In December 2007, I was a writing fellow at Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson, VT. It was the second time I had a month’s residency there and I was determined to use it to bring my book manuscript to completion. As the month neared its end, so did my manuscript. I had a first full draft of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, and gave a reading from it one night during open mike.
It snowed every day that December month I spent at VSC. But, comfortable in my studio, the river outside my window freezing into a new shape by the hour, like an ever-changing natural work of art, I continued to write. And when I wasn’t writing, I was reading.
As chance would have it, the studio I occupied had been dedicated to Grace Paley, a Vermont resident herself in the last years of her life, but a New York City gal writing in an utterly unique Jewish woman’s voice. I had brought along my copy of Paley’s Collected Stories and was determined to read all of it before the month was over.
Making my way through those stories, I began to see recurrent themes and meet repeating characters. One in particular—Faith—grabbed my attention and soon the outlines of a longer story about Faith, written in the form of a play, began to take shape in my mind.
The year before, my colleague, Federico Moramarco and I had produced Kate Fodor’s play, Hannah and Martin, based on the story of the love affair between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Francine Chemnick directed the successful production, which won a Patté, a local theatre award, for Best Production.
Building on that success, we applied for non-profit status for our little company, Laterthanever Productions, and were in the process of deciding what to do in the next season. Independently, Federico had come up with the idea to create a play based on Ray Carver’s short stories. I told him about my play idea, and we companioned the two into He Said, She Said, different perspectives on modern love.
Federico’s production, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was premiered in January 2009; mine was scheduled for March 2009. But the first few drafts of my play, Acts of Faith, just weren’t working in terms of finding the right dramatic arc. A reading we held proved that.
In November 2008, I read a piece by New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood, pointing out some of the difficulties I was discovering for myself in practice. I wrote about it in my blog:
The key challenge is to create a dramatic arc about what, in literature, as Isherwood notes, is often characters reflection on experience, rather than the experience itself. And this challenge is there not only for the playwright, but also for the playgoer, when we move from page to stage.
Isherwood: ‘Reading is an inward, intimate experience…the images and experiences [books] evoke are brought into being in the mind of the reader…Books happen inside us, theater happens to us…The theater is a collaboration between audience and writer, but it is a communal one, mediated by directors, designers, and actors.’
What it boils down to, for Isherwood, is how to not sacrifice thought to narrative.
And what was making it doubly difficult for me was that Paley’s prose has no ordinary narrative structure; there’s almost no plot, only character, dialogue, and interior reflection. (For a wonderful essay on Paley’s writing see Leora Skolkin-Smith’s recent essay.)
Around this time, my colleague Sharyn Blumenthal came into the project as director for my play. We collaborated on rewriting the piece and it finally found more solid dramatic structure. It’s hard to communicate the thrill of seeing the words brought to life as actors embodied the characters and their conflicts.
It was an exciting, if frustrating, first effort at playwriting that got me hooked on the process, especially once I’d seen my work on the stage!
I am nearly done with a second play, The Origin of the Seasons, a heavily fictionalized story loosely based on my book, Living Between Danger and Love. I expect to have a complete draft by the end of the summer and, in the fall, to invite actors to help me stage a reading. (For a longer essay on The Origin of the Seasons, see my entry on the blog, San Diego Writing Women)