Untold Stories

“Murderer!”

 

A week ago I stood outside Studio Theatre on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., with my friend Jacqueline Lawton and endured that accusation—that we were killers of innocents.

 

Our crimes? Writing four-minute vignettes based on the true stories of women who had abortions. In my case, my scene was inspired by a young woman who braved a line of anti-abortion protesters—very like the line outside the theatre that night—and went ahead with her decision to end an unwanted pregnancy.

The protesters were vehement in their conviction—55 million innocents dead, blood on your hands, how dare you?

 

My answer: Why don’t you come inside and see the play? And then we can talk.

 

Jackie and the protesters - photo by Lloyd Wolf

Jackie and the protesters – photo by Lloyd Wolf

I was one of nine other D.C. playwrights whom Jackie had invited to participate in Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign. A project of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit with a mission to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health, Out of Silence consists of 13 scenes intended to give voice to women whose stories are seldom heard—stories of women who had undergone abortions for all sorts of reasons, all deeply personal and individual, and who (mostly) had no regrets about it.

 

It’s not a story you hear very often, and it doesn’t fit with the usual narrative of a troubled woman struggling to decide to end a pregnancy, then spending years in recrimination and sorrow over the choice. Certainly some women do have deep regrets—but a lot of the stories collected by Advocates for Youth in their 1 in 3 Campaign reflect a different reality. The campaign is so named because 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetimes, and so far, they’ve gathered about 700 testimonials.  And for many of these women, having an abortion was a liberation.

 

I will confess that when Jackie first contacted me about the project my initial thought was to say no. I’m neither an advocate for abortion rights nor an advocate against them.  I’m ambivalent. Had I ever been so lucky as to conceive, I  don’t think I would have let circumstances persuade me to end the pregnancy. I’m childless by default; not for lack of trying, but because nature and opportunity did not coincide to allow me the family life I had wanted for so long. And I feel very sad about that.

 

But I also know that for many women, an unexpected pregnancy is not good news. For some, it’s an agonizing discovery. Young, scared, unemployed, battered or abandoned, victims of rape or other violence, chronically ill or for other reasons poorly equipped to bear and raise a child, they sort through their options and decide that abortion is the only thing that makes sense. And I don’t believe it’s for me or anyone else to decide for them that they must go through with the pregnancy if they have decided they can’t.

 

So after thinking it over, I agreed to sign on and write a scene from the point of view of a character that I can’t relate to very well—someone who decides she is going to do this—and try to tell her story without judgment. For the protesters outside the theatre, this makes me complicit in murder—a line of reasoning, if you call it reasoning, that I also cannot connect to very well.

 

And not one of them accepted our offer to come in and see the play.

A scene from "The Line" in Out of Silence.

Shayna Blass and Tuyet Thi Pham in “The Line.” Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign (Advocates for Youth) Photo by Lloyd Wolf.

 

Which I thought said a great deal about what their true agenda is. Because it seems to me that if you are truly pro-life, as you claim to be, then you have every reason to see this play. Why not see it? Why not see the lives of individuals who are making a choice you find abhorrent? Why not hear their stories and try to understand why they feel driven to this choice? And if you want them to make a different choice,  understanding their stories might enable you to offer them an alternative that works.

 

One major reason a lot of women choose abortions is economic; a number of the vignettes in the evening illustrate that harsh reality. Abortion is a choice, but for some impoverished women, it really isn’t a choice, it’s the only option they have because they are backed into a desperate corner.

 

Seems to me if you want to prevent abortions, you might want to understand that reality. You might then decide to work to ensure that birth control is available to anyone who wants it, regardless of income. You might see the value of public health initiatives and sex education efforts. You might advocate for social programs to support single mothers, or for public funding to underwrite child care or to sustain organizations that try to connect pregnant women with adoptive families—so that instead of screaming bloody murder at a stranger in crisis, you are working to offer her a solution.

 

A little compassion might go a long way.

