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The playwright

Tualatin writer Hal Long will adapt John Grisham's 'Skipping Christmas' for the stage
by: Jaime Valdez, Hal Long, a founder and president of the Lumiere Players in Tualatin, is about to leave for his cabin in Eastern Oregon, where he will adapt John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas” for the stage.

After 27 years in community theater, Hal Long has finally made it.

Sitting in the dining room of his Tualatin home, his seeing-eye dog Floyd at his feet, Long bowed his head just slightly when he acknowledged the honor of his next endeavor.

It will take him seven to eight months to complete the stage adaptation of John Grisham's 'Skipping Christmas.'

Long will take the advice of his three-year pen pal Stephen King and move to a small town to write his adaptation. Next month, Long and his wife of seven years Lynn Wolf will move to their cabin in Eastern Oregon. There, in the 'thunder of silence,' 65-year-old Long plans to use his talking computer system to turn Grisham's story into a play.

Already adapted for the big screen in 'Christmas with the Kranks' in 2004, Long said Grisham had always envisioned 'Skipping Christmas' as a stage play.

But whether it makes its debut in Boston, Chicago or even Portland, Long said a publisher will decide where his adaptation will first capture an audience.

If Long had his way, he'd see it debut in Portland, close to home, close to Tualatin.

Leaving the violent world

Growing up on the tough streets of Detroit, Long thought everyone's life was supposed to be a fight.

'I didn't think there was anywhere where you didn't have to fight your way,' he said.

At the age of 17, he joined the Marines. He served three tours in Vietnam. The first tour wasn't so bad, he said. The last two tours were worse. A longtime friend and local director Daniel Hobbs said Long commented once that he never wanted to see a gun again in his life. Long was wounded in 1968 and discharged from the military.

According to Long, it was 35 years later when the military and Veterans Affairs officials finally admitted that the diabetes that took his sight in 1997 was likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

After the military, Long attended the University of Michigan and received a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1976, Long and his family, including two sons, headed west.

The streets of Detroit proved too harsh for Long. He finally decided 'to leave the violent world.' The family car stopped in Newberg. He lived there for 24 years before moving to Tualatin.

One clap changes a life

The Tualatin-based Lumiere Players got its start on a flatbed trailer with three actors performing in 103-degree heat at a Tualatin Crawfish Festival.

To hear Long tell the story, it was the greatest start for a community theater program. In the last two years, the Lumiere Players have performed 11 stage productions in front of more than 4,500 people in Tualatin.

The Tualatin acting troupe, of which Long is the founder and president, found a home two years ago at the Tualatin Heritage Center. Long calls the center's 8½-by-20-foot stage 'our world.'

In 'our world,' the kid who can't score the winning touchdown or find his place in the teen cliques can get on stage and for an hour or two win the approval of a crowd.

'It's giving a child a voice when there's a bunch of adults around,' said Long. 'When an actor hears just that one clap, it's something that just changes his life.'

After losing his sight, Long knew the importance of the sound of applause.

I can hear them breathe

The walls in Long's home show little of his successes. There's not much evidence of his time at the Actors Studio in New York City, where he trained with the likes of Burt Reynolds.

There's little evidence of Long's relation to the Golden Globe-nominated writing cast of the 2000 CBS TV movie 'Fail Safe.' The film garnered acclaim for executive producer George Clooney. Long was just happy to hear his words spoken by actor Richard Dreyfuss.

Long has learned to trust his ears.

Sitting in the back of every Lumiere Players performance, Long listens for cues from the audience.

'I can hear them breathing. I can hear them sighing and groaning. I can even hear them snoring sometimes,' he admitted with a smile.

In the late '90s, Long found himself at a VA hospital outside of Fort Lewis, Wash., working 12 hours a day learning to live as a blind man. Instructors told him he would have to go into a room and fall into furniture and doors.

'You're not going to die falling down,' they told him, 'but you'll have to get used to it.'

Long compared it to being 2 years old again and learning how to walk.

The first play performance he attended after losing his sight was a bitter disappointment. The movement of the actors on stage was difficult to follow with just his ears.

But Long came to trust what he heard and rely more on his mind's eye to see a play unfold.

Long was realistic when he called the publishing company, Doubleday, with his proposal.

He had his doubts. Why would the famed legal-drama novelist John Grisham choose him?

His request went through three months of reviews before the publisher sent a request for credentials - which included his work on 'Fail Safe' and such plays as 'The War of the Worlds' and 'The North Platte Canteen.'

Three months later Long received an e-mail informing him that Grisham had accepted his offer to adapt 'Skipping Christmas' into a stage play.

The original concept for a modern Christmas tale about a married couple determined to skip the holiday started a slide show of images for the blind director and playwright.

As his wife read aloud from the novella, Long saw a play shown to him in 'a thousand snapshots.'

That's how he views plays nowadays, he said. Dramas and comedies are broken up into scenes and acts. Actors and actresses enter and leave the stage. He sorts it out in his mind.

At his cabin, he'll wait for the noise to die down, jump out of bed at around 4 in the morning and produce about 10,000 words in four hours of which only 10 words will be usable, he's sure.

Writing isn't the hard part, said Long. It's rewriting that's tough.

Long will be physically leaving Tualatin, but he promises to stay involved with the progress of the Lumiere Players.

And he'll take with him his own snap shots of Tualatin - facing the world without sight, sweaty actors on a flatbed truck, Richard Dreyfuss reciting his words and a phone call from John Grisham saying, ''Skipping Christmas' was always meant to be a play.'