Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Changed the World Yesterday

It was a little hard to sleep last night. I wasn't uncomfortable. I wasn't overwrought. My mind was racing, however. I had just changed the world.

When I grew up in a little Southern town (Fairhope, AL, pop. 3,000) in the 1950s, I attended a radical private school where children played freely and had lessons out of doors as often as possible. Folk dancing and arts-and-crafts were required courses along with traditional academic subjects. Fairhope had been founded as a utopian community in the 1890s, to demonstrate the efficacy of Henry George's theory of the single tax, and from its inception it attracted reformers of just about every stripe. My school was founded by Marietta Johnson, whose name was a household word in her lifetime, and is all but forgotten today. Along with the other personages who inhabited early Fairhope, Mrs. Johnson was convinced she could save the world.

I've come and gone to Fairhope many times over the years. I returned to live when my husband retired in 1988. For most of the 19 years I remained, I was haunted by the village Fairhope once had been, the school itself in its glory days, and the ghost of Marietta Johnson. I worked at a museum honoring Mrs. Johnson and while there was instrumental in getting a statue of her erected in a prime beauty spot on the bluff overlooking Mobile Bay. I was on the board of managers of the school and planned its 100th reunion in 2007. I wrote a book called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, celebrating the town and the characters who set it apart in my memory. I envisioned the book as a sort of Lake Wobegone Days with a single-tax slant.

Then I left. I moved back to the Northeast, but Fairhope really never left me. I began to write about the Fairhope I remembered, revising Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree and titling the new version The Fair Hope of Heaven. Then I went to work on a novel set in Fairhope in 1921-22, about a young schoolteacher who moves to Fairhope to work with Marietta Johnson. I didn't intend the book to be about Mrs. Johnson, but she let me know she had to be a major part of any book about Fairhope in that day.

That Was Tomorrow was first released as an eBook, but is now available in paperback. I am in Fairhope promoting sales, and I yesterday I gave my second talk about the book, this time at the Marietta Johnson Museum. Excitement was so high at this talk, which was attended for the most part by educators (maybe 40 of them), that even I was caught up in the revival spirit. The school has not been thriving in recent years, and the prospect of a new director is always a shot in the arm. The incoming director was at my talk--an upbeat, capable lady for whom we all have high hopes. She will be running the school officially as of January 2014.

Yes, it was hard to sleep last night. This director says she was inspired to take the job after reading That Was Tomorrow. People here are snapping up the book like hot cakes. Everywhere I speak there are intelligent, concerned questions from old-timers and newcomers alike, and I feel as if I have changed the world. I'll let you know how it goes. Maybe I'll even pay for the publication of That Was Tomorrow, but if I don't break even it will have been worth it to have a shot at changing the world.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Hearts and Souls

I haven't been involved in theatre since--when? 1996, when we wound up Jubilee Fish Theatre with a few seasons of A Christmas Carol, and my longtime steady stage manager, directing, had a meltdown and bawled me out because his actors disappointed him? Or was it my swansong when I played Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa at the local amateur theater in Alabama? Whatever it was, time went by and I wasn't doing that anymore. I drifted away from the theatre, the love of my life. I had burned myself out, invested and lost my own money, and just didn't have the heart to keep it up.

At that time, my daughter had told me she was pregnant, and I knew my life was changing for good. A grandchild was a new responsibility, and Alison needed all the emotional and every other kind of support I could muster for her. I couldn't keep throwing money at my theatre, which was foundering anyway, never having found solid sponsorship except for a few donors and myself. There is only so long you can go on beating a dead horse.

In 2006 I left Alabama and moved back to the Northeast. I chose the wonderful city of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was exhilarated by being close enough to visit my daughter and two grandsons often and get to New York to plays as often as I liked. At first I went to plays all the time. I met the two women who ran a local theatre and we hit it off. I even won four free tickets to a great off-Broadway comedy and took the two of them along with me. There was no real place for me in their theatre, but I wrote reviews of their shows for my Hoboken blog and they came to count on me to do that. I still get hits on some of those posts.

In New Paltz I met Ann Citron, a local theatrical type who is Managing Director of the Rosendale Theatre Collective, and she asked if I might be interested in either appearing in their annual fund-raising Short Play Festival, or in directing a couple of the plays. I hadn't done a play in 15 years and really had sort of given up on it. I love the theatre with a love that brings me to tears, but, except as an audience member, didn't even think about being involved again. Without thinking, I told her that maybe I would.

The Short Play Festival is very well managed. It has a routine, a machinery that I was unfamiliar with. There are three directors of the plays, and a contest for the best 10-minute play on the given theme (this year: The Movies) is held, seven to nine plays selected, and auditions are held for the actors. The three of us sorted out the best-written plays that best fit the theme and cast the actors, having one week of intense rehearsal time to get the show on the boards. I knew such an endeavor would have to be chaotic, but it has been pretty smooth, considering all the things that could go wrong. All my experience in the theatre has taught me to roll with punches I could not have anticipated.

I've whipped you through the process fast, but indeed it goes fast. We are at the end of the second week and our short plays will open tonight. I'm directing one of my new local heros, the hilarious Doug Motel, about whom I've written a blog post here. Christa Trinler, a beautiful actress who, it appears, can do anything she's asked--from over-the-top farcical comedy to tender relationship plays, is in two of my plays, working with  two of the most talented young actors I've ever worked with.
One is Stephen Balantzian, a theatre teacher at SUNY New Paltz, and the other is Sean Marrinan,
who has a list of professional credits as long as his arm. The talent pool of artists, actors and writers here is astonishing and delightful.

There have been few bumps and most of them were in my own head. I was on familiar ground but not accustomed to handing the reins over to managers, technical experts, and the support system that is in place in a more ideal company than any I ever created. I just hoped I got it right--and from the word go, I saw that my actors were going to pull this off.

If you're in the New Paltz-Rosendale area this weekend, drop by the Rosendale Theatre tonight or tomorrow night at 8, or Sunday at 3. I promise you laughs and a heartwarming feeling of community doing what it knows how to do and loving every minute of getting together for events like this. You may see me around, kvelling in the background and feeling lucky to be where I am.

Oh, that grandson is 18 now. His grandma has taken him to a lot of plays in the city and he and his 15-year-old brother bring a lot of joy into their grandma's life. So, it would seem, does the Rosendale Theatre Collective.