OSC Answers Questions
At what point did you become aware of the impact your writing has on readers, and what prompted your decision to respond to them with this degree of accessibility?
-- Submitted by Kim Haas
OSC REPLIES: - July 7, 1999
The first clue I had about the power of storytelling in the lives of audience members came when, as a college student, I adapted Marjorie Kellogg's "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" for a reader's theatre production. I had been very moved by the book, and wanted to capture that same feeling in a stage production. The three leads were cast with three actors that I knew had the power to present the characters — Barta Heiner, the most talented actress at BYU, would play Junie; Zac Odom, a wry, sometimes cynical man who still reminds me of Jack Nicholson in his apparent take on life, would play Warren — in a wheelchair; and Brad Bailey (now working under the name "Brad Justice," I believe), a marvelously sensitive and slightly goofy guy would play the third character (can't remember the character's name). They would have free movement on the stage. All the other characters would be represented by a handful of actors sitting in chairs on stepped-up platforms along one side and the back of the stage in the Nelke Experimental Theater at BYU — including one, Robert Stoddard, whose sole part would be to play the dog, with an occasional "woof."
We knew we had a strong show, but we were utterly unprepared for the response of the audience. We had a good crowd for the first (of two) nights, and they got it at once. They laughed with each "woof" of the dog, they were entertained by the banter among the characters, and near the end they were deathly still, until the last moment of the play. There was dead silence for many long seconds, and then an eruption of applause. I was stunned to see them LEAP to their feet (and ever since then, any standing ovation that isn't immediate, spontaneous, and nearly universal feels inadequate to me). And when the applause finally died down, it seemed like half the audience flooded the stage (really only a dozen or so, but to have anybody rush the stage after a student play is memorable). The second night, the theater was packed — sitting on the stairs, standing in the back and at the side entrances, and every seat filled. The audience response that second night was the same. The people who came up afterward had tear-stained faces and looked like they had just suffered a death in the family.
I assumed that their response was to Marjorie Kellogg's wonderful book — that what we had done was create a faithful adaptation and presented it well. That is, I took the response as being to my work as a director and Kellogg's work as a writer. So I envied her the power she had to create such an emotional impact in an audience, and was excited that as an adapter and director I could share in that work. But as I gradually turned to writing plays as much as, and then more than, directing and acting in them, I aspired to create plays of my own that would have such impact.
It was harder than I thought. The plays were "successful" in that audiences came and enjoyed themselves, but the power of "noble romantic tragedy" eluded me. Until 1972-73, when I was in Brazil as a missionary and wrote a play about Moses and Aaron called "Stone Tables." I had only written the first two acts when I sent them off to Charles Whitman, my mentor and professor at BYU, to see if he thought my verse play had anything in it. His response was to schedule a production of it on the main stage at BYU (the Pardoe Theater) only a few months later. He hadn't got (or deliberately ignored) the fact that the two acts he was looking at were all that existed! So I scrambled to write the remaining three acts (I was in Shakespearean-emulation mode at the time, so everything I did had five acts) and send them off. In the meanwhile, Whitman got my longtime musical collaborator and friend, Robert Stoddard (formerly the dog in "Junie Moon") to set some of my verse to music, making a strange and powerful kind of musical that owed more to opera than to musical comedy, but that had its roots in the musical comedy and tin pan alley tradition that Robert and I had both grown up in.
I didn't get to see that production. I only heard about the SRO houses and the standing ovations — along with the controversy about a "rock musical" being performed at BYU (what, did they think that we were emulating "Hair" and Moses would take his clothes off at the end?). It was not until I got home that I learned that for the first time, I had created a script that had the kind of power over at least some audience members that I had hoped for.
It was a conversation with a good friend that told me. She was a beautiful girl — the kind of beauty that makes guys like me stammer and stand back, knowing that she is Not For Us. So even though I had talked with her often and liked her, we were not close friends. She was shy, I think, as well. But she seemed therefore, as shy people often do, somewhat aloof — friendly enough, but always holding something in reserve. I had never seen her being emotional about anything. But she told me — was it in person? Was it a letter? I see her in my mind's eye saying the words, but I also remember it being written, so maybe memory is playing tricks on me now — she told me that the play "Stone Tables" had come at a time in her life when for various reasons she needed that story, its affirmation, the community feeling created by it. She saw it early in the run, and then never missed another performance. She couldn't always buy a ticket — many a performance she watched from the wings, or sat downstairs and listened to it. But it fed her something she was hungry for.
I knew that feeling — other writers had done the same for me. But the miracle, for me, was that this time it was my script that had fed someone else.
I have no illusions on this score. It was her hunger for elements of the story that made her respond as she did, and not some particular ability or accomplishment of mine. Clumsy and awkward writers can sometimes find a story that strikes such a chord with an audience that their clumsiness and awkwardness are forgiven at once (one thinks of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Tarzan is almost unreadably bad; or J.R.R. Tolkien, who, while a much better writer, still managed to write the deadliest openings in the history of literature — which readers forgave readily because the rest of the story was so powerful). And it's not as if I made up the story of Moses and Aaron. In a way, I was merely adapting once again. But what mattered to me then — and now — was that I had found a powerful story to tell, and I didn't get in its way — it was there for those who needed it to find it.
That's the most a writer can hope for, I think. It's our finest accomplishment, when it happens, even though so much if it depends on the receiver of the gift. But it was then, talking to (or reading the words of) that friend that I knew that somehow I would do this for the rest of my life, that there was nothing at which I had any skill that was as much worth doing as this. Since then I've written many things, with uneven response from the audience. I never know what the audience will think, or who will be moved by it, or how many. But I know that I don't think a story is worth writing unless I, at least, feel that spark of life that suggests it might speak to someone in a powerful way.