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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Change the world? Nah. Change Act One.

Isn't it odd how role-models find us?

I never thought, for example, that I would grow up to be a playwright. I wanted to be the first woman Pope.  

Never mind that Presbyterians don't believe in the Holy See.  I thought I had the personality to break through all that nonsense.

Although I've been writing for the theatre since I was an adolescent, I always considered my playwright activity a hobby - never a calling.

In my mind, I saw myself more of an Eleanor Roosevelt type than a Beth Henley. 

You know who Eleanor is, don't you?  And Henley?  That's what I thought. Let me help . . .

Beth Henley wrote the wonderful play, "Crimes of the Heart" and then essentially, retired.

Don't be embarrassed.  I never heard of Beth either.  Not until I started writing plays and paying attention to the ones I admire. 

Before then, I considered myself a social reformer. Most of my professional life has been slapping back the powers-that-be, and educating the rest of the world to the evils that threaten to undo us. 

Been there.  Done that. 

No more fighting with the windmills for this girl - from now on, I'm only interested in dialogue to move the story along.

My heroes, growing up on Goodrich Avenue in Saint Paul, were the strong, independent, women in my neighborhood - the ones who lived without men and raised fabulous gardens and wonderful ruckuses.

Mrs. Fischer lived across the street.  When her husband died, she took a job with Saint Paul Book and Stationery and conducted city-wide book review salons for wealthy Crocus Hill matrons.  She ran the Minnesota Republican party forever, before she saw the light and turned to the left.  She died a wild-haired Democrat.

Down the street from Mrs. Fisher, Pam Kermott's mother raised her three daughters alone, working nights at the Tastee Bakery.  

A chain smoker and closeted poet, Mrs. Kermott liked to warn all of us about the evils of what she termed, "being boy crazy."  She introduced me to the work of Margaret Mead and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. "Crazy woman," she told me, "but brilliant.  Usually the two go together."
 
Eleanor Roosevelt wasn't a Saint Paul woman, true - and I don't think there was a crazy bone in her brilliant body.  

But from afar, she seemed to be my ideal - I didn't know, however, how she suffered.  When I was young, I had no idea Eleanor bore five children to a man who betrayed her by an affair with a woman she trusted. 

I never knew that, from that realization forward, she never again slept with her husband.

Henley won the Pulitzer for Crimes of the Heart - - I learned this when I played the role of Lenny for the Northfield Arts Guild production.

When I studied Beth Henley, I learned that the first, professional production of her play was in a community theatre.  From small beginnings her little show advanced to a New York stage where it gained the recognition it deserved.

I don't know if Henley is or was ever married.  It doesn't matter.  No one writes or broadcasts Henley's politics.  No one cares. I don't  - that's for certain.

What I care about is the way in which her art educates me to what is possible.

My play PAPER DADDY premieres next year at the Northfield Arts Guild. 

Is it as good as Crimes of the Heart? 

You're asking the wrong woman.

Come see it and tell me what you think.  Next year, Northfield - - from there?  Who knows.  

If Mrs. Fischer could make a fabulous career out of selling stationery at Saint Paul Book, anything is possible.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

So little to make me happy

The kids were almost grown when I bought my first new refrigerator.

I remember the day it arrived.  It was huge.  The door alone held the entire contents of the refrigerator it replaced.

Two days after it settled into my kitchen, my friend Mary stopped by for a visit.  I ushered her to meet my new appliance and she smiled at the introduction.

"You're happy about this, aren't you?" she asked.  "It takes so little."

Mary was right.

Writers thrive on simplicity; when our basic needs are met, we're in heaven. A bathroom with pipes that don't leak, a functioning furnace in winter and a well stocked refrigerator give the writer security, confidence and inspiration.

I used to think I needed more - someone by my side to cheer me on, a band of jolly friends to applaud every effort and approve of every accomplishment.

Now, I think and feel differently.

The psychologist Maslov posited that human beings cannot function unless basic needs are met.

Writers do well when the rent and water bills are paid, food is plentiful and the lights are on.

My friend Mary was right.

It takes so little.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hearing voices

I write my plays at W.A. Frost, an elegant Saint Paul bar in the heart of the city.


August Wilson used to write here.  Last week the bartender showed me the bar stool where he used to sit.  Scruffy, distant, caught up in the crafting of his dialogue, Wilson drew quiet attention while he wrote. 

"He talked to himself ," the bartender said.  "Got real animated too.  Like you."

When I write my plays,  I record what the characters in my head say to each other.  In my imagination, I see their posture, watch their gestures, and write stage directions to replicate their attitudes and emotions.

I didn't realize, however, that I'm mouthing their words.  Not until the Frost bartender told me so.

"Must go with the territory," he winked as he poured me another glass of pinot grigio.  "You're all a little flaky, huh?"

Writing plays is like writing fiction - only more so.

The fiction writer creates the scene.  Pulling from a repertoire of  descriptive language, elegant vocabulary and evocative constructs, she frames a plot from thought, intention and inner-turmoil.

Playwrights give up the luxury of  building plot upon anything other than character.  Action, dialogue, and the occasional soliloquy are our only tools we have for our story telling.

Writing a play is like setting free the characters that haunt and tease the imagination.  Upon the page, headed for the stage, their voices become clear - their destinies revealed.

August Wilson talked to himself.  I guess I do too.  

I'm a little flaky.  Like him. 

I can live with that.