 

But that’s not what this movement is really about. It was clear to me, standing outside the theatre last week, looking at those outraged faces screaming at me and Jackie, condemning us to hell and worse—without knowing a thing about us—I realized these particular protesters had no interest in understanding any point of view but their own. And they aren’t there to persuade. Their purpose is to harass and intimate. Their real agenda is punishment—to condemn women for their sexuality, to berate them for their audacity in refusing to accept the consequences of their “sins.”

 

One thing I know: Nothing they said that night persuaded me to back away from this project. If anything it made me more determined to expand my scene into a full-length play. It emboldened me to tell the rest of the untold story – and by doing that, find my way inside the experience of someone completely unlike myself, who makes choices I don’t think I would make, and to write her character with authenticity, compassion and–dare I say it?–respect.

 

The Long Shadow, Part III: A Soldier’s Story

The package that arrived  in my mail in mid-January came as a surprise, not because it was unexpected, but because the contents were so much more revealing than I had imagined possible—nearly 70 pages of Photostats, detailing the movements of my late uncle Jack in the three years he spent in the Army Air Force during World War II. Jack’s records were largely intact, having survived a 1973 fire in the National Archives in St. Louis that had destroyed nearly 80 percent of the military records then on file.

 

 

What those records revealed was a short life far more troubled than I had realized.

 

 

Jack’s induction papers, 1942

My mother never spoke of this mysterious younger brother unless prompted by one of us, and even then her stories were spare and brief. What I knew of Jack was that he had been rebellious and bold and that he had died, in an apparent car accident, years before I was born. The few photographs we had of him showed a cheerful, friendly young face with a spark of mischief in his eye;  it was left to us to fill in the details, and I did: in my mind he was reckless but sincere, good-hearted and kind, adventurous and noble—the kind of uncle every girl wanted, who would have taken me on long walks and imparted to me the wisdom he had gleaned from his years of unrest. He might have been a bit wild, but he was not a bad boy; he simply loved a good time and took nothing seriously. We knew this to be true; we could see it in his eyes.

 

 

But the picture that emerges from the documents is much different, much darker—a story of a troubled young man with a fondness for drink—who lost more than 100 days of service to his habit of leaving the base without permission—who married because he had to—and who died in the fall of 1946 by an unspecified cause. I knew the cause—I’d already gotten his death certificate—he died alone in October 1946, killing himself by putting  his head in the oven and turning on the gas.

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The Artist as Activist–Take It to the Street or the Stage?

On Jan. 26, after a month of planning that was kicked off by Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, the March on Washington for Gun Control took place—the first major public demonstration since the Sandy Hook shootings to demand a change in our national gun policy. I was in the thick of it, having helped (in a very small way) to assist the organizers and turning out to march and rally—one of more than 6,000 people who showed up that morning.

 

 

It was a first for me, to be in the midst of a movement, rather than at the edge of it, observing it.  Up to this point in my life, the most I’ve ever done for any cause I’ve supported is to write a check. And while money helps, muscle is sometimes more important.  So when Molly issued a call, I decided that it was time to do more than just lament a sorry situation. So I turned out to offer my limited skills at research and writing, helping collect as much information as I could on the issue and, with the help of my friend Cat,  searching out  the names of gun violence victims whose names were carried in silent protest down Constitution Avenue.

 

 

A view from within the crowd.

 

Later that afternoon, there was a demonstration of another kind at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre—where Obie-winning playwright Caridad Svich, artistic director of NoPassport theatre alliance and press, had organized a Theatre Action for Gun Control in collaboration with Theatre J and interdisciplinary arts ensemble force/collision and Twinbiz.  The presentation of short works included new pieces by Neil LaBute, Jennifer Maisel, Winter Miller, Matthew Paul Olmos, Svich, and others.

 

 

 

This juxtaposition of street theatre—which this march and rally surely was—and a theatre of protest in a traditional setting invites the question of what role art can play in responding to atrocity. The slaughter of those poor children and their teachers in Connecticut was so awful that any response at all seemed stunningly ineffectual. What can you say in response to such madness? And who is more crazy– the gunman who took the lives of people totally unconnected to his personal hell–or the rest of us, who allow these conditions to persist and go so far as to argue–some of us–that our constitutional right to firearms trumps any reasonable effort to curtail their unlimited availability to individuals unfit to use them.

