Houston Playwright Draws from White House Experience For New Stage Work

The play sheds light on what it’s like to work in another corner of the White House and it has nothing to do with politics.

By Amy BishopAugust 16, 2016 9:30 am| , , ,

From Houston Public Media:

Onstage in an empty theater on the campus of Sam Houston State University, a few students are rehearsing for a play that makes its premiere in late August. It’s called Ruffled Flourishes and centers around the character of Sox St. Louis, deputy press secretary to the U. S. president.

But this is not a play about politics.

“I didn’t want to make a political story and it’s not a political story,” says Peter Roussel, the play’s author. “It’s about the news media that covers the White House and the White House spokesman.”

The Houston native knows a thing or two about the subject, having spent much of his professional career in the White House as deputy press secretary under President Ronald Reagan.  He was also a staff assistant to President Gerald Ford in the 1970s. Additionally, he served as press secretary to President George H. W. Bush when Bush served as U.S. Congressman and U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

“I used to look at that White House briefing room every day and say, ‘This is a little theater. There are 49 seats in here,’” he says. “And it’s a theater both of substance and of humor.”

Roussel doesn’t call the play autobiographical in the sense that he didn’t write the main character’s story to mirror his own. But most of the plot is based on real (or nearly real) experiences .

“The main character says at one point, ‘There are some days when my colleagues in the White House will say, ‘Don’t tell the press anything today,’” Roussel explains. “And then I’ll go down to the briefing room and what’s the first thing I hear in there, from all the reporters? ‘Tell us everything today.’”

As one could imagine, Roussel collected a lot of stories about those experiences. So when he invited playwright Horton Foote to a White House dinner one evening, Foote gave him some advice.

“He said, ‘Pete, you should write about this.’ And that’s all I needed to hear. I never forgot him saying that,” Roussel says.

When he did finally get around to writing about it several years ago, it was in the form of a novel. His play adaptation was more recent and the timing was perfect.

“When I first approached the people — or spoke with the people at Sam Houston about it, they immediately said, ‘Well, what better time to do it, when public interest in the White House is high during a presidential year?’”

Back at rehearsal, director Penny Hasekoester has stepped onstage with script in hand to give some pointers to cast members Joe Serpa Daniels and Carolina Reyes.  Hasekoester says the university’s theater department has performed student and faculty-written works in the past, but not quite on this scale.

“We’re in an election year and this has a lot to do obviously with the White House,” she says. “So I think it’s really energized them.”

Being able to work alongside Roussel in workshops earlier this summer is what attracted Adolfo Becerra to auditioning.

“Being that it was an original piece and that it was going to be workshopped – that we were going to be working with the playwright – was very interesting to me because I’ve never done that,” Becerra says.

So where does the title Ruffled Flourishes come from? It has to do with two very recognizable pieces of music often played when the president enters a venue. Many assume the whole tune is Hail to the Chief, but the opening trumpet fanfare is actually called Ruffles and Flourishes.

“I said, ‘Why not Ruffled Flourishes, because that’s what this book is about?’” Rousell says. “In the White House, like in anybody’s job, some days everything gets about ten degrees off and you have to spend the rest of the day trying to move it back the other way. So that’s where the title comes from.”

Ruffled Flourishes premieres Saturday, August 27th in two performances at Sam Houston State University’s University Theatre Center.