Beth Henley On Playwriting

August 10, 2011

Adapted from: Act I: the Pulitzer, Act II: Broadway

By Robert Berkvist, The New York Times, October 25, 1981

I hate the feeling that the play has to be seen as really great, instead of just an enjoyable evening in the theater.

If a play is set in the South, it can be kind of eccentric and people will accept it. The language can be more poetic, too.

I guess (“Crimes of the Heart”) is not an easy play for people to pick up the tone of — to know whether it’s funny or sad.

The feelings are kind of autobiographical, the business of how sisters relate, or bear grudges — things like that. But none of the events depicted in the play ever happened to my family, although some of them were things I had heard of.

Not to denigrate my play or anything, but all this acclaim is just the way the cards happened to fall. Theater is such a business now that it’s got nothing to with art or good work. My kind of writing happens to be salable these days. I’m sure there are a lot of talented people out there who aren’t writing plays but working in factories while they wait for someone to “discover” their stuff.

The theater makes it pretty hard for a writer. People can be real mean about your plays. I don’t blame some writers for turning to Hollywood for money and praise.

I didn’t like the feeling of being at everyone’s mercy, so I decided to do something creative. Of course, everyone in Los Angeles is working on a screenplay, so what I did wasn’t bizarre at all. But no one at the studios would read my screenplay because I didn’t have an agent, so I thought I would write a stage play that might at least get performed in a small theater somewhere. That’s when I wrote “Crimes of the Heart.”

Women’s problems are people’s problems. There are certain subjects I mightn’t get into, simply because I don’t have the necessary knowledge, but I don’t think my being a woman limits my concerns.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Just Shoot Me

January 18, 2010

Confessions of a Photographer’s Daughter
By Jacquie Roland

My career as a child model was short-lived but intense, and I hated every minute. I was the oldest of too many brothers and sisters, a motley crew that today may generously be called “rug-rats.” When I was a child in the 1950’s, Shirley Temple was still the rage. You couldn’t open a magazine without seeing pictures of adorable, curly-headed moppets smiling out at you, usually with tiny kittens or fuzzy ducklings as props. My father wanted to be a photographer, but he didn’t particularly want to photograph children, especially his own somewhat scruffy brood. “Art ” photography (read “naked ladies”) held his interest, but having so many free mini-models close at hand finally developed some appeal—but only after my mother put her foot down. ( Or, in a manner of speaking, “up” a certain part of his anatomy.)

Before my father’s photographic mania struck in the ’50’s, our magazine rack held titles such as Modern Romance, Hot Rod—and, perhaps, a tattered EC comic book or two. After Popular Photography became his bible—or should I say his porn—the coffee table soon overflowed with expensive subscriptions to Modern Photography and Camera 35, among others. He began taking pictures with a plain box camera. You know the one, black imitation leather and metal strips, a leather handle and strap, which you always kept around your neck. But while his kids wore hand-me downs and had too little to eat, my father’s camera bag slowly filled with bigger and better equipment—more expensive cameras, the latest and biggest lenses, tripods, light meters and various other esoteric photographic gee-gaws. Unlike his children, these gadgets were meticulously cared for. Meanwhile, the front room/bedroom/living room/temporary photo studio was also filling up with the occasional young twit of a “model” behind the now-closed door. These bimbos were each determined to become the next Marilyn Monroe—willing and eager to strip, giggling as my father adjusted his lights and other equipment. During these “shoots” as he called them, my mother and I, and the rest of the kids, sat as quietly as possible—as ordered—in the back room/kitchen of our tiny three room apartment. During those sessions there was pain my mother’s eyes, and a “god only knows what is going on in there” look on her face.

Later, we all got to see what was going on when our only bathroom, which doubled as my father’s darkroom, exhibited 8×10’s and 16×20’s of the naked ladies, with occasional close-ups of their anatomical bits. WOW. ( We weren’t supposed to look, but of course we did.) Large format black and white photos were laid out to dry on shiny rectangular dryers, the wet prints rolled slightly and held in place with something like a bungee cord. The photos, on their heavy matte paper, dried with a slight curve. Other finished prints and fresh negatives were clipped to a “clothesline” sort of arrangement over the tub. Three pans, for developer, fixer and a plain water rinse, lined the tub bottom. ( We kids washed up in the kitchen, at the sink.) Toilet paper was moved to make room for large brown bottles of smelly chemicals, and stacked plastic trays. Red and yellow bulbs in metal clip-on lamps were attached to where the curtain rod used to be, timers and tongs sat on the back of the tub. Interesting glass measuring jars marked in red increments topped the sink. Our three toothbrushes (his, hers, and the one for us kids) were moved to a cup on the floor, sharing space with a tangle of extension cords which covered the linoleum. Our tiny linen closet held black and yellow boxes of photographic paper and other supplies. (The family towels were now kept in the hall, rough dried and unfolded, in a laundry basket outside the door.) This made room for his enlarger, big and gray with an interesting bellows that sat in a corner, on wheels, rolled out of the way.