 

Are there moments when art has nothing to say? Or is it just that I have nothing to say; and for that reason decided to take up an action at Molly’s invitation and do what little I could to make the point. Are there times when the only reasonable response is to put down the pen, take off the costume, and take to the street? These are the questions I put to Caridad and her response is below the fold.

 

 

 

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A Man Without a Conscience, or How to Stick it to ‘Big Gun’

When I started this playwright’s blog, I wasn’t interested in whining about the reasons why theatres don’t produce more plays by women in general (or me in particular, let’s be frank) or the politics of production or the reasons the whole industry is at once relentlessly P.C. and yet so damn conservative.  I wanted to write my plays and  blog about the impulses that led me to them.  I wanted to understand process and come to a better understanding of my craft. But as the man said, life is what happens when you are making other plans–and in my case, and yours, since you are reading this–life is apparently what happens because you haven’t yet run into the business end of a .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle. And so we get to keep on breathing by virtue of the sheer dumb luck that, for now at least, we are not in some lunatic’s line of fire. And this realization, along with my outrage over what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary last week, has stirred me from my petty self-absorption to, shall we say, a vigilant stance.

 

 

Given the insane gun policy in this nation, the chances of any one of us being blown away in a random act of extreme violence is just too damn high. All it takes is for you or me to be at the wrong place–in front of the FBI Building, for example–at the wrong time–the exact moment when the lunatic du jour pops another 30-round magazine into his Glock—for us to be prematurely dispatched to that great big Arsenal in the sky.

 

Realizing their vulnerability after Columbine, schools undertook efforts to protect their students from armed gunmen. They stepped up security, they instituted “drills” so kids could practice how to run and hide. As a teaching artist, I happened to be on hand one day during just such a drill, and I found it surreal—the teacher locking the schoolroom door, the kids quietly huddling in a corner, and h how matter-of-fact the discussion afterwards.

 

But there is just something seriously sick about this, when school children have to engage in “drills” to train them how to avoid a mass murderer in the hallway–instead of the rest of us actually DOING SOMETHING to prevent there being a mass murderer in the hallway.  Back in my day, all we had to contend with in school were the usual bullies, occasional fire drills and predictable Friday afternoon bomb scares—it was the 70s after all—and  for most of us, the bomb scares just meant an excuse to get out of gym class. Today, we have gunmen who shoot their way into the building and massacre six year olds en masse. And if we can’t come up with some way to stop atrocities like that, then we might as well pack it in and return to the cave, because we do not live in anything approaching a civil society.

 

So what to do? Or more to the point, how to do it?

 

Not surprisingly, the internets have been afire since Friday with all sort of posts decrying the horror of it all, lamenting our lame gun policy, lambasting the National Rifle Association (mea culpa) and using Facebook as a public forum to express a general sense of outrage, disgust, and helplessness. (Interestingly, the NRA has disabled its Facebook page.) Vigils have been organized and protests are threatened. But for a truly compelling rant about how to really kick the shins of big gun, read this guy. Drew Magary argues that the real target of our frustration should not be the NRA and its four million dues paying members, but rather, the money interests behind the NRA itself.

 

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The Christmas Card from Hell

I got a Christmas card today from the child molester’s wife.

 

This is not an unusual event. For the past several years, this woman has persisted in sending me birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter greetings—this despite what should have been a clear directive to her years ago never to contact me again. Yet she persists.

 

For years I evaded her ridiculous missives, but somewhere along the line one of my misguided relatives gave her my current address and so, for the past few years, I have suffered through a series of “greeting cards” from this woman. Usually I throw them away. But tonight, for some reason, I am moved to action.

