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Theater | PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING

Letting life fill in the blanks

There's no mapping it out. Stories can come from the dramas that just happen to unfold, often things you can't foresee.

October 15, 2006|Beth Henley | Special to The Times

MY plays always begin as a mystery.

I'm unsure how the story will evolve, and I'm uncertain who the characters are. I don't understand the reason I'm writing, only that I have chosen to write. Committing a space inside myself to the play is the biggest hurdle I must get over, crawl under, or shove my way through. After that I am always fascinated by the life events that serendipitously insert themselves into the concoction that will eventually be a new play.

Even more intriguing is a phenomenon you might call "prescient creativity." This is when you are writing intuitively about things you are not aware of, things that have yet to occur.

The evolution of my newest play, "Ridiculous Fraud," is a strange one because I wrote it over an unusually long period of time. The McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., commissioned the play in 1999. I met Janice Paran (then-dramaturge at the McCarter Theatre) for lunch in New York two days after I learned my play, "Family Week," which was running off-Broadway, would be closing after only six performances. "Family Week" had four female characters. Impulsively, I decided my next play would feature men.

For the longest time after that I called it "The Men's Play." But "The Men's Play" folder remained almost empty on my computer for some time.

To help me jump-start the play, the McCarter Theatre invited me to a writers retreat in Princeton. After a week, my play started to take shape. It would take place in Louisiana. There would be three brothers; one might hunt ducks. It would end in a New Orleans graveyard.

On the ride to Newark airport, the intern who was driving told me about his mother being in jail for a white-collar crime. On the plane ride home I noted in my spiral notebook, "The boys' father is in jail for fraud, the mother is dead, they do not know how to manage their lives. Illusions prevail, motives are unclear." This precious information opened up the play for me in a whole new way.

The week of Sept. 11, 2001, my stepfather, Gene Caldwell, died. My mother was alone for the first time in more than 20 years, so we decided to meet in New Orleans for Easter. I was raised in Jackson, Miss., but New Orleans is the city that inspired me to write. The strangeness and wonder of this exotic place affected me like nowhere else I have known. My first play, "Am I Blue," takes place in the French Quarter.

I stayed at the Hotel Monteleone with my mother, sisters and my son. We drove around Jackson Square in a carriage, and my mother danced in the streets to the jazz music. She loved to dance. It did not occur to me at the time that one of the first lines I had written for "The Men's Play" was in reference to a character who refuses to dance at his rehearsal dinner even though, "He really can dance. Mother gave him lessons."

On Easter Day we went to my cousin Madeline's house outside of New Orleans. We had crawfish for lunch. Afterwards my son was presented with a potato cannon. This ingenious device transforms commonplace items such as PVC pipe, duct tape, a BBQ ignition, hairspray and uncooked potatoes into a booming weapon. When we ran out of potatoes, I'm sorry to say, some crawfish got blasted.

That summer, a potato cannon and crawfish found their way into the play. Things were coming along now. I had the first two parts. I knew the third part would take place "deep in the woods." It would be cold and the sun would set low. Something terrible and violent would happen. This was unsettling. I had always known the final part of the play was set in an aboveground graveyard in New Orleans. Only after I had written the scene did I know who would be entombed.

In the fall I got a call at 4 a.m. from my sister in Mississippi. My mother was in the hospital. Before I could get on the plane, she had died.

I didn't write for a while. Eventually, the McCarter Theatre invited me to another writers retreat. I finished a first version of the play. In the final graveyard scene, the character who would not dance at the beginning of the play finally dances. Another character remarks to him, "You're a good dancer." He responds, "I know. I'm lucky. My Mama taught me how."

"Ridiculous Fraud" workshopped at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and the Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory. In the spring of 2005, the McCarter scheduled the play for a production in the spring of this year.

That August, I was checking into the Disneyland Hotel with my son when I got a call from my sister C.C. She was frantic. "Have you heard? There is a Stage 5 hurricane heading right for New Orleans. It's all going to be destroyed. And you better call Madeline because she is not evacuating and it could be the last time you hear her voice."

I watched the news. I prayed New Orleans would escape this hurricane's wrath as it had others. Then the levees broke. The next two days were a haze of horror. Standing in line for the Temple of Doom, making phone calls home, hearing stories of the loss and madness.

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