Old Stories, New News

December 9, 2014

On ancient stories and current events:

This Friday, students at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas www.obu.edu will be performing my one-act play Medusa’s Tale. I’m thrilled of course. I’m thrilled anytime anybody anywhere performs any of my plays. And naturally I take it as a compliment to my skills as a playwright that since its 1991 publication in Plays in One Act, Medusa’s Tale has been performed all over the world. In 2014 it’s been produced at high schools in Oskaloosa, Indiana and Fountain, Colorado as well as at the San Diego Fringe Festival and the University of Tulsa. Previously, it has served as the subject for a senior thesis written by a Classics student at Monash University in Australia and has been performed by students in the English Drama Society at Peking University in Beijing (in English with Mandarin side titles). It has also been performed in London, Manhattan, San Francisco, Tokyo, Brussels, Guam, Fairbanks, Barstow, Kalamazoo … and so on. Mostly by high school and college students. It’s my most-produced play by far, and I doubt that its appeal comes entirely from the quality of my writing.

Medusa’s Tale is about rape. It’s about “justice” serving the needs of those in power. It’s about turning the victim into a scary thing so that instead of eliciting empathy, the monster can become fair game for the hero. In other words, it’s relevant to current events. But the story is a very old one. The plot comes straight from Ovid’s Metamorphosis: the god Poseidon rapes the girl Medusa in the goddess Athena’s temple. Athena gets angry. So she punishes Medusa by turning her into a monster with snakes for hair and the power to turn men to stone by looking at them. Later, with the help of Athena, a young man shows up to slay the monster, become a hero, and marry the princess. In my rendition of these events, Medusa tells her story to the hero Perseus. He is moved but kills her anyway, because he is as much doomed by circumstances to be a hero as she is to be a monster.

Evidently, young men and women from very many different cultures connect to the themes of this story. But suppose I had given the play a contemporary setting – let’s say a frat house at a large public university or the streets of a racially-segregated American city. Suppose I had written directly about date rape and slut-shaming. Or about police brutality and a racist legal system. Would that play be staged at a university whose most famous graduate is Mike Huckabee? Maybe. Probably not.

I’ve drawn on Greek mythology for the plots of several of my plays. My aim in donning classical clothing is not to sneak wolfish ideas past conservative sheep herders. Not exactly. It’s to avoid easy categorizations and judgments coming from any pre-established perspective. If you come to the theatre to see a play about a subject in the headlines, you will most likely arrive already knowing what you think. But if you come to see a play about Medusa, or the Furies, or Persephone, you may not anticipate your own reactions. You may unexpectedly find yourself in sympathy with the monster. Or maybe, to your even greater surprise, with the hero.

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CONFESSIONS OF AN (INTERMITTENTLY) EMERGING PLAYWRIGHT

October is high season for applications. As usual, I am helping a couple of high school students with their college application essays, and I am writing essays of my own to apply to “development opportunities” for playwrights. The eligibility requirements for one such opportunity include that the candidate be an “emerging playwright,” a “prolific writer” and “committed to playwriting as a career.” My (stereotypical) image of an “emerging,” “prolific,” and “committed” playwright is someone who has made writing her (or more likely his) single-minded pursuit, whatever the personal costs. No doubt this eligible playwright is also relatively young, since most people who have given over their twenties and thirties to the theatre and have not yet “emerged” will probably seek a more reliable career.

In other words, this mythical emerging artist is not me.

I was an emerging playwright at the age of 21, when my first one-act play won a national competition judged by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. That was in 1978 when calls for plays were posted on bulletin boards. Cork bulletin boards. With thumbtacks. I was an emerging playwright again at 24 in 1981 when The Story, a retelling of genesis, was produced at the Magic Theatre of San Francisco in the same season with a new play by Sam Shepard. I am now 56 and still, or again, trying to emerge. In between, I’ve written a handful of full-length plays and a dozen or so shorter plays. Some of them are very good. Some of them have found an audience. But I have fought and am still fighting the fear of being seen as Not A Real Writer because in many instances over the past 35 years, I have chosen to put financial independence, community responsibilities, and family relationships ahead of my writing.

From 1983-2008, I taught at Saint Mary’s College of California—and did my fair share of advising students, serving on committees, and chairing programs. I married in 1983 and my daughters were born in 1988 and 1991. I volunteered in their classrooms, helped with their homework, and cheered ecstatically at soccer games and ballet recitals. Before I had children, I imagined I would write while they played peacefully at my feet. Before I began teaching, I imagined that I could write in the mornings, teach in the afternoons, prepare classes in the evenings, and grade papers on the weekends. And if and when I was lucky enough to get my plays produced, I would somehow sometime attend rehearsals and make rewrites. Thanks to my husband’s equal participation in the life of our family, and thanks to healthy children and having the means to pay for good child care, and thanks to summers and sabbaticals and occasional unpaid leaves from teaching, and many other fortunate circumstances, I was intermittently able to “do it all.” But usually something went by the wayside. And usually it was writing—because writing did not pay the mortgage, and because it was awful to walk into a classroom unprepared, and because children grow up.

I believe my writing is the better for the other passions I have pursued alongside of it. And now I am grateful to be a fulltime working playwright, whether emerging, re-emerging, or submerged.