 

The door that wasn’t opened …

You see, I have the misfortune of being related to her husband and, thus, I was one of his targets. I prefer “target” to “victim” because I decided a long time ago that what he did to me was not going to define me forever. And if I was a victim once, I am no longer. But God knows how many more children have come into his line of fire—how many of his own children? We cannot begin to know; his life is a lie wrapped in denial, embroiled in deception. We can guess, but we don’t have the luxury of the confirmation. Once, long ago, I confronted him in the belief that I owed it to his children to try to stop him. But I could not stop him. The lie was too strong.

 

But his wife is a great curiosity to me. When we undertook to confront him, my sister and I,  in the process, we confronted her as well. Her anger was a sight to behold. She literally shook with rage. Not at him, of course. At us. For daring to tell. For daring to say what had happened and demanding—how dare we demand it!—an apology.

 

We never got it.

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Breaking the Block Part 6: Cooking With Commies

I confess to a panic attack the other day when I realized that not only  am I behind on the promised scene, I cannot tamp down my anxiety to write it. The excuses are piling up—production, yadda, hurricane, yadda, production, yadda, nostalgia tour, yadda, yadda, yadda—and now the latest: a nasty flu, which I soothed with multiple toddies  (yes, there was whisky involved, sue me) and homemade soup (leek and potato, recipe to follow. I do try to please.)

 

Chopping leeks had me thinking about what my characters might be having for supper on a Sunday night, and it occurred to me that I ought to scout out a Russian cookbook somewhere, circa 1930 (but in English please!) to get a sense of what Alexei’s mother might put on the table. Then again—a 1930s cookbook would have to be approved by The Party, I imagine, and would a bowl of Communist borscht taste different from the pre-war Tsarist variety? Alexei’s mother in 1930 would be at least 50 and presumably have learned to cook sometime before the turn of the century and very likely, with no assistance from formal recipes at all, so I imagine what she put on the table would be in no way influenced by Party approval but certainly by any going food shortages at the time.

 

All this ruminating takes me back to my basic problem: To write a scene of any authenticity I have to know a little bit of something about the characters and their physical world, and for this play especially, I feel a deep need to immerse myself in the culture and currents of the era. For book research, I have turned to the brilliant Orlando Figes and his phenomenal account of ordinary life in the Soviet era: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. (Even as I write these words I realize I need even more than that. A book alone will not do it—I need a tangible experience, but a visit to Red Square in not yet in the cards.)

 

Forty pages in, the takeaway from Figes’ work is the extreme intrusion of the Soviet state into the private lives of its people, the widely accepted understanding that privacy and personal happiness are luxuries that the people can no longer afford; their focus must be to build the ideal (Communist) state, and to do so, they must cast aside any notion of a personal life. It is heartbreaking in its idealism, realizing the number of lives shattered by the grinding machinery of Stalin’s police state. Even those of the truest believers.

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Breaking the Block, Part 5: The Exploratory Scene

Exploration is not always going to take you where you expect to go.

We’re back with my series on feeling my way through a draft of a new play. How to break through the block? In this installment, I’m looking at laying the foundations for an exploratory scene that might not necessarily make it into the play. This is my play about a man with an amazing memory, whose strange gift turns out to be a liability in the time and place (1930s Soviet Union) in which he lives.

 

In the opening scene that I posted previously, we are introduced to Alexei in the middle of an exchange between his psychologist and the NKVD agent who is questioning her. He enters the space as if he is coming into Natalia’s office at the hospital, rather than into the dingy office where the interrogation is taking place.

 

This introduction to Alexei and Natlia puts us immediately into the thick of their relationship. It also creates the   advantage of a high-stakes scenario for the doctor.

 

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Breaking the Block Part 4: The Worst Case Scenario

Some years ago I came across a funny yet utterly serious book called “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” by Joshua Piven—a guidebook on how to survive a series of unlikely disasters—from an avalanche to a shark attack to the crash of a jumbo jet. So I immediately bought a copy for  an artistic director who has suffered through enough near misses over 25 years of running a not-for-profit theatre to write a guidebook of his own. John is also a risk-taker dedicated to new work and has a keen eye  and a lot of good advice for writers.  Early on, his advice to me was that I needed to “raise the stakes” for my characters, another way of saying I needed to put more pressure on them—because it is only under pressure that character is revealed.

