There are statues all over Independence, Kansas: on street corners, in front of buildings downtown (yes, a town of 9,000 has a very nice downtown), and in the very nice park that is also home to a zoo, which includes peacocks (I traveled 1,000 miles to see peacocks?).
Anyway, there’s a statue in the park of William Inge sitting on a park bench in one of his classic poses. Based on a photograph, he’s listening. So of course he invites us to join him.
I actually met Mr. Inge when I was seven years old and he was visiting his relatives in Perrysburg. I only knew him as Jay Kirchmaier’s Uncle Bill. But I did meet him, so we caught up.
I’m on the road to the 37th William Inge Theatre Festival. If you’re keeping track, this is my 26th trip to Independence, Kansas, the town where playwright William Inge was born, grew up, wrote about, and is buried.
In years past I’ve been a scholar, and the last two years I had plays in the New Play Lab. This year I’m hosting the scholars conference and seeing a lot of new short plays and connecting with friends old and new.
I’ll check in when I get there.
Oh, here’s where I’ll be staying: William Inge’s boyhood home.
This is going to be one of those truncated weeks again for me as I get ready to head off to Independence, Kansas for my 26th trip to the William Inge Festival. This year I’m standing in for a friend as host of the scholars conference, so I’ll get to see most of the events, including the New Play Lab, without having to prepare much or be nervous about a production of a play of mine.
In all the years I’ve been going, I’ve always found it both calming and enlightening to go to this small town in the prairie (about ten miles north of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little house on the prairie”). It reminds me of the place I grew up, and even if we are poles apart politically, the people are friendly and welcoming, and far more willing to welcome the eccentricities of big-city folk than if the tables were turned. They do more than tolerate the visitors; they’re actually happy to have us, at least for a little while, and even if they may feel that our values don’t match theirs, I’ve never felt as if it was a zero sum game. There is something to be said for mutual respect.
I know that it’s trendy on TV to pit one group against the other; that sells papers and boosts ratings. And I know that it’s easy to say “both sides do it” and “don’t bother to argue with them.” Rather, I’d like to think that the impression I leave on the people I meet there is that while I may be a lily-livered liberal snowflake faerie and they’re right-wing nutsery, we can still occupy the same space at the same time for four days and still come home with the feeling of having learned more than just something about theatre history.
Thank you to Kip Nivens and Bob Elliott of Kokopelli Theatre of Kansas City for bringing my short play “A Moment of Clarity” to life at the New Play Lab at the William Inge Theatre Festival Thursday afternoon. It was a magic moment made all the better by their performance.
Last night we saw a reading of “Ada and the Engine,” a new play by Lauren M. Gunderson, the Otis Guernsey New Voices award-winner. It is, is a sense, a prequel to the film “Hidden Figures,” the story of the African-American women behind the scenes doing the math to get NASA to the moon in the early 1960’s. In this play, it was the story of Ada Byron Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage in the 1840’s to develop the first “analytical engine,” a machine the size of a ballroom that does math. Today you have them in your pocket. It was an interesting premise, a statement for love and feminism, and very nicely staged.
Today I get to listen in on a conversation with Beth Henley, this year’s Inge honoree and the playwright who gave us “Crimes of the Heart.” Then later this morning I’m doing a workshop on dramatic criticism called “Writing on Writing.” Please bring paper and a writing implement (or the electronic version thereof).
Last night we had cocktails and noshes at the home of Alf Landon, the former governor of Kansas who ran against FDR in 1936. He lost, but his house still stands, and quite a nice place it is.
One of the things I look forward to at the Inge Festival is meeting people who’ve never been here before and watching them discover what I’ve known for a long time: this is a casual affair and everybody hangs out with everybody. Sure, we have movie stars and Broadway playwrights, but we also have struggling actors and budget analysts who write plays because it’s cheaper than therapy and doesn’t damage their liver. Everybody has fun.
