Living History in My Hometown -- Writing for Milton's Civil War Days

It's true what they say -- you can't really go home again. But this spring I went back to my hometown of Milton, Wisconsin, to meet with the executive director of the Milton House Museum about a playwriting gig. Kari Klebba asked me to write a monologue about an escaped slave who lived in Milton for a short time during the 1860s. She had already contacted my friend Reggie Kellum about performing it as part of the museum's Civil War Days event. 

My Summer Bucket List

I got an email this morning from a smart, sassy and young chef who goes by the title “Joy the Baker.” I love Joy. She’s funny and self deprecating and always encouraging. She loves sugar, butter and flour, and she also loves tweaking familiar recipes to make them brand new. I swear by her inspired recipe for brown sugar bacon biscuits, for instance. Yes! Why not put all the delicious things together instead of eating them separately? This is the kind of thinking I applaud.

So she sent out her summer bucket list today, for recipes she’d like to try, travel plans she’s determined to make, and personal goals she’d like to ace in the next three months. I was in awe of her ambition and the diversity of her goals; everything from making her own rootbeer to mastering a yoga headstand. (I did not know that was a thing.) I also have great affection for making lists, so I decided to follow her lead. Here is my (perhaps overly ambitious) summer bucket list, which frankly, is mostly about theater.


Note to Playwrights: Everybody's Mother Dies

I was talking with a poet friend of mine a few years ago over coffee. She was bemoaning the hundred or so entries she was tasked to read as the judge of a poetry contest. Many entrants were evidently new to the genre and their work was . . . not great.

We commiserated, as I have also judged contests for short fiction, ten-minute plays and musicals. I told her that, based on my experience, there's a pretty standard distribution in the quality of fiction contest entries: 10% of the authors didn't follow the directions or subverted the topic beyond recognition and are therefore disqualified, 80% of the remaining pieces are predictable or forgettable, and about 10% are really good.

She smiled at my math and shook her head. Then she sighed and said, "You know, everybody's mother dies."

Don't Kill Your Darlings, Just Remove and Save for Later

Some of the best lines I have ever written have not actually appeared in final drafts of my plays and monologues. (Not surprisingly, that goes ten-fold for my corporate copywriting.)

Sometimes I take a line out because it's only funny -- or relevant -- to me. Sometimes whole scenes have to be excised to make room for something new. Just as characters are added during editing, occasionally a character is eliminated.  That's hard. That's saying goodbye to a friend who no on else will ever know. 

My sensible editor-self may know immediately that something doesn't fit, or a snippet of dialogue worked great before other changes were made, and now those "extra" pieces have got to go. But the original will always be in my brain. 

#timesup -- And it's About Time

Over the weekend I talked with an actress that I have admired onstage for many years. We're Facebook friends, but I think it was the first time we'd spoken in person. I congratulated her on her latest dynamite performance.  And what she said next made me so sad. And proud. And angry. 

You'll notice that this was written two years ago.

Yes, it's absurd. It seems even more absurd to me now, that I have my own (temporary) classroom. One of my 17 year-old students asked me last week what we were supposed to do if a live shooter entered Edgewood High School. I said I didn't know, but that there was a recent email about maybe having another drill. 

Then I looked at the closet in the back of my room. There's no way we could all fit in there. And my invincible, almost adult guys all talked about jumping out of my third-floor windows if someone came in with a gun. 

Tell me again where the absurd part stops and real life starts.

 

Dear Mr. Shakespeare. . . Can I call you Bill?

Dear Mr. Shakespeare,

I'm working on a writing project. . . a collaboration of sorts with you. I'm filling in some of the story for "A Winter's Tale" that you neglected to include. Hope you don't mind. Just want to see what you think of this so far. . .feel free to "like" it if you think I'm on the right track. Yes, some of the lines are yours, but more and more of them will be mine, as we follow Hermione around for the 20 years or so that she was off stage. 

Anyway, I hope you like it. Suggestions are welcome. I'll keep working in the meantime. 

Like a Moth — True Stories Told Live

When it was announced last year that The Moth would be coming to Madison I was ecstatic. I’ve been a longtime fan of The Moth Story Hour on public radio, and a few years ago I got to attend a Moth Story Slam in person, in New York City. (There are also books, and a podcast, which are worth checking out.)

Basically The Moth is a storytelling extravaganza — the set up is that normal, everyday people are invited to come up to the mic to tell stories that are true, less than five minutes long, and performed without notes. You can sign up to tell a story around a specific theme, or you can hope to be pulled out of the audience to give it your best shot. It’s not stand-up. It’s not acting. It’s something that happened to you, that only you can talk about.

Finishing the Hat

No, friends, I have not become a Sondheim convert overnight, though I couldn’t resist borrowing the title of his best-selling book about the world behind his musicals.

I am actually, literally, finishing a hat for one of my actors in an upcoming production that I wrote and directed called "Talking Spirits," a program sponsored by the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum at Forest Hills Cemetery. Part research project, part historical drama, the play is actually a series of four monologues based on the lives of 19th century Wisconsin residents with a strong connection to the Civil War.

Br!nk New Play Festival has Women Playwrights Take the Lead

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By BONNIE NORTH  SEP 8, 2017

Playwright Gwendolyn Rice and Renaissance Theaterwork's Suzan Fete speak with Lake Effect's Bonnie North.

Renaissance Theaterworks began a quarter of a century ago as a way to both produce good work and also promote women in theatre, both onstage and behind the scenes. In those 25 years, the company has mounted 66 full productions and 40 staged-readings. Nine of those productions were original works by Wisconsin playwrights and seven were World Premieres.

This weekend’s Br!nk New Play Festival expands on Renaissance’s commitment to nurturing and promoting work by women. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, the company will present staged readings of several new plays by Midwestern women.

Madison-based playwright Gwendolyn Rice is part of this year's festival, which will feature her new, 10-minute play, I Hear Everything. Suzan Fete is one of the founding members of Renaissance Theaterworks and will direct Rice’s play.

Rice says her plays have taken her around the country, but, in particular, 10-minute play festivals like this one are special for her.

"You don't get to go to the rehearsal. You don't know the director. You don't know the actor ahead of time," she says. "You just kind of show up, and see what your words have turned into."