 

It is true in life and true in drama that the way we deal with mess says a great deal about who we really are. The same fire that melts the fat hardens the iron—to borrow a borrowed phrase from some advice columnist I used to read religiously like a fool  (she gave a lot of bad advice). But it is also a no brainer to say that any character in desperate pursuit of something is always more interesting than someone who can wait another week or so and won’t suffer for the delay. What audiences want—savages that we are—is to watch someone suffer–intensely. The more agony for the character, the better for the story and the more interested are we in the outcome.

 

James Stewart’s manically lovesick detective in Vertigo comes to mind—it is part of what makes that improbable (and creaky) ghost story so watchable 60 years later. Nobody suffers better than James Stewart, but most of us are not going to get a Jimmy Stewart to play our leading man, so what we lack in spectacular acting talent we have to make up in a riveting script.  (Not that Vertigo isn’t riveting, but you have to admit it does defy logic. Why, for example, would anyone cook up such a convoluted murder plot that hangs on such an unpredictable element—the detective’s inability to overcome his fear of heights? Scotty conveniently falters on the bell tower stairs, but he could just as easily have closed his eyes and charged ahead, at which point the whole plot would unravel. And then there is the murderer’s great good luck in escaping the bell tower undetected—apparently because no one without vertigo bothered to go up the tower steps to investigate what actually caused the victim to fall.)

 

But plot weaknesses aside, Vertigo is a terrific example of a character under extreme pressure. The woman Scotty thinks he adores is actually someone else, hired to use him as a pawn in a plot to fake a suicide as a cover for murder.  And once the real Madelyn dies, clueless Scotty is skinned alive during the inquest that follows, as an investigator coldly concludes that his cowardice was a greater cause of Madelyn’s demise than the mysterious emotional upset that sent her up the tower. Who wouldn’t end up catatonic in a nursing home after that?

 

We have to admit—when it comes to scenarios for losing your sweetheart, this has to be one of the worst case scenarios of all time—as well as one of the more original.

 

This, then is a useful question to keep in mind when sketching out the scenario for your play. Aside from the obvious–have we ever seen this before?–we need to ask ourselves how we can crank up the pressure on our characters.

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block Part 3

Last week I wrote about an exercise from Michael Dixon to help raise the stakes in a scene. And here it is again:

 

1. Put two characters who share something in common in a place neither can leave. Write a scene in which the obstacles and stakes are high and clearly presented.

 

Working on my play about the man with the phenomenal memory, (working title: A Hero of the Revolution) I have decided that because the  patient can leave the doctor’s office if he wishes, there is more mileage to be gained from another, less expected scenario. What I come up with is a scene between an interrogator and his prisoner–in this case, the psychiatrist who is treating our guy. For the sake of the exercise (if not the play), the doctor is a woman, Natalia; the patient is Alexei, and the interrogator a tough character named Kreplev.  What Natalia and Kreplev share is a seething hatred for this man:

 

"Tsar Nicholas II"

The wrong guy at the wrong time

 

Tsar Nicholas II, an inept and bloodthirsty ruler of a nation struggling to emerge from feudalism at the end of the 19th century.

 

If ever there were a nation in need of a revolution it was Russia in 1917 — but ultimately what emerged was a government even more oppressive and bloody than the monarchy it replaced. In the Birth of the Modern, World Society 1815-1830, Historian Paul Johnson explains why, in a nation in which the concept of individual rights did not exist,  Russia’s fate could have been no different.

 

All of that is by way of prologue. For our purposes, we fast forward to the 1930s, when Stalin’s paranoia has kicked into high gear, and here we open our scene:

 

 

 

A HERO OF THE REVOLUTION, SCENE ONE

Lights rise on a drab office with sick green walls and a window overlooking a brick wall that sports an enormous banner picture of Stalin. Only a quarter of Stalin’s face is visible, an eternally staring eye. Kreplev, a government official, sits at a desk and Natalia leans against the wall opposite.