Last night I had a nice chat with an actor who delivered one of the most famous lines in movie history: “Open the pod bay door please, Hal.” Keir Dullea is a charming and quiet man, and we found that we have some connections — we both did plays at the Cherry County Playhouse in Traverse City, Michigan — and his stage credentials are legion. We talked about everything from Quaker schools to jet lag.
Today my play gets its reading and talk-back, and then tonight we’re having a reading of a new play by Lauren Gunderson, the winner of the Otis Guernsey New Voices award.
Welcome to Independence, Kansas, and the Apple Tree Inn, the Algonquin Hotel of the prairie. In the last twenty-five years I’ve met and chatted and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning singing songs in the lobby with some legendary theatre people, ranging from Edward Albee to Shirley Knight to Jane Alexander to Pat Hingle to August Wilson to Robert Anderson to Christopher Durang and many others. This is my theatre family reunion.
The New Play Lab is already underway, but I need to get a few things done — like get something to eat — and then tonight we have a welcoming barbecue at the college and meeting my fellow playwrights and making some new friends. Tomorrow is my play’s reading and a lot of other things, so … I’ll post when I can and share what I have.
We’ve had a good time at the Inge Festival. I’ve made some new friends, communed with fellow playwrights, shared stories about getting plays read and produced, and found out that I’m not the only one who gets up at 3 a.m. to write blog posts.
This year we had some reminiscences of years past, including the gala dinner at the Independence Country Club, a place I haven’t been to since 2001. I also had a moment in the library where I saw a book I had read back in grad school about American theatre and the prominence that the theatres were giving to the voices of the then-younger playwrights such as Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard. The author seemed to think that they were replacing the great American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, as if they would supplant them and those of the old guard would no longer be important voices on the stage.
I’m glad to see that hasn’t come to pass. The writers that followed them will have writers who will follow as well, as they are now, but there will always be room for good writing no matter when it was written, and people will come and see good theatre and listen to exciting and challenging words.
So now I head home with my mission: keep writing.
Elizabeth Wilson attended many Inge Festivals and became a personal and close friend to many who attended, including me. This morning we planted a lilac tree in her memory and shared this video tribute by Anthony Arkin, the son of her close friend Barbara Dana.
Actress Elizabeth Wilson 1921 – 2015 from Anthony Arkin on Vimeo.
Last night we saw a production of William Inge’s “Where’s Daddy?” marking the 50th anniversary of the play and the return to the play by Barbara Dana who was in the original cast on Broadway. This was a good production — fine acting with Ms. Dana playing Mrs. Bigelow, the mother of the character she played on Broadway, and well-directed by Karen Carpenter — but in the end the play itself is a mess. Inge was trying to get back into the good graces of the critics who had labeled him as hokey, a playwright whose time had passed, and out of tune with the modern times of the 1960’s. He tried to write something that spoke to modern problems and even tried to be hip by including a black couple as neighbors and having a character actually say out loud, “Do you think I’m a homosexual?”
There are two stories in “Where’s Daddy?”: the young couple struggling with their marriage and the impending birth of their child, and the young father’s conflicted feelings about his adoptive father figure and his questioning about his own sexuality. In previous works Inge has been able to meld stories like these together, but in this play it does not work. Rather than meld, they collide.
“Where’s Daddy?” takes Inge into territories where he has only hinted at before, but rather than the subtlety that we’d seen in previous works, he takes leaps.
It was a leap too far. The play ran two weeks and he never really tried for Broadway again. He moved to California to teach playwriting and continued with his life-long battle with depression. Seven years later he was dead by his own hand.
His suicide was not a direct result of the failure of “Where’s Daddy?”, but it is apparent from the time that he felt he had to please the critics, which is a dangerous and futile goal. One thing I have always believed as a writer is that you must first write for the characters and yourself. Nothing else matters because nothing else will be truer.
I spent the rest of yesterday catching up with friends that I’ve made over the last 25 years here at the festival; some of them look like there’s a picture of them in the attic going to hell (h/t Oscar Wilde).