My father spent a lot of time in his darkroom. Locked on the inside, it was the one place with absolute privacy in the apartment. Sometimes he took one of his models in with him. He claimed that the “oohs” and “aahs” we heard must have meant that she was just appreciative of his work. Even at my tender age, I didn’t believe that for a minute. And god forbid any of us had to go to the bathroom while he was “working.” You either had to hold it or use the enameled slop jar kept in the middle room/ kids bedroom/storage area. I was proud that I could hold mine, but the younger kids often wet their pants. The only thing my mother held was her rage, and—knowing her temper—she kept it in check far longer than I would have expected. When the models began hanging out with my father in the living room with a beer, relaxing merrily after their shoot, while the rest of us were still banished to the kitchen, my mother decided that “art be damned!” (My words—hers were a LOT more colorful.) She had finally had more than enough. Later, after weeks of sturm and drang (blood and fisticuffs) and broken glass and spilled chemicals in the darkroom, the enlarger was repaired with black electrical tape, and my father’s “focus” finally took a turn. The naked ladies went elsewhere. That was when we kids became his models.

Now my father’s problem was—well, it was me. I was no Shirley Temple. And try as he might, threaten me as he did, he couldn’t turn me into her. The photo shown here, dated 1950, was taken just after he actually beat the bejesus out of me because I wouldn’t smile, and was wasting his film. The more he yelled, the more morose I became. Twisting my arm only got more of the same, plus tears. The cheap blue nylon party dress I was wearing rapidly lost it’s crispness as he just as rapidly lost his temper. My mother matched his nasty mood and in the fracas my dress got yanked out of shape and I lost one of the bows in my hair. My mother had to iron another dress, the one you see here ( it was in the basket with the towels) so that my father could finish out the roll with me wearing something, at least. She also ironed my hair because my long “sausage curls” had to be fixed. Because I wouldn’t hold still, she pushed the tip of the hot iron into my back and said, “NOW you’ll smile, won’t you?” Still I didn’t. Or couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. She finally gave up and wiped the tear stains off my face as I sat there in my ratty little homemade green dress with the stupid rick-rack, hating them both. But I despised the “photographer” most of all because he had made me wet myself. We finished the rest of the roll, damp little me sitting on a towel to keep from staining the sofa. My mother helpfully said that I was beginning to look like a zombie. The photo you see here was the best of the bunch, and ended up being my “before” shot. You wouldn’t have wanted to see the “after” one, or the smile from hell I learned to perform on cue. Later on that night, while I was on the floor, I found my missing hair bow, pee-stained, under the sofa with the dust bunnies.

My father entered photographs of my younger brothers and sisters in every contest he could find, and I had become old and ‘useless’ as a model at age seven. After a while—as much as I still hate to admit it—his photos got to be pretty good. Several were excellent. But as far as I know, my father didn’t win any contests, or make any earnings with his photography. Money was his criteria for success. But as I’ve learned, art has its own criteria, and the work itself is what drives us. Often, it’s the only reward. Some how—in spite of the fact he didn’t deserve to—the miserable bastard actually became a photographer. Here I’m remembering an incident where he beat me with his fists and a belt. No wonder I thought then that he didn’t deserve to live, let alone be successful at the one thing he loved. But he did live and was successful—at least in a creative way—and life isn’t fair. So just shoot me.

Copyright © 2010 Jacquie Roland.


Legacies

June 1, 2009

By Susan Middaugh

The dress hung in my mother’s attic for over 20 years and in my basement for nearly a decade. Crop4BlurThe heavy plastic, which protected the gown after its one and only wearing, had collected dust and grime from years of neglect. But the contents of the plastic bag, sealed tightly by a local dry cleaner, who may have been a curator in a previous life, retained the same winsome appeal that had attracted me in the first place. It was still a pretty dress, simple but elegant, with a single row of flowers down the front and along the bottom edge. The dry cleaner had even taken the trouble to shape the dress in a female form and fluffed it throughout with pink tissue paper, visible at the neck.

After my parents died, my brother and sisters and I divvied up stuff that had accumulated during our parents’ 45-year marriage. One of the items I became the custodian of was my own wedding dress. Although divorced for many years, I couldn’t bear to toss it. Maybe my teenage daughter, Liza, would want to wear it someday. When I got home, I threw the dress — gently — giving it plenty of room, into a basement closet, containing extra leaves for my dining room table, some curtain rods and an old suitcase, and promptly forgot about it.

With the approach of Liza’s 25th birthday, it was time for me to take stock of this still lovely size-nine dress that had hung in a closet for nearly 30 years. Although there were no nuptials in Liza’s forecast, the prospect of revisiting “something old, something new, something borrowed . . . ” was in my mind, if not in hers. Looking around for a family precedent, I found there was none. My own mother, who had married during the war, wore a suit, flowered hat, and modest furs for the occasion. Mom did not save her wedding garments for me and my four younger sisters — except in black and white photographs. What about my grandmothers, one married twice, the other dead by the time I was seven? With Mona and Nana, the subject of wedding dresses never came up.

