Sunday, January 26, 2014


By Jodie Cain Smith

I learned the rule “honor the playwright” early in my formal acting training and quickly became an actor who never improvised. I spurn actors who adlib, nilly-willy through the playwright’s achievement and spit upon my core principal.

Recently, however, in a production of Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, I went over to the dark side. For the sake of character development – an actor’s justification for all crimes big and small – I changed the words mother and grandmother to mamma and grandma and the word Baltimore to Galveston. Night after night, audiences howled at my portrayal of the sassy State Senator. But inside, beneath my stage makeup and costume, I knew my crime.

Enter self-loathing and guilt.

Were my actions truly justified? Maybe. But, I couldn’t rid myself of one truth: by changing the playwrights’ words in order to create a character I wanted to play, I failed to honor the playwright. My performance felt tainted. Will I remember this show for the privilege of working with such a talented and passionate company or will I only remember the moment I broke the rule?

Enter divine intervention, courtesy of the theatre gods.

Nearing the end of our final performance, fellow cast member Emily rose from her seat and faced the packed house. She was to perform “Geralyn’s Story”, known to all of us as “The Breast Cancer Piece.” As Emily began to speak of reconstruction surgery, two audience members hurried out of the theater. Nora and Delia’s words hit too close to home. Undeterred, Emily continued, performing each word as if she had written them herself.

Over the course of rehearsals and previous performances, I had learned Emily’s routine as I watched from my upstage chair. Pacing on the downstage platform, Emily would tell of mastectomies and lace bras, cup sizes and a tattoo in place of a nipple. Next, she would cross upstage and with a sweeping arm in the cast’s direction, indicate “the friends who’d looked after me like angels.” After that, she would sit and recall the baseball caps she wore through chemo, her “magic hats.”

However, during our final performance, after Emily made her usual upstage cross, she did not sit. “What is she doing?” I thought. A slight panic pulsed through my veins. Then, facing the audience full front, Emily began to deliver the line I knew so well, “My crushed velvet (hat) was my favorite. My Aunt Honey gave it to me.” But on this night, she changed it. “My Aunt Sarah gave it to me.”

My friend had found the most touching way to pay tribute to her sister whom she lost to cancer one year ago. Emily stood through the rest of the piece, as if to say, “Sarah, you are precious. You are missed. And, tonight, I honor you.”

In that moment, I realized the exception to the rule. I broke the rule in order to garner a laugh, a second of glory that I will soon forget.Shame on me. Emily, however, broke the rule and created higher art: that moment when a play becomes something more, something real. Emily did more than change a word. She made the words her own. I can think of no better way to honor the playwright.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


By Bonnie Stanard

This morning as I was eating cereal and reading an article in The New York Review of Books, it came to me that one reason to write arises from reading what somebody else has written.

I had been reading a review of biographies of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower in which his handling of international politics was contrasted with that of his successors. Every president since Eisenhower has ignored traditional military art. That is to say they have merited the idea of a partial victory (an oxymoron). According to the article, our military leaders “promise quick victories with little pain” resulting in exploits such as Kennedy’s attempt to overthrow Castro and his sending “advisors” to Viet Nam. Dabbling in conflicts or sending small contingencies of combat troops into hostile territory is anathema to Eisenhower’s credo that war is an all-or-nothing game.

Reviewer Thomas Powers put forth simple and fundamental ideas which rang true. My reaction was to get an email off to my sons and friends, to broadcast my reaction to this information, to make my thoughts on it known.

Years ago when I read the diary of Thomas Chaplin, I began a literary journey that resulted in three novels, something I never anticipated. From my experience of sharing Chaplin's life—his toothache, his boat in a storm, his fields of cotton, his fight at the agriculture society—arose the character of Tilmon Goodwyn, who began to take shape as a man who considered himself a good person. The slave girl Kedzie appeared to prove him wrong.

Writers get inspired by the works of other writers. Owen Wister’s The Virginian inspired The Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams. Sometimes that inspiration takes on a life of its own resulting in books written in response to another. Literary allusion, or writing that throws light on other writing, has been around since the Bible. Homer’s Odyssey has spawned numerous literary works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, Atwood’s Siren Song, as well as poems by such as Walcott and Tennyson. More recently Michael Cunningham used Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as a springboard to write The Hours, which was made into a successful movie.