I also spent time listening to new plays as the part of the Play Lab series. Mine will be presented this afternoon. In the words of Robert Anderson, years from now when you talk of this — and you will — be kind.
Shameless self-promotion: my books on sale.
All the flights were on time, the car was ready, the road was clear, the weather was overcast but no rain, and so the Old Professor and I rolled into Independence around 11:30 CDT. We picked up our registration swag, checked into the Apple Tree Inn, and went across the street to the first of the luncheon series: the history of the festival.
The Play Labs start this afternoon, but I have time for a nap.
I’m somewhere between home and Independence, Kansas. Our route takes us through Dallas where they’re predicting thunderstorms, so I hope we make it on time. From there it’s in to Tulsa, then up to Independence. The 35th William Inge Festival gets underway tonight.
Here I am, 24 hours before the 35th William Inge Theatre Festival, and my allergies kick in.
Claritin, do your thing.
This is as good a time as any to tell you that from now through Sunday I’ll be in Inge mode: blogging about theatre and related fun but on a really limited basis because I just checked the schedule and I will be really busy. There’s a New Play Lab where thirty-five short plays will be read and discussed, and I have one being done. I’m also presenting a paper at the scholars conference, plus serving on a couple of panels. Joining me for his third trip to Inge is The Old Professor who also is having one of his plays done in the Lab.
There will be the usual tributes and gala dinners and plays, including a production of the rarely-seen Inge play, “Where’s Daddy?” starring Barbara Dana.
According to my count, this is my 25th Inge Festival. I think I’m getting the hang of it.
I promised a report on this year’s William Inge Festival, but Jeffrey Sweet, one of theatre’s best historians and critics, was there when we honored playwright Donald Margulies, and I humbly defer to him.
Independence has no Amtrak station. No regular bus service connects it to the outside world. The airport you use to get there is in Tulsa, which is in another state. If you want to get to Independence, you have to muster determination. And yet, every year for the past 34 years, a substantial number of actors, writers and directors—largely from New York and Los Angeles—gather there to celebrate that season’s honoree.
Truth to tell, Independence is a place that Inge—a gay man seeking a life in the arts—fled at the earliest opportunity. Still, he brought Independence’s influence with him to Broadway in such long-running plays as Picnic, Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Come Back, Little Sheba.
It’s also where a film based on one of his screenplays was shot. There’s a story about that: A house owned by a lady in the town struck the producers as a likely location, and some of the filmmakers visited it to talk to her about it. Later, someone asked the lady about the visit. “Oh,” she said, “that funny little Billy Inge. He came by with some Chinaman and some Jew.” These were legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe and director Eliza Kazan—who was Greek, not Jewish, though the confusion was hardly uncommon. (Boris Kaufman ended up shooting the film instead of Howe.) The film was Splendor in the Grass.
Margulies, who hails from Brooklyn and whose work owes little discernible debt to Inge, was done proud by this year’s Inge Festival. One evening was devoted to a reading of his most recent play, The Country House. The story concerns a middle-aged actor whose family make room for him because of the biological connection but otherwise treat him with ill-concealed condescension because he doesn’t have the talent they do. When it played Broadway, some of the critics, paying overmuch attention to the influence of Chekhov, gave it a sniffy reception. It deserves better.
Donald Margulies, center, with theatre students from Labette County High School.
For their part, the gregarious, generous Kansans around us on the night of the Saturday night banquet at the Booth Hotel didn’t seem likely to go bonkers. There were salutes to the small army of volunteers who each year work hundreds of hours to bring a taste of professional theatre to Independence. (The town doesn’t have a big enough audience to support an ongoing professional company.) After the festivities, I found myself chatting with a girl who talked about being introduced to Inge’s plays in high school. I remarked about what might be gleaned from his plays about how life was lived during and after the Depression in places like Independence, and about how his portraits of women, Jews and closeted gays struggling in such towns offers a reminder of how profoundly America’s social attitudes have changed in the intervening years. “I don’t know,” the girl said. “Independence is still a pretty conservative place.”