As a rule, the women in my family don’t like hand me downs. Except for me, they don’t buy at thrift stores or consignment shops. They like to open a gift and see the tags. They like being first. They like new. Hand me downs weren’t an issue for me as a child because I am the oldest. As an adult, I like finding something of value in a second-hand shop — whether a sturdy bookcase for my office, a sweater in mint condition or a Dana Buchman skirt at a considerable discount. If in the first or second wearing, the clothing still carries another woman’s scent, I don’t mind. I breathe deep and for a moment pretend to be someone else — a woman from a different century perhaps, another race, thinner, younger, wiser, funnier. For whatever reason, this woman has cast off and recycled this garment instead of tossing it in the dustbin or wearing it herself till it is threadbare. I am the beneficiary. Secondhand is not necessarily second best so long as there is life and laundry detergent.

Given my own family’s preference for new, who are the women who pass down their wedding dresses to daughters, granddaughters or nieces and do so with an expectation of receptivity? Certainly there are practical aspects to this tradition. An obvious one is that the wedding garment fits or may be altered to fit the bride; another that she likes the taste or style of her relative. A more subtle consideration and perhaps the overriding one: was the donor’s marriage essentially a happy one? Did the man and woman truly love one another? It seems to me that women who have had happy marriages are more inclined to want to share those feelings in a symbolic way – through the gift or loan of a wedding dress.

What then of former brides like myself whose marriages ended in divorce? According to the statistics, we are one out of every two. Do we do our daughters a favor, do we have their best interests in mind if we expect them to clothe themselves in our past? Because I hope my daughter will fare better in affairs of the heart and in matrimony than I did the first time, I chose to donate my wedding dress to charity. It is my hope that a stranger will see the dress for what it is — gently used and with some history, but no baggage.

I can see her now, a young June bride very much in love and with high hopes, as she raises the plastic covering. “What a pretty dress. Simple yet elegant. Let me try it on.”

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Her personal essay, Turning Green, was published on this blog on April 21, 2009. To read it, check out the April archives in the sidebar. Also in the sidebar, under the blogroll, business and writing labels, there are links to Susan’s Have Pen Will Travel website.

Photo Illustration Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


The E-Tower

September 24, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

One thing I packed for my first (and so far only) international trip was my new camera, a Minolta 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex). The whole business of doing photography with such a sophisticated instrument, rather than my old Kodak Instamatic, was so strange to me at the time I had to refer to the manual whenever I attempted to use it. So I was careful to bring along the little white instructional booklet, too.

It was August, 1973, and I was on my way to Paris to meet my new girlfriend, having been introduced to her at a party the previous May. She was a schoolteacher out of class for the summer and living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend (an Italian waiter the sibling had met in Rome), in a one-room apartment on the Left Bank. It was all very romantic, and the sisters’ were old hands at international travel, having made the European scene for several summers running. My girlfriend, with her knowledge of the country and her high school French would be my guide, or so I assumed. The tip-off that perhaps she wasn’t “in the know” so much herself was the fact that August was the month when well-off Paris residents abandoned the hot city, leaving it to hordes of low-end tourists. Actually, August was the only time most schoolteachers could afford to vacation in Paris. That was my situation, too, being a low-grade (in every sense) Visual Information Specialist at the Social Security Administration, one with child support payments to make.

As I boarded the Paris flight I promised myself that at no time during the eighteen days in France would I make a single “touristy” photograph of a famous monument, such as, for instance, the Eiffel Tower. If I did choose to photograph a popular site, I would figure out how to do it in a fresh way—as an abstraction, perhaps, or from a great distance framed by trees, or with something completely unexpected in the foreground, something ugly, like a wall plastered with handbills. The goal was to produce what on the surface appeared to be “bad” snapshots, but which in fact had required a lot of thought and would provoke an unexpected response in the viewer, a response at once intellectual and emotional. It wasn’t that (in “postmodern” lingo) I wanted so much to “deconstruct” the tourist snapshot—I doubt I knew the term back then—but I was determined to avoid committing that photographic sin of sins, the visual cliché. Of course all this was a tall order for an amateur photographer. Looking back, I now realize that rather than being a photographic trail-blazer I was simply a visual snob.

I was very young, though, and in love with love and at the same time passionately trying to master a new craft while in a new country where I didn’t speak the language and was completely dependent on my new girlfriend for even the basics, like food and lodging and where to find a bathroom. And after little more than two weeks of walking the streets of Paris, motoring through town after small town in Southern France and “making images” not “taking pictures” of cathedrals, castles rooftops and markets, I was homesick and more than ready to board the flight back to the U. S. I was also mildly depressed, having convinced myself even before I saw the processed slides that I had failed in my quest for a series of perfect “anti-travel” images.

It’s appropriate that this tale of misguided youth (but not misspent, since in retrospect I loved the experience) ends in irony. When my girlfriend asked me to pose for one last snapshot, I agreed, and of course she wanted the Eiffel Tower in the background. I’m too ashamed to show the resulting image, but at least that’s one creative sin which will be forever on her head, not mine.

“The E-Tower” is the first in a series of short travel-photo essays which will post on this site from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.