Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Writing On Writing, Part Eight

An article in the March 1 edition of The American Prospect by Elizabeth Benedict got me to thinking about writers and writing. It also got me thinking about the foundation of where I come from as a writer and what forms my expression in words.

Eighth in a Series

(Part One)

(Part Two)

(Part Three)

(Part Four)

(Part Five)

(Part Six)

(Part Seven)

Inspiration, at least with me, shows up unexpectedly. More often than not I will be doing something completely unrelated to a creative effort when all of a sudden, there is an idea which leads to a thought which then leads on to more ideas, and finally to the keyboard. There have been at least two times when such inspiration has changed the direction of my life.

In October of 1983 I was in my second year of grad school at the University of Colorado and working in the scene shop building sets. As a grad student I got to share a small office with a couple of other grad students, one of whom was a TA in an acting class. On his desk was a copy of 5th of July by Lanford Wilson, and one afternoon while waiting to go down to the shop I picked it up and started reading the play.

I’d heard of Wilson and even seen a snippet of 5th of July when Showtime filmed it with Richard Thomas and Swoozie Kurtz, but I’d never paid much attention to his work. I knew another play of his, Talley’s Folly, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. But this play nailed me. The characters were real, their dialogue was genuine, and Wilson’s ear for the rhythm of their interaction was infallible. I read the script in forty-five minutes and went to work with the story running through my head. After work I borrowed the script from my colleague, took it home, and read it again. I was both in love with the play and extremely envious of the playwright – he was writing the way I thought plays should be written. I got my hands on every play of Wilson’s that I could find. It turned out to be a lot; Lanford Wilson was (and still is) a very prolific writer. I read ten of his plays – everything from little one-acts to Broadway productions – over the next couple of weeks. No two plays were alike, yet it was clear they were all from the same voice, and while the characters were wildly different, they were all honest and strong. I was about to start reading the next batch when my advisor stopped by one day to ask if I’d given any thought to my plans for coming up with a topic for my dissertation.

Frankly, I hadn’t. I had no idea what topic I would research, knowing that whatever I chose would be with me for the rest of my scholarly life. I’d thought about looking into a study of the evolution of realistic drama starting with August Strindberg, but I didn’t speak Swedish and Strindberg was a decidedly unhumorous playwright. And then, thumbing through another collection of Wilson plays, I noticed that most if not all of the plays had been originally directed by Marshall W. Mason. Hmm. I looked through the other plays, and there he was again; 5th of July, Talley’s Folly, Hot l Baltimore…all directed by Marshall W. Mason. And that, as they say, is when the light came on. A week later I submitted a proposal to my doctoral advisor that I would study how a playwright and director work together and use the works of Lanford Wilson and Marshall W. Mason as my model.

For the next few years I was immersed in the plays and productions of Lanford Wilson. I directed a production of 5th of July at a community theatre, traveled to New York four times to meet with them, see their plays, and talk to other actors and directors about working with them. One such trip also launched my first foray into writing my first play since The Hunter.

I was sitting in the New York Public Library’s Lincoln Center branch waiting for the copier to finish the clipping file of reviews of Wilson’s plays. Out of boredom I thumbed through a thick book, a directory of New York actors. I stopped on the second page. There was the picture of a guy I’d gone to St. George’s with. I hadn’t seen him since 1968, but there he was, looking pretty much as he had eighteen years before. His phone number was listed, I jotted it down, and when I got back to where I was staying in Greenwich Village, I called him. After the usual exchange of “Wow, you remember me,” we got together for lunch and spent three hours catching up, telling tales about our lives since those days and reliving the horrors of that freshman year. When I got back to Boulder, that three-hour meeting became the basis of Dark Twist, the story of two former classmates at a New England boarding school who return to become teachers at that school. They relive their time together; healing some old wounds, making some new ones, and coming to terms with themselves and their past.

When Dark Twist was produced, I wondered if after all the years of reading the plays of Lanford Wilson I was about to see a pale imitation of his writing with my own name on it. But Robert Anderson, who wrote Tea and Sympathy, once noted that while original ideas may be few and far between, every voice is unique. So is inspiration, no matter where it comes from. After all, Lanford Wilson hadn’t gone to St. George’s.