I endure hardship, folding it into life like melted butter into batter. It is an expected guest, though an unwelcome one. What unfolded in the summer of ’08 was an unexpected test. I could no longer swim in the waters of chaos, the vortex of mental illness is far too strong. The dam broke in the marriage in February of ’07, flooding me with the realities of raising two sons solo as a Realtor® in a declining market. Two soccer schedules at two different parks had me driving in circles, keeping the boys in their schools meant a ten mile daily commute; I spent many a morning burrowed in the underground parking lot, napping in the back of the Volvo before going to my office. Endurance is endearing, enduring is exhausting. Under the circumstances, this was a trade up; at least the chaos was my own. Slowly, putting one stiletto in front of another I moved forward, no longer sacrificing my life on the alter of addiction. While he took to climbing mountains, I became adept at moving them. It got better. Until the other shoe dropped…
The boys had been with their dad for the Fourth of July weekend. I was on my way to meet them half way for the kid swap when the phone rang. No one had heard from my brother since Thursday. Now if Steve hadn’t called me, his wife or his life-long friend in three days, something was seriously wrong. I promised to go by the house and check in, I called the boys to say I’d need more time, and I got dressed slowly and methodically, thinking ‘are these the glasses you want to wear when you talk to the coroner? Should I take a sweater in case it’s cold in the morgue?’ Driving across town I wished I had some dry cleaning to pick up, contemplated a drive through the Starbucks, anything to delay what I knew was inevitable. I ran through my mental Rolodex, looking for someone who might meet me there, cursing and asking, ‘Why do I have to do this alone?’ Tears were welling but not falling, waiting in the traffic jam of my numbness. The ten minute drive felt like an hour. I pulled up to the house; his car was catty-wampus in the driveway, the keys lying on the threshold of the front door. My deepest fear confirmed in that moment. I walked around the back of the house to check the back, stood at the sliding glass door looking in. A clear voice spoke to me, very strong, “No baby, don’t do this. Don’t come in, you don’t have to do this.” I knocked as a matter of protocol and called the police. “My brother is dead.” “Are you with him?” came the first of many questions from the 911 operator. “No, he is dead at the bottom of the stairway.” I said, having no evidence save the premonition I’d had months earlier as I followed Steve down the stairs. I waited for the cops to come, alone. My real estate partner, Lea, called with a question about condo rules. I answered in a trance and told her where I was. She landed there in minutes, like an angel; staying the five hours it took for detectives and coroners to process the scene. I didn’t break until the photographer arrived. Steve had been a professional photographer and in our LA days I’d been his model, rep and muse. I was crushed under the weight of irony. The family gathered for the “Shaffer Shiva”, a ritual that requires more vodka than prayers. And time passed.

The years that followed moved between triumph and tenuousness like the tide: constant and somewhat soothing in its constancy. The devil I knew was the one I knew well.
I am loyal by nature, a stoic by necessity, in denial as an act of mercy; traits which have kept me alive and would have been handy as a member of the Donner Party. Thankfully I’ve not been driven to eat my young… yet. But who knows when the shoe drops?
As my husband picked up the pieces, adjusted the meds and found gainful employment, I continued writing, submitting and getting response. We were now in the early single digits, Saints & Hysterics was being produced and (W)hole was being work-shopped for a staged reading at the National New Play Network Showcase. The story was still young, as uncertain of what it was as a teenage girl, but there was a continual stream of interest. Whether they found the concept intriguing or it was the morbid curiosity of watching a train wreck, there was momentum. There were some shamans along the way, each with variations on the same message: “Intriguing the characters are, clarify the plot you must”,
And so I continued, researching quantum physics and color theory, took the scenes out of order, put them back differently, added capers, alien abductions, and a musical number (Bold-faced a lie that is), and took them away, tossing them in the ‘dramatic ARC’ bag as I learned to trust and to listen.
Focusing on the story was a welcome distraction from all that was only held together by duct tape. Late nights at the computer was the place of calm in the tempest, the only place I felt fully alive. As a mother, an understudy, and the wife of a man struggling with sobriety, I was invisible, dutiful and achingly lonely. Like Carla. She sprang forth when I began working as a personal assistant to a friend. Once my student, I was now one of her ‘people’. I was intrigued and mortified by this turn, but the money was good and sorely needed. Alcoholics are not known for their financial savvy, as the disconnected phone and the car missing from the driveway would attest.
Things falling apart, picking up the pieces, shattering and sweeping up after; these were the days of our lives. Struggling to be seen and bursting at the seams, something had to give. It was the acting. The one thing in my life that I’d always held as the sacred expression of my soul no longer had a place. I could not bear the process, of needing to be “picked” in order to create, and that’s what the audition process is really. To be any good at all you have to open up, invest yourself you have to fall in love, and lay yourself bare. And then you have to deal with every manifestation longing that goes with unrequited love. After long walks, streaming tears and railing at god on the Highline Canal, I made the decision to gave it up. (Which is very different from giving up.) At that point, I had no idea who I was;I was letting go of what had defined me for decades. In this act, I learned to trust.
The play was what I had left, and no one had to give me permission to create it. It was the quilt I could stitch together from whatever pieces of myself I had left at the end of the day. It was also the only time I could finish a sentence. There is an exchange in (W)hole between Carla and Ames where Carla says, “You saved my life.” Ames “Yes, and now I’m responsible for it, how does that work? I’ve never understood how that works.” Guess I was talking to myself again. But now I was listening.

