NEW YORK — Anyone who spent two recent December days here with Jim Strong, president of Strong Travel Services in Dallas, would have observed that his life had taken a decided turn toward the theatrical.
On the first day, Strong was relaxing in a favorite haunt: the Ritz-Carlton Central Park. The next, he found himself in a far less familiar and significantly less luxurious setting: a rehearsal space overlooking West 42nd Street in Manhattan’s Theater District, awaiting the first formal reading of his play, “Craving for Travel.”
The script centers on a pair of travel agents who were once married and are now friendly rivals, as they cope with one another and about 30 clients and suppliers. All the characters are played by two actors.
Strong is the producer of the off-Broadway production, which runs for a monthlong engagement at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 42nd Street, beginning Jan. 9 and running through Feb. 9.
Amid lavish Christmas decorations in the Ritz-Carlton’s Lobby Lounge, Strong met with Andy Sandberg, a producer of the Tony Award-winning 2009 Broadway revival of “Hair.”
During an informal conversation, they sipped drinks and snacked on nuts as affluent hotel guests bustled about with shopping bags from the likes of Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany & Co.
The two had originally connected after Strong, the author of a travel book titled “Craving for Travel,” decided that a play would be the best medium for letting the world know what travel professionals do and why they’re important.
“I had two requirements,” he said: “That it be a comedy and that it be done in New York.”
Enter Sandberg who, although young and soft-spoken, was already an accomplished theater veteran, dating from his days with Yale University’s legendary Whiffenpoofs. Strong chose him to direct the play after Sandberg’s name kept coming up in discussions with theater people.
The two described how the play had come to life over the previous couple of years. As his scriptwriter, Sandberg brought on fellow Yale alumnus Greg Edwards, who had written books and lyrics for shows in New York and elsewhere. Edwards, in turn, insisted that Sandberg become his co-author.
Together, Edwards and Sandberg undertook a research tour that included a visit to Strong Travel in Dallas, attendance at a Virtuoso conference in Las Vegas and a series of phone interviews with travel industry leaders around the country. All told, they talked to about 50 people and mined those conversations to come up with dozens of potential characters, many zany, some hysterical, most with non-American accents.
Strong and the co-authors next spent several days on the beach at Grace Bay Club in Turks and Caicos brainstorming the script.
All of the play’s 30-plus characters are portrayed by two actors, Thom Sesma and Michele Ragusa, both veterans of Broadway, off-Broadway and TV.
Sandberg said he personally reached out to Ragusa and Sesma, both of whom he knew, when he learned they might be available, seeing them as perfect for the roles.
“They are experienced actors with great comic abilities,” Sandberg said, “but like any of the best comedians, their comedy is rooted in truth, and there aren’t many roles these two can’t handle — a good fit for the 30 roles they have to share between them.”
Sandberg himself was no novice to travel planning. As both business manager and performer with the Whiffenpoofs, he arranged travel for large groups, including a 14-week international tour.
“We would often barter with five-star international hotels to put 14 of us up for free in exchange for performing a concert,” he recalled. “Not a bad way to get around the world. Our 14-week summer tour included 27 different cities.”
It was a snowy December morning when Strong met the two actors for the first time in the North Studio rehearsal space at Playwrights Horizons, a theater complex near the Hudson River. The North Studio is a large, nondescript room furnished with plastic chairs and cafeteria-style tables. The 120-seat theater in which the play will be staged is one floor below.
The actors and writers were being interviewed by an entertainment reporter, cameraman at his side, while the remains of a picked-over breakfast buffet languished on one of the tables. Strong watched and chatted with the actors and writers, taking it all in. He would soon be returning to Dallas for the holidays, leaving rehearsals and revisions to Sandberg and Edwards.
Longtime chums, Sesma and Ragusa had nevertheless never performed together. Prior to their first formal reading of the play that day, Sesma posed for a photo in front of a screen emblazoned with the words “Craving for Travel.”
“Is there a way that a travel agent stands?” he wondered.
He and Ragusa both admitted to being a bit nervous about the range of personalities and accents they have to master.
“We have to do Lithuanian, Arabic and Jamaican, and I’m thinking: Why can’t we do the ones I know, like British?” Ragusa joked.
But both seemed genuinely eager to play the agent characters Joanne and Gary (and their clients) as the script has the two competing for the “Globel Prize,” a sort of Tony Award for travel agents.
As for the audience, Ragusa said, “I want them to see what the people in service industries have to deal with and how they keep their composure.”
Sesma wants to impart to the audience “the reality behind the epic natures of these characters. We are doing any number of hysterical people trapped in crazy travel situations.”
On stage, the agent characters work out of separate offices, one a 1980s-style storefront, the other a sleek, corporate setting.
“But they are both at the top of their game,” Sandberg said. “Aside from interacting with the dozens of characters, they talk to each other regularly, and the arc of their relationship is key to the play.”
Chasing the Globel Prize
As the actors prepared to get into their roles, outsiders (including a Travel Weekly reporter) were shooed out of the North Studio before the reading began. Strong, as producer, was allowed to stay. In fact, he had attended informal readings before, as had his mother, Nancy.
If there were an actual Globel Prize, both Strongs would be good candidates. Jim joined his mother at Strong Travel in 1978. They have run agencies in Dallas since then, having formed the current company in 1996. It is a Virtuoso member with annual sales of more than $40 million, a staff of 17 full-time counselors and 20 independent contractors.
“She’s a remarkable and admirable woman,” Strong said of his mother. “I’m so glad both my parents [his father is Asa, known as Ace] are around to see me do this.”
Strong’s original concept was to trace the career of his mother in luxury travel. However, Sandberg thought that a biography would not allow for a broader look at what agents do. With that came the decision to focus on the daily lives of travel professionals.
Strong financed the production with nine sponsor/investors, and a number of companies, including Mandarin Oriental, Travel + Leisure and Joann Kurtz-Ahlers (who heads up a travel marketing, sales and consulting firm) have bought out entire performances to entertain clients, guests and friends.
“The time has never been better to do something like this,” Strong said. “The luxury market has never been more desirable, and this is the time to talk about it. With this play, we are doing it right.”
Tickets can be purchased at www.cravingfortravel.com.