I wrote about day one on Wednesday afternoon, a piece for Telluride Inside and Out, Later that evening we had the festival’s first PlaySlam at the Steaming Bean. Visiting playwrights and Tellu-writers read excerpts from their works and it was great to see everyone come together to hear such compelling work. The pieces were funny and moving, varied in style and tone, consistent in quality. In my three years at this festival, this has to be one of my favorite evenings. Most of the time I’m squirreled away in my luxury condo, banging out new pages, the only community interface is at dinners, mixers, fund-raisers and the like. It was really gratifying to see, hear and share.
The coolest thing was when my son, Gabe, a wizened twelve-year-old, came up to me after a reading and said, “Mom, did you hear that one?” (I had not, having briefly stepped outside) “It was all about this woman, right?, who had a friend with this disease called ALS…” and he launched into a detailed recount of the story. I was amazed at the power of words and the images they etch in our hearts and minds. Especially this young one.
Today was the company hike to Bear Creek Falls… for me it was the hike through rewrites, just as stimulating, just as exhausting, though I’m certain not as breath-taking. With the boys on a trip to Mesa Verde and a ride on the Silverton/Durango Railroad, I’ve got an open window to focus on the script for Sunday night’s staged reading. Off to hear what my brilliant cast does with these new pages!
Perhaps you’ve heard of Prudence Mabhena, read about her in the Sunday paper, heard the