A Playwright’s Plea

Well, not exactly a plea, but if getting on my hands and knees would help me snag one of the ten scholarships the Dramatists Guild is offering for its conference in California this summer, I would have to consider it. Instead, I submitted the essay below, in response to one of three prompts it asked potential attendees to address. I’ll let you know how I do.

What is the role of the dramatist in the community? What responsibility does a dramatist have? What responsibility does the community have towards a dramatist?

I’ve been a playwright almost as long as I’ve been a cancer survivor—more than 25 years. That fact doesn’t give me the knowledge or wisdom to say what is the role and responsibility of a playwright in the community. But my experience almost two years ago helped me realize in a direct and satisfying way what one of those roles and responsibilities could be.

The poster for the event, courtesy of fellow survivor Cheryl Odom.

The poster for the event, courtesy of fellow survivor Cheryl Odom.

In the summer of 2013, I decided I wanted to acknowledge the 25th anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. My cancer was an “easy” one, as far as prognosis and treatment, but it was still cancer; it still haunted my thoughts when a new pain appeared, it still made me feel part of a community of survivors. I decided to stage a theatrical fundraiser for a local cancer charity. It would feature one of my short plays on the subject and the works of other playwrights I’d met in Santa Fe. As I discussed the idea with my collaborators, I learned some of them were survivors as well. Then, as the idea came to fruition and we recruited our casts and rehearsed, I came to a not exactly startling revelation: Everyone has been touched by cancer in some way.


The producer in action during rehearsals (thanks to Lynn Roylance for this and the following photo).

I knew coordinating the artistic and marketing sides of this weekend of staged readings would be a challenge, perhaps even more so because my one previous attempt at self-producing had been a flop, leaving me a little gun shy. But having a talented, dedicated cast and crew helped; so did knowing the money I hoped to raise would go to a good cause.

So, in November, Celebrating Survival went up for its brief run. I subtitled the show “Explorations of Courage, Strength, Laughter, and Love.” I didn’t tell the other playwrights how to address the topic of cancer, but they deftly explored all four themes. And I wasn’t the only one to think so.

More of rehearsals

More of rehearsals

On all three nights, strangers came up to me and told me how moved they were by the plays. Some were survivors. Some were the relatives and caretakers of people who hadn’t survived. Several people said we should take the show to other venues, or make it an annual event.

The show was not perfect, of course: technical glitches, some inconsistency in the writing, a bit of hammy acting—all the typical shortcomings plagued the show. For me, juggling the overall production duties with trying to make sure my play came off well was harder than I had expected. And despite collective best marketing efforts, the houses were small, the amount of money raised was not what I had hoped.

Still, I felt exhilarated after each show. Those people who came up to me and said how touched and glad they were to see those stories on stage, so like the ones they lived as they or a loved one battled cancer—that made Celebrating Survival a special event in my life. I saw something of what we playwrights do—capture moments of life, explore emotions often felt but not always expressed, bring people together for collective catharsis. So maybe all those are part of our responsibilities. And the community’s? To turn out and take part in that experience, and to let the writers know when they have stirred something deep within them.

We didn’t revive the show; as much as I liked the idea of staging it again, doing it just once seemed right. But I know there are other subjects equally worthy of that kind of show. When the call comes to take part, I’ll be ready.