Shareholder Value” is a new play by acclaimed writer Tom Attea that is being performed at theater for the New City from March 21st through April 14th, 2019. This production is Tom’s 15th produced play.

“Shareholder Value” was inspired by the real-life General Electric meltdown, which sent shockwaves through the business world and has been extensively covered in financial news worldwide. The play focuses on the CEO of Total Electric, a fictional conglomerate that is troubled with mounting financial problems. CEO Dennis Holland is desperate to hold things together and scrambles to produce quarterly profits, regardless of how his decisions negatively impact those around him.

When Dennis is challenged by an activist investor, he tries even harder to sell off portions of the company, and his dreams become haunted by the ghost of Thomas Edison, the founder of TE.

The play highlights the problems of “quick fix” mentalities rather than finding long-term strategies for success, in a way that is entertaining and well-crafted.

Playwright Tom Attea discussed this play and the real-world situation that inspired it on March 12, 2019.

Characters, CEOs, and Thomas Edison

Meagan Meehan (MM): “Shareholder Value” was inspired by the GE meltdown, so what was it about that crisis that most interested you?

Tom Attea (TA): I think a lot about current topics or personal experiences that I feel deserve a place on the stage.

Responding to one’s own time is the unique contribution a living playwright can make. Shareholder value in itself isn’t bad. People invest in companies and have a right to expect a reasonable return. But the obsession with delivering it every quarter often compels CEO’s to make short-term decisions that are destructive of the long-term prospects of the company and the welfare of the employees.

General Electric was hit hard by the financial crisis. Wall Street treated it more like a bank because GE Capital was delivering more of the profits than the manufacturing divisions. Yet, regardless of how hard the company was hit, the CEO concentrated on delivering a rebound in the stock price and quarterly dividends. He began making cutbacks and spinning off divisions.

The CEO who replaced him had the same goal but lasted only a year. The third CEO is doing the same thing. No wonder. In business school, delivering shareholder value has become a mantra. I had also read comments by Warren Buffett and others about the counterproductive effects obsessing over delivering profits every quarter.

On a personal note, GE had often been in my thoughts. The physician who invented the MRI is a friend. Yes, he still goes to work every day, doing research. GE settled with him for infringement when it started making MRI’s because he owns the patent.

MM: How did you come up with the character of Dennis Holland and did you want him to come across as multilayered rather than one dimensional/greedy CEO?

TA: I’ve always been determined to make my living as a writer and found I could do it as a copywriter. I’ve met with many CEO’s. I’ve known brilliant ones. I didn’t think what was going on at GE was commensurate with the needs of the company. I’ve been writing plays for a long time and create real human beings who, like all of us, are complex and often at odds with themselves. I want my characters to be heart-breakingly human. It’s one of the reasons I admire Chekhov. In addition to his plays, I’ve read the 13-volumes collection of his short stories.

MM: Did you decide to infuse some comedy into this otherwise serious play?

TA: Yes, as in real life, there are lighter moments. I believe Somerset Maugham expressed it best in his autobiography, “The Summing Up,” saying his goal was to create “intelligent entertainment.”

MM: There are scenes involving Thomas Edison’s ghost in the play, so did you have to do a lot of research into his life in order to write those scenes effectively?

TA: I had already read a good bit about Edison and Swan, who created the first electric light bulb but used a paper filament. One reason is my relationship with the inventor of the MRI, who often talks about other inventors. When Congress was attempting to change the patent law from “first to invent” to “first to file,” I wrote two full-page ads for the American Inventors Alliance that ran in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The bill was shelved within a week.

Scenes, audiences, and other projects

MM: What’s your favorite scene in “Shareholder Value” and why?

TA: I have many favorite scenes, but I’ve always been a champion of women’s rights. I’m in the dedication of the book “Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business Without Becoming One of the Boys.” It’s by the woman who invented the concept of the glass ceiling, Marilyn Loden.

I encouraged her to write it. I also wrote the advertising that launched Lifetime, the women’s cable network. I especially enjoy the scene when the wife of the CEO proves to be smarter than he is.

MM: This is your 15th produced play; so how many have you done with Theater for the New City? Why do you enjoy working with this establishment so much?

TA: My first show was presented at The Actors Studio. It was the result of a 10-year collaboration with Charles Friedman, who was the original director of the revue “Pins and Needles.” He was also a show doctor in the 1930s, a friend of Kaufmann and Hart, and head of musicals under Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox. Charlie found a composer, Arthur Abrams, for the revue, which was called “Brief Chronicles of the Time,” after Shakespeare’s phrase in Hamlet for actors.

A few years later, Arthur called and said he was writing music for a revue at Theater for the New City that needed more sketches and lyrics. It resulted in my first produced show there. To reflect our short-term perception of the world as fraught with catastrophic problems with insufficient action to solve them, I titled the show, “It’s an Emergency. Don’t Hurry.” Another revue followed, called “Dropping in on the Earth,” which offered an outside judge of how the human race is doing. The Villager called it “Delightfully funny!” and did a two-page spread about it. From then on, the theater became my creative home. Crystal Field, the executive director, has been a steady champion of mine. Arthur writes the music to all the shows, in this case, incidental music, and Mark Marcante is always the director.

He’s wonderfully talented and the theater’s director of production. How could I ask for a more welcoming environment?

MM: What do you hope audiences remember most about “Shareholder Value”?

TA: The toll that imprudence can take, especially when it has power over many lives. Or, as the age-old lesson was stated by big Ari, my nickname for one of my lifelong mental companions, Aristotle, “Excess of any kind is wrong.”

MM: What’s most rewarding about being a produced playwright and what other projects are you planning to release in 2019?

TA: The most rewarding thing is to see works staged that I think have value and provide delight. I’m also sentimental. I still cry at the first performance. I know the road I’ve taken to get here.

I passed up offers to be the creative director of two of the biggest ad agencies in New York because I knew the input would be so overwhelming it would be difficult to continue to write, what I consider, literature. I was also represented by the television department of William Morris for three years. I sold a sitcom I created to Johnny Carson Productions, and CBS optioned it. I created another sitcom that the production company founded by the comedian David Steinberg and the actor Burt Reynolds was interested in. My two agents at Morris came to my apartment and told me it was time to move to Los Angeles. I decided I didn’t come to New York to write 22 minutes of silliness for the rest of my life and said I didn’t want to go.

They never forgave me.

I grew up in a small coal town in Pennsylvania that’s known better days. It was once called “the coke capital of the world.” Frick and Morgan were there. The coal was semi-burned in beehive-shaped ovens that still ring the hillsides. It was shipped to Pittsburgh to fire the steel ovens, but the technology evolved to gas and the economy pretty much collapsed.

I wrote my first short story when I was 14, and the nun who was my sophomore English teacher told my mother, who was a French and English teacher and later a librarian, that, as the saying goes, “He has a way with words. He should be a writer.” But I had an uncle with a successful 2- two-office optometric practice.

He wanted to give me the practice when he retired. My father, a dear soul, insisted that I study to take it over. I relented but told him when I finished, I was going to New York to be a writer.

I did my undergraduate work and, in graduate school, was actually first in my class during the first semester. Then I used more and more time to study writing. But I earned my doctor of optometry degree, which included a year as an intern in the largest eye clinic in Philadelphia. I have a number of compelling plays that haven’t been produced. I just finished the first draft of another play, a comedy. All my theater scripts are at my website (Tom Attea Playwright), and the Stageagent website has also posted monologues and scenes from a number of my works. The London editor, Alexandra Appleton, recently emailed to say they’d like to post “the entire canon.”