Here at the Inge Festival one thing we writers like to do is shamelessly self-promote our work while going for the full humble-brag. “Why, yes, I’ve written a few little plays and they’ve had some productions. And oh yes, they’re on sale in the lobby and I happen to have a couple of copies here in my suitcase. May I sign them for you? Will that be cash or credit?”
“Ask Me Anything and Other Short Plays” (red) “Can’t Live Without You” (yellow)
Well, we’re not all as brazen as that, but hey, if you’ve got ’em, sell ’em.
Today is the scholars’ conference where I will present my paper on the one-act plays of William Inge, then go to an event in a storefront in downtown Independence called “Writers Write Here.” The idea is for writers to show a work in progress and how they actually write. In other words, I’ll be writing in front of an audience. It just so happens I have a work in progress to show them… plus copies of my other works. What a coincidence.
No, Gov. Brownback’s storm troopers were not waiting at the border to fend me off. He apparently cut gaydar out of the state budget along with education and welfare for cruise ships.
The flights were uneventful and American Airlines has new planes with entertainment centers in each seat, including coach, so you can watch TV or, as I did, an interactive map showing the plane’s path and “3D” viewing from various angles, including a cockpit view. It’s mesmerizing and almost makes you forget you’re wedged into a seat that harkens back to riding in the front seat of a 1963 Volkswagen, except the VW had more legroom.
I got to Independence Community College and the Inge Theatre where the festival is based and saw my books on sale including the revised edition of Ask Me Anything and Other Short Plays. Yay! Now I’m checked into the hotel and planning a little nap before tonight’s reading of Donald Margulies’ new play.
There will be more later about the weekend and even some pictures.
It’s that time of year again…
The William Inge Theatre on the campus of Independence Community College
This weekend is the 34th annual William Inge Theatre Festival, and my twenty-fourth trip to the town of Independence, Kansas. Long-time readers know of my annual pilgrimage where for three days I get to resume my other identity as a theatre scholar and playwright full-time.
My first Inge Festival was in 1991 when the honoree was Edward Albee. This year the recognition for distinguished achievement goes to Donald Margulies.
So, who’s William Inge? Well, among other things, he won the Pulitzer Prize for the play Picnic and an Oscar for the screenplay for Splendor in the Grass. At the height of his fame in the early 1950’s he was considered to be one of the best American playwrights of the time along with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. He wrote many plays, including a collection of short plays. His works are revived on Broadway every so often, including a stand-out production of Come Back, Little Sheba starring S. Epatha Merkerson in 2008 that should have won the Tony that year. But fame and adulation doesn’t last forever or ensure happiness, and in 1973, convinced that he had lost his ability to tell any more stories, he committed suicide at the age of 60. He is buried in Independence under a simple marker with his name, dates, and the word “Playwright.”
Since I’m going to be traveling today and diving in to the festivities, blogging will be light and variable until I get back Monday night. But I’ll be putting up some reflections on theatre and perhaps some pictures, so I hope you’ll stop by.
Today I have the Scholars Conference where I’ll be presenting my paper. Unlike the last couple of years, I froze it on Tuesday night and printed it out first thing Wednesday morning before I left for the airport. I will be delivering it acoustically… that is, I won’t be reading it off the computer as I did before but off the paper at the rostrum.
I spent most of Friday listening to writers talk about writing, so when I came back to the hotel to get rested and ready for the gala dinner, I did a little work on a play that I started a couple of years ago and haven’t gotten past Act I, Scene 2. Thank you, Arthur Kopit.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written about the writing process, and I don’t plan to launch into a long post about it now (you’re welcome), but coming to Inge always makes me re-evaluate the process I go through when I write. That covers everything from your average BBWW blog rant to a novel or play. I’ve had the chance to do that this week, too, and in a lot of ways hearing how really successful and brilliant writers do it has affirmed my own methods.
What a relief.