it better!”

— Fall/winter 1999 He does. He cuts the cast from nine to seven (the lesbian is out one actor doubles as Eli and Benjamin’s father, Jacob), changes the plot so that cancer patient Ruth is saving money to go to Mexico for alternative treatment, an idea Pettle hears about while volunteering at Toronto’s Wellspring Clinic in January 2000.

— March 2000 Pettle sends out a new draft of the script to Ken Gass at the Factory (where Pettle’s part of the Playwrights Unit) and Tarragon’s Urjo Kareda.

— April 2000, Factory Theatre A reading of the play goes over well at the Factory, with a cast that includes Waneta Storms, Kristen Thomson, Randy Hughson and brother Jordan Pettle. The latter two end up in the final play. Gass looks pleased.

— June 2000 Gass announces the Factory 2000-2001 lineup, which includes Zadie’s Shoes.

— August 2000 Director Jackie Maxwell comes on board. The role of Eli, for an older Jewish actor, proves hard to cast until Paul Soles enters and five lines into his audition tells a joke about a racetrack. “It was so obvious we’d found our Eli,” says Pettle.

— December 2000 Pettle’s still unhappy with the play’s final moments. During previews, they try different endings.

— January 2001 The show premieres to raves and sold-out houses. After the run’s first week, word spreads that producer David Mirvish and his mom will be attending a matinee.

— Two weeks later Other producers from Mirvish see the show.

— February 2001 Pettle gets a call that Mirvish would like to put Zadie’s Shoes in their 2001-2002 subscription season, with no script changes.

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