Like most people who worked on Wall Street in 2008, Grant McGowen remembers the financial crisis of that year all too well: “One day I came to work and my manager was like, ‘You can just go home. No one’s going to come in today.’” McGowen wasn’t a stock broker or a high-stakes player in the world of finance: he was an Atlanta native working his way through college as a part-time personal trainer at the New York Sports Club on Wall Street.
“I didn’t realize at the time that that moment was historic,” says McGowen about working just yards away from the financial exchange at such a tumultuous time. On the day his manager told him to go home, nearby financial powerhouse AIG had laid off two entire floors of employees. “For me, it was just a day-in, day-out dead-end job.” But McGowen says that a personal trainer — like a bartender or hairdresser — often becomes a sounding board for his wealthy clients. The things he heard, the drama he saw, the people he knew, and the reactions to the beginnings of the Wall Street meltdown have all become the basis for his latest play Wall Street Wedding, opening tonight at Pinch ‘n’ Ouch Theatre.
“All the characters were inspired by real people,” says McGowen about the five-character play. The story, which jumps back and forth in time and between multiple locations, centers on two stockbrokers, the newlywed Tom (played by McGowen) and the recently divorced Phil (Alex Van) in the times before and after the crash.
“The play is a satire and we do poke fun at the Wall Street stereotypes,” says McGowen. “Their priorities were always very much career and success first.” A lot of the aggressiveness, the drug use, the obsession with appearance, the mistrust, the skepticism, and what he calls “dick measuring” in the play were things he observed firsthand.
But McGowen says that his play is also heartfelt: his clients weren’t just walking stereotypes, but were dealing with real human issues. McGowen was especially interested in the challenges faced by his few female clients who often let loose to him about the frustrations of working in the nearly all-male world of Wall Street. Many of their concerns ended up in the mouth of one the play’s characters, Julie (Jackie Costello).
“She talks about working as a woman on Wall Street, how she was objectified, how she was harassed,” says McGowen. “That’s all true.” His female clients would often complain about the pet names, the inappropriate drunken late night phone calls from coworkers, the invitations to strip clubs. “There’s a line where Julie says, ‘Going or not going to the strip club with the guys is always going to be a problem.’ A lot of the stuff she has to face is the kind of stuff my client had to face on Wall Street. But like Julie, she mastered the game and was very successful.”
McGowen says that Wall Street Wedding, with its focus on contemporary realism and comedy, fits in perfectly with the mission of Pinch ‘n’ Ouch, the small theater group he founded in 2009. “My belief has always been that plays are about people,” he says of his grassroots company, which so far has gotten by entirely on ticket sales and acting classes. “Our production values are never going to be like the Alliance, but we try to focus on the meat and potatoes.The acting is 85 percent of the show. If we can’t reach that human place, we’re screwed.”
The theater often presents accessible contemporary work by award-winning playwrights such as David Mamet, Donald Margulies and Neil LaBute in addition to new plays by young Atlanta playwrights. “We want to do plays that meet audiences where they are today,” says McGowen. “We’re starting to realize that may be our niche. It’s not a lot of what’s being done in Atlanta.”
McGowen grew up in the Atlanta area and attended Norcross High School, where he was mostly involved in sports and also participated in musical theater. An injury crushed his hopes of receiving a football scholarship, so he decided to pursue acting in New York. He first attended Wagner College, then transferred to the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts while paying the bills by working as a personal trainer. After producing a few plays in New York under the Pinch ‘n’ Ouch name (a term derived from the Meisner technique for acting that focuses on authentic reactions and responses), he brought the concept home to Atlanta in 2010.
“We’re a huge word-of-mouth theater because we can’t really afford advertising,” says McGowen. “Ninety percent of our tickets are sold through word-of-mouth, which is huge. It helps us to have longer runs.”
Wall Street Wedding itself will run for six weeks and feature two casts, with McGowen, Alex Van, Christie Vozniak, Bryn Striepe and Jackie Costello performing in the first cast beginning tonight; and Morgan McGowen, Andy Fleming, Alana Cheshire, Brian Ashton Smith and Rachel Shuey taking over in March. Says McGowen, “We just had a lot of talent auditioning for these roles, and we also wanted to plan an extension so it just made a lot of sense to do two casts.”
In the end, McGowen says that his new play, though it pokes fun at some of the contemporary values of Wall Street, ultimately has the characters reassessing some of their priorities in the wake of monumental changes. “The ending does leave off with a lot of hope,” he says. “I think it’s a good story for the times. I think people need to laugh. It’s saying we can laugh at things. And if you’ve found lasting love, you’ve beat the system.”