 

Kreplev has several files, which he taps on the tabletop. Each time he taps the files, the sound is like a rifleshot. Tap — tap — tap. Tap — and last tap, a light flashes outside the window — as if a gun has been fired, and the report of the rifle report echoing, echoing, echoing, gone. Natalia reacts to this by moving away from the window, but Kreplev does not respond to the sound. It is as if he so accustomed to the sound of gunfire that he can no longer react.

 

KREPLEV: Now then. I have very little time today, comrade doctor. And I imagine you too have pressing business.

 

Beat

 

KREPLEV: I do my best to keep things cordial. Please never let it be said that I have no respect for your profession.

 

NATALIA: Of all the things on my mind this morning, comrade, that … that is not something I have been troubled by …

 

KREPLEV: I will consider that a humorous rejoinder comrade doctor and not make a record of it.

 

NATALIA: Does it matter? Surely someone is taking notes.

 

KREPLEV: It is always possible. But if we have nothing to hide—then we have nothing to fear.

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part 2

I have a play in my head that has frightened me for a long time because it will require considerable research to write authentically—and the stack of books I’ve accumulated to begin the work is a bit intimidating. Not that I can’t read; I figured that out when I was six, but there is a gap between book knowledge and lived experience—and what will be required ultimately, is an avenue into the lived experience of  individuals who struggle under constant scrutiny from the state. Now I have a great resource that I will talk about in future posts, but for now, let’s return to this fun little exercise:

 

Last week I wrote about Marsha Norman’s five sentences, in which you can get  at the arc of a story by filling in these blanks:

 

  1. This is a play about _____.
  2. It takes place _____.
  3. The main character wants _____ but _____
  4. It starts when __________
  5. It ends when __________.

 

 

For purposes of the exercise, as well as this new play, I have filled in the blanks as follows:

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Why a Play? Are Some Topics Too Hot for Stage?

An invitation arrives in my email to consider writing a new play about  a topic so current that taking it on at all seems  to be almost irreverent, given the anguish that many of the players still feel.  But I am not about to pass up an opportunity to work with the theatre in question, so I sit down to think about the challenge.

 

How do you write about recent tragedies that have shaken a community to its core? The pain is too new for black comedy and seems almost too raw for drama.

 

Dottie Sandusky Couldn't Go There

Dottie just couldn’t go there.

Consider the events that unfolded in State College, Pa., over   the last year. The trial and subsequent conviction of former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges–and the vindication of his victims in a scathing report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh–are the stuff of TV police procedurals and movie melodramas.

 

What can theatre bring to the cultural conversation about this almost Olympian tragedy that a TV show or a film could not?

 

Why a play at all?

 

 

A torn-from-the headlines treatment might reduce the story to a straight-line mystery in which the open question is not whether the coach  will be caught and convicted, but exactly how he gets his comeuppance. It would wrap up in 90 minutes, and we could be satisfied that the wheels of justice turn quickly and neatly—with conveniently timed commercial breaks so we can tear away from the drama for another trip to the fridge.

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part I

Typewriter? For Playwriting?

This is how they used to do it.

 

Eric Barker asks us to consider whether we are more creative when forced to work – or whether we ought to wait until inspiration strikes.

 

Citing Daniel Akst’s book Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess, he concludes that pressure to produce actually results in productivity.

 

No surprise to me—I’ve long known that setting a specific schedule to write almost always ensures that I, in fact, write. The trick is making writing a priority over all other competing interests—some of them compelling interests, such as the need to  go to my day job and actually earn the living that supports my playwriting habit.

 

But what to do when the juices don’t flow? Stare at a blank piece of paper?

 

As a founding member of The Playwrights Gymnasium, a process oriented workshop in Washington, D.C., I assure you there are many ways around writer’s block. And in this weekly feature, I intend to share some of those tricks with you.

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