|An early rehearsal of "Our Daughter Katie." |
From left to right: Actors Christie Emler and Mark Mesarch, Director Trey Martinez, and actor Eleanor Schmeichel.
Not pictured: Actor Alaina Conner.
For a writer, a prompt or specific theme can feel like a nice springy board from which to launch into a short story, poem, or play. Sometimes, those prompted quick-writes transform over time into novels, poetry collections, and full length plays. If they do nothing more than sit, an incoherent mess, in a dusty of notebook in the writer’s basement, no matter. All writing is worthwhile to a writer in the same way that all exercise is to an athlete, or the practicing of scales is to a musician. It’s what we do in order to do what we do, if that makes sense.
I’ve met a lot of writing prompts in my journey as a writer, in classes, workshops, and the like. Usually, I attack them with gusto head on. I fear no writing prompt, and never met a one that could stump me. Until this past year, that is, when the Lincoln Theatre Alliance chose family as the theme of this year’s theatre season.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like the theme of family. I love family. I have one myself. In fact, every play I’ve ever written, as well as both of my novels, involve family in and integral and indispensable way. I realized that no matter what I write, in some way, I am writing about family. But when Judy Hart, director of Angels Theatre Company, presented the theme of family to us members of Angels Playwriting Collective and requested that we write family-themed plays for the 2017 First Flight Festival, for me, the theme of family turned into the insurmountable wall called FAMILY!
By December of 2016, I was beginning to believe that I would have no play to submit to First Flight 2017. But in early December, my husband and I went down to Mission, Kansas to see a production of my ten minute play “Bernice’s Birthday.” (Those of you who attended First Flight last year may remember the production with Cecilia and John Burkhart, directed by Jan Bretz.) After the show, Bob and I were discussing and dissecting the other plays we had seen. One of the plays involved a man sitting on a park bench when a stranger walks up to him and pretends to be an old teammate from his high school football team. The first man pretends to remember the stranger, and in the end, the stranger poisons him with a cigarette. Analyzing that play got me to thinking. What if you upped the ante there? Instead of a stranger claiming to be an old friend, it’s a stranger claiming to be a family member? What if this stranger appeared, not on a park bench, but in your own house? And what if there were a real and corresponding family member still at home, and you had to choose between them? Now the play takes a turn for the surreal of course, but you can see how the stakes are upped in each case.
So I had my family play at last. I sat down in a cafe with my notebook and wrote it in one sitting. But don’t think with a play that that’s that. That is not that!
A Play is not like fiction. People read fiction, in the comfort of their homes, beaches, cafes etc. It has to be well-written, edited, rewritten, and on and on so that it’s good and they will like it, and not leave nasty reviews on Amazon. A play is different. It’s more like a structure that people climb all over and sometimes jump up and down on, and it has to be strong to hold up under all that abuse. This is where Angels Playwriting Collective and Angels Theatre Company’s First Fight Festival comes in. The process makes plays strong, so that when the director starts to work with actors in rehearsal, and ultimately, those actors walk out onto a stage and perform, the whole structure doesn’t collapse into a pile of debris and dust before the eager eyes of an audience.
This is my third time through this process, and as always, I am coming through it a better playwright. At our first table read of “Our Daughter Katie,” I received invaluable input that helped me to shape the play in such a way that the action and characters would be clear to an audience. After that first read through, I thought a lot about what I heard, and one night when I couldn’t sleep, I got up at 2:00 am and rewrote the play.
I attended three subsequent rehearsals of the play. At the first two, I was fascinated by the way the director, Trey Martinez, encouraged the actors to discover for themselves their own characters’ inner lives and impulses, and to surrender themselves to the unreal and unlikely plot elements. The third rehearsal I attended was the tech rehearsal. At that rehearsal, I felt completely jazzed up to see Trey’s inventive staging and direction. The commitment and playfulness of the actors, their presence in the moment, was a joy to watch. I cannot express enough my gratitude to Trey, and to actors Mark Mesarch, Christie Emler, Alaina Conner and Eleanor Schmeichel. And to my esteemed fellow playwrights of Angels Playwriting Collective, to producer Judy Hart and Angels Theatre Company, you keep me writing plays, and for that, I thank you!