I guess my point is that success breeds success. Good books give rise to more good books. But you have to read them first.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Business Of Writing

By Sarah Herlong

It dawned on me recently that I wasn’t doing enough with my writing. I was concentrating on upping my writing hours and completing stories. But what about all the other aspects of writing I need to do?

For instance I need to spend time educating myself about writing as a craft. I get called out sometimes about my problematic point of view. After doing some research, I bought some good books. Now my goal is to spend a certain amount of time per day studying.

Because I write children’s literature, this is another area I need to research. I need to learn all about the different genres for the various age groups. I also need to read inside my genre to learn more about my audience.

But as a writer I shouldn’t just read within my genre. I should read anything and everything I can get my hands on, newspapers and magazines as well as books. I never know where my inspiration will come from. It could be that magazine I just picked up at the doctor’s office, or a column in the newspaper about an upcoming poultry festival. By the way the poultry festival did inspire me, and will eventually be showing up at a critique group near you.

Then there is the aspect of getting your work ready for submission, working on query letters, and synopses. If I don’t put in time for this, I need to question my reasons for writing. I have a format query letter I can personalize for the person and story I’m trying to sell. I’m also working on doing my synopses ahead of time to prevent that rush to complete one at the last minute for an agent.

Next in the business of writing that I need to work on is finding literary agents to submit my writing to. Those don’t usually fall into your lap. You have to search for them. And this for me is the area where I drag my feet. Hopefully you don’t have this problem. Not only are there agents to submit to, but magazines, contests and publishers. All of which are just waiting to be found.
There is one other area that is an important part of being a writer and that is the need for a platform. My only foray into that realm is being on this blog and on twitter. Being a recluse, I plan to use my expert skill of procrastination to avoid working on this one for a while.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mitty to Mitty

By Laura P. Valtorta

The doors of the Columbiana Grande cinema went “whoosh” as the renowned movie critic, Laura P. Valtorta made her way to see the latest Ben Stiller flick – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. “The Bluffington Post” had sent her free tickets. She made her way to the back of the theater, amongst the other important critics, some of whom spoke French. “Bonjour,” they saluted her.

“This should be good,” said her husband, Marco, gobbling popcorn and jarring Laura from her reverie. “It’s nice to continue our Christmas day movie-going tradition.”

Their son, Dante, stretched out between them, hogging both armrests and sending twitter messages on his phone.

“Put your phone away,” Laura told Dante, hoping he would switch from the artificial electronic stimulation of his cell phone to the artificial electronic stimulation of the cinema “Since we’re at the movie house now, let’s watch the movie up there.’

That was the theme of Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty – everyone needs to stop zoning out and pay more attention to what’s happening in the here and now. It was a message Laura enjoyed, especially in a world where people seem unable to sit alone at restaurant without chatting loudly with someone in another city on their phones, or staring at the screen of a laptop, lost in a distant world, far away.

We’ve lost the art of people-watching. We’ve all become Walter Mitties.

In the Ben Stiller movie, Walter eventually stops daydreaming so much. Getting fired from a job cures him. He travels to Iceland and Greenland, he climbs mountains in Afghanistan to find Sean Penn, and he learns to court the woman of his dreams. Unlike the 1947 version of the movie, starring Danny Kaye and an overbearing mother, Ben Stiller’s Walter ends up being helped by his mother (Shirley MacLaine) – not smothered. Unlike the main character in the short story by James Thurber, Ben Stiller’s Walter is not married to a harpie. He wants to get married; and women are not monsters.

During the closing credits at the Columbiana, the famous movie critic Laura Valtorta spoke in French and Italian to her cohorts and opined that Ben Stiller’s movie was superior to the 1947 version – more thoughtful, more meaningful, and less critical of the female sex.

“The Danny Kaye version was just plain silly,” Laura said. “I bet that Ben Stiller gets along well with his mother, Anne Meara, and with his wife, Christine Taylor.  James Thurber was married, twice, but he probably preferred E.B. White.”

The other film critics laughed.