I got a call from Denver Post theatre critic, John Moore, last week about an advance piece on the upcoming production of (W)hole. I answered the call, it’s the press after all, and was surprised by his first question. “Tracy, this script has been around for a long time, hasn’t it? Why did it take so long to get produced?” I hadn’t thought about it, but he was right. “Well… this script hasn’t been around for years, other versions of it have. The story took some time to find itself” (as most stories do) I answered. Scripts don’t feel autobiographical as I write them; and though a seed of an experience or observation lives within me the characters find their own voices and take over quickly. John’s question put me in a state of reflection on the journey from inception to production, through the decade it took to write, all that transpired and the things that took me to my knees or helped me stand again. I’m looking for the string theory that ties it all together. So how did my experience affect the redemptive story?

The play deals with an artist whose life unravels before our eyes and we watch as she stitches her soul back together, all within 90 minutes of stage time. Things which shatter and transform us take longer in real life; the altering instant happens in the slow-motion speed of a car crash. In 2001 (W)hole was ‘the play I wasn’t writing’. At that time I was an actress, writer, and mother of two young sons, living in a placid central Denver neighborhood. As one of ten playwrights who comprised the Denver Center Theatre’s Playwrights Unit under the guidance of Writer in Residence, Gary Leon Hill, I was focused on another script. We’d only had a few of our bi-monthly Sunday night meetings before the planes hit the towers and their impact changed everything in the world. As America searched its wounded soul and rattled sabers, artists sat, collectively staring in stunned silence at the empty page and the stark white canvas, considering the significance of our creations. It was in this moment that (W)hole was conceived. Relationships seemed to be abruptly spinning 180°, a universal shifting of power everywhere I turned: globally, nationally, locally, internally. It was the season of the great unraveling.

Somewhere, deep within my beloved’s brain a random thread was pulled, a synaptic snag untethered him as he began a slow downward spiral. Whatever had held him together for so many years began to crack, leaking rational thought. Alternating episodes of the manic, the depressive and the paranoid wove themselves into my daily life, based on the pharmaceutical whims of his psychiatrist. I began to line up the proverbial deck chairs in perfect rows, I bailed helplessly against the chaos with a beach pail to keep us all from drowning.

He’d been working on a business venture with a friend, a young Pakistani man whose family had taken exile in Oslo during the 1979 Revolution. In the post 9/11 daze, the man I’d married developed a firm belief that because of this association the FBI was following him, tracking his car and bugging our home as we sat on the couch watching CNN. I would come home from the theatre to find bits of insulation on the floor under the attic access panel where he’d been crawling around searching for cameras and microphones. Maybe it was his way of dealing with our national horror, by disconnecting completely from reality as I was doing with the rigor I applied to my vegetable garden. And I wrote to keep myself sane.

To be continued…

Friend and actor, Paul Page, and me high in the San Juan Mts

This is the question discussed today at the Telluride Playwrights Festival Open House and a conversation that circulates through the theatre community like a five dollar bill. I’ve popped this and a few other questions to some of the TPF participants. Grabbing a post-rehearsal snack at Smugglers with director/playwright William Missouri Downs, in from Wyoming to direct Telluride Rep actors in Phillip Gerson’s This Isn’t What It Looks Like. A prolific author and playwright, Bill has eight upcoming productions around the country and just closed the Denver hit, Books on Tape.

T- “Why do you think we keep asking this question?”

B- “To justify our existence.”

T- “Do we ask if new songs should be written, or if fashion should be recreated seasonally?”

B- “Good point. There’s been so much talk over the past few decades about theatre being dead or irrelevant. And with the Internet, we’ve got so many forms of public dialogue and expression.”

T- “Yes, but it’s not in 3-D.”

B- “We’re the original 3-D. If for no other reason than the disconnect of the internet, we’ve become more relevant. Those who want to participate in the intimate reflection of life that only theatre offers crave it. We are like books printed on paper, and campfire stories; not commonplace as the world changes, but essential nonetheless.”

T- “Like art museums. People still go to them but now they take a picture of the art and move on to the next masterpiece. We exist for those who actually stand there and look at the painting.”

B- “Theatre has got to tell stories which are universal, I believe that more and more. When your medium is about being physically in a room with a group of people for a shared experience, the observational story is less effective. Save that for film and television. Just the fact that you can’t talk in the theatre changes things.”

T-“Really, you’re not supposed to talk? What about texting?”

On the gondola with Denver actor Paul Page. “What do you like about being in Telluride?” I asked.

P-“It’s really exciting to be involved in the thought process of a new play. I’ve done many world premieres with script tweaks and changes before opening, but this is a much more raw discovery of the characters as the playwright is solidifying them. The festival really gives the script and the artists a chance to incubate.”

T-“How do you like the play you’re working on?”

P-“Oh god, it’s fascinating. James Still has created these really interesting characters and put them in a highly charged situation. We’re working through the script slowly, moment-to-moment, asking questions of each other in a process of discovering what the play is.”

T- “Plays do write themselves at some point. If you let them.”

P-“And James is so open, so talented. It’s great to work with artists from other markets. After New York I’ve spent the past twenty years in Denver.”

T-“Working constantly.”

P- “Well, yes. But it’s nice to shake it up a bit.”

We’re only a third of the way through the Festival and the energy is building steadily. Hunkered down in our rewrites and rehearsals, meeting up for dinners graciously hosted by TPF supporters, eyeing the mountains for a chance to hike, my experience of Telluride is always a balance of risk and safety. I feel held, which gives me the power to create. And I feel that is terribly important.