All good things…
I had hoped that my submission to the Inge Center’s New Play Lab would be chosen, but it was not, and since the festival has discontinued the scholars’ conference, I won’t be presenting a paper. So, for the first time since 1991, I will not be going to the William Inge Theatre Festival.
I cannot count the number of people I’ve met and gotten to know and admire in my thirty-plus years of visiting Independence, Kansas; this small town in the middle of the prairie, a town that Inge wrote about in many of his works, including “Picnic” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” even if he changed the names. On those trips I learned much about why Inge wrote the plays he did and the people in them, and I became a better writer, and, I hope, a better person for having been around the people who came to that place to honor a man who often felt shunned by that world.
I owe a debt of thanks to the memory of JoAnn Kirchmaier, Inge’s niece and a close family friend from childhood. It was she who first took me to the festival and introduced me to so many people and her telling them that I was a hell of a playwright. Thank you, JoAnn. And thank you, Jackson Bryer, my scholarly mentor, roommate, ride-sharer, and die-hard Yankee fan.
Staying at the Apple Tree Inn was an experience in itself: rooming across the hall from JoAnn and her daughters Paula and Kim, sitting in the lobby and chatting with Edward Albee, staying up all hours and singing old songs with Pat Hingle and Shirley Knight, sharing memories of summer stock theatre in Traverse City with Keir Dullea, driving Christopher Durang and John Augustine around town in my rented Mustang, meeting Robert Anderson and mistaking him for a bartender, laughing with Jerry Lawrence and Will Willoughby, meeting the playwrights and their friends and families, and having the distinct honor — not to mention the shivering stage fright — of chairing a panel on the Circle Rep Theatre with Lanford Wilson and Marshall W. Mason, Conchata Ferrell, Judd Hirsch, Tanya Berezin, and Zane Lasky who were on the stage with me. (I did get them to sign the published copy of my dissertation.)
I have wonderful memories of the years when the festival was produced by the irrepressible Peter Ellenstein, who made it an international event and brought in amazing talent to honor the works of so many playwrights, scholars, actors, directors and designers who made theatre thrive in America and around the world. He was succeeded by Karen Carpenter and later by Hannah Joyce who brought the festival the New Play Lab and introduced me to some amazing new writers with so many different voices and talents. I was honored to have two plays presented in the first years of the Lab. It was a chance to make new friends that I admire and know that I will be seeing them at other places, and hopefully sharing the stage with them. Each of you made me a better writer, whether you know it or not… or want to take credit for it.
The festival is going in a new direction now, and for me it’s time to remember the springtime in the prairie (and the occasional tornado). I have a lot of tangible mementos as well: Festival t-shirts that over the years have gone from medium to XXL (I started going when I was in my 30’s, after all), and a large collection of coffee mugs as well as an entire bookshelf of plays signed by the honorees from Edward Albee to Lynn Nottage.
I’d like to think that it’s not goodbye, it’s just intermission, but whatever happens, I wish the festival and the good people who make it happen the best for all they do to keep theatre alive and growing in the name of a man who deserves the honor they bestow on him.
END OF PLAY.