In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, heaven knows
Back in 1934, when Broadway was belting out Cole Porter’s sassy lines, a new world was dawning, so it seemed. One where a playwright could saywhat she wanted without fear of reprisal.
When Porter penned his sassy lyrics for his soon-to-be Broadway hit, he did it with tongue in cheek, I’m sure. The twenties were over, dragging down with them that infamous cast of characters, which included bootleggers and those party-going recipients so willing to wallow in their booze, fling off their clothes and take baths in the bubbly while getting ready for the next round.
Yes, the Crash had sounded the death knell, a din which became louder and louder as gangsters like Legs Diamond got gunned down in the backs of boardinghouses. By 1933, it was curtains for Prohibition.
Americans had sobered up and just Anything did NOT go.
Porter certainly learned this lesson when he wanted a white woman cast as the call girl singing Love For Sale in 1930. He had to change the setting to Harlem and make the singer black, because of what the song was about. And again, in “Anything Goes,” he had to amend a number called I Get a Kick Out Of You. Remember that famous “Some get a kick out of cocaine” line?” When I got the script many many decades later, the line had become “Some get a kick out of champagne.”
But Porter was willing to do it.
It’s different when the essence of an entire script is challenged, however. And the challenge is subtle. What theatre calls the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” syndrome.
I call it shunning.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. When I was in my salad days, back in the sixties and seventies, I thought censorship existed only in totalitarian societies, societies such as Soviet Russia or the Franciscan Motherhouse, which was my address at the time. I remember, as a nun, so desperately wanting to study theatre.
I even mounted a production of A Man For All Seasons, using nuns as actors (nuns showing their hair and wearing costumes, God forbid!) Eventually, I was pulled aside by Reverend Mother, who wanted to know if I was willing to sacrifice my religious vocation for the work of the devil.
You can well imagine the breath of freedom that went through me when I traded in my nun’s serge habit for a pair of hip huggers and a used eggshell blue VW.
It was the time when Leonard Bernstein’s Candide had opened in New York, along with Equus and all those anti-establishment pieces of theatre. I was on a high. I got my Master’s in Speech and Theatre from Marquette University and drove myself to the Big City.
I had a taste of playwriting in Milwaukee, adapting children’s books such as Tom Sawyer and Heidi for the stage. I was pretty avant-garde, but no one seemed to mind. (Not like people in the late nineties, who questioned me on one of my adaptations of Mark Twain’s classic, asking me why I wanted to expose young people to the anarchy of the Wild West.)
But to return to the late seventies. When I got to New York, I found a job at Henri Bendel’s collection agency. A hundred dollars a week kept me in popcorn and Rice Krispies for dinner and afforded the privilege of studying under a Cuban refugee. Andres was great with the Stansilavsky Method, but he didn’t want his actors selling their wares elsewhere. I did comic roles for Chekhov, Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde plays and then I wanted to move on.
I auditioned for Actors Advent and got a role playing Miss Margarida of Roberto Athayde’s one-woman play, Miss Margarida’s Way. The role was a
reaction to the fascist leadership of Brazil. It was about a teacher who behaved the way church and civil authorities were behaving in South American countries at the time. Miss Margarida informs her class that “Happy are they who obey,” while telling them to give up fornication. Not even kissing is allowed, even if they would like to kiss Miss Margarida.
Miss Margarida’s Way was loudly heralded in the off-Broadway theatres. It was comedic, darkly so, but times were different. They hadn’t become Teflon-ized yet.
Today, My Name is Rachel Corrie has found great trouble making its way to the New York stages. This play about a young activist-journalist in Palestine has met with great resistance. It finally got a booking, but friends of mine have had a great deal of opposition getting it produced upstate.
After Miss Margarida, I set my sails on provocative theatre and began collaborating on such plays as Stage Hands Never Wear Hawaiian Shirts, about a woman with an eating disorder-caused by the social mileu of the early eighties. People were looking more inward by then, and my friend Jimmy Rossi and I wanted to tell a story about a woman overwhelmed by the food world of gourmet consumption. We had a huge phallic-looking croissant swinging across our set.
Our Brooklyn audience was very receptive.
At around this time I began to write full-length plays and moved to Albany, New York. My first play, The Emancipation of Mamie Stutz, told the story of an older woman obsessed with seven locks on her door. At the play’s end, all the locks are broken. She leaves her dwelling with everything she owns in paper bags to sit in front of a library in Bay Ridge.
The college and the psychiatric center where the play was produced gave me good feedback, but I found on sending it out that I was having my first real experience with “shunning.” I was told the play had difficulties because of the language and the ethnic stereotyping. I felt it was something much darker –perhaps an older woman having sex? I wasn’t sure.
I went on to write another full-length, my current play, “Yours Till Niagara Falls”. This play has virtually written itself. I didn’t rein in my characters, and this is the story that wanted to be told. It’s a play about an older woman, as my earlier play was, who has kept a dark secret inside of her.
When I think back, storefront plays like Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free, along with other outrageous plays (Dario Fo’s, for example) have made me fearless in being sure I will not back down in what I need to say.
First of all, every play is about love, on some level. What I said about love in my play is that I believe there is something deeper than physical love which binds the hearts of two human beings, though the physical can be an expression of it.
The characters in my current play come from my own background: grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, and also a second family which claimed me — an Italian family ( also an immigrant family). The protagonist, Rosie, came to Ellis Island from Warsaw with her little brother, Mouse. She had virtually raised her baby brother (he was ten years younger), and now she was being sent to America to get married and raise money to send back to her relatives. The time period was prior to World War I.
When the play opens, it’s already the 1950′s. Rosie’s Italian husband, Shrimpy, has just passed. Rosie is left with a teenage daughter to raise. She is beside herself for Shrimp has left her with nothing but debts. They own a religious supply store called Heavenly Merchandise, but Rosie refuses to open it, lest sleazy characters wander in, claiming they are owed lots and lots of money.
Finally a neighborhood friend, Bettina, recommends Rosie see the parish priest to help her. Bettina, the priest’s housekeeper, promises to go over with Rosie when a visitor comes through the door — Rosie’s long-estranged musician brother Mouse! Bettina is overjoyed and leaves, but not before she flirts a bit with Mouse. As soon as she is gone, Rosie tells Mouse he must leave. But he has no intention of doing that. He explains he has been kicked out once, by her husband, and will never leave again.
As the play moves forward, we come to realize it is Rosie who has had her husband throw Mouse out. She could not stand to be with him as he grew into a man. Now she sees her feelings have only deepened and it frightens her. In the final act, Rosie’s brother invites her and her daughter to return to Brooklyn with him. Rosie begs a sign from the Blessed Mother.
The final moments of the play are a showdown between Rosie and Mouse, when Rosie is finally able to say what she needs to the man she has always treasured. It remains for Mouse to speak. All happens in the final moments, and then the play is over. Outside. the snow begins to fall. A heavy snow, but a silencing one.
When I first had my reading of this new play last December, I was encouraged by an audience member who asked if she might have a copy to submit to an artistic directors who seeks plays with one set, few characters, and heart. I really was encouraged, because some people I have given this play to have looked on me as some kind of ogre, some wicked, shameful thing who has violated all manner of political correctness.
But they are allowed their thoughts. I need not censor them. I just need to be attuned to those who find something there, who may make minor requests. Most recently a man named Wally Truesdell asked me for two more scripts. He said my play reminded him of a Polish Awake and Sing. (Clifford Odets)
Bet your dupa, Wally! I had the scripts out to him in the next hour’s mail.
Second, those writers– edgy ones — who have gone before me have given me strength to write about older people as main characters. I get a lot of negative feedback about this. The character in my new play, Rosie, a Polish immigrant, is sixtyish. I have gotten feedback that young audiences don’t like to look at old people — especially old women. They want eye candy.
But in both my plays, my characters are older women. I will keep them there.
I think I want to be real and will forge ahead. When Yours Till Niagara Falls was shown in an Arts Center in Troy last year, I had a very unique experience. Someone asked me for the script! She said it was a play with heart — and she really likes the main character! I am now sending the play out to theatres who respect women and their issues. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge their inner strengths and beauty.
I also got negative feedback about presenting plays with eastern European immigrants. But these exist in our country. They are people and have a right to have a voice. They have gone through much hardship — and shunning.
I want to encourage you to treat you dramatic “child” well, also. We have enough Grendels to last another century! (Remember that character who terrorized everyone — until a Beowulf stood up to him, and spoke to him in a whisper?)
Oh, we know anything does Not Go. But once in a while, something does! Tell a story — a real story with lots of heart. Get your character to a boiling point, don’t let her or him off the hook — and see what happens!
Some may say “Nay.” I prefer to say “Yay!” Just tiptoe like a mouse around the
nay-sayers — there’s a piece of cheese waiting on the other end. In theatre, 98% is work, even grunt work, but, oh – – that two percent of applause is of another world!
Always remember: don’t bury your head (or your writing) in the sand. When the curtain rises, history begins!
So break legs, as they say in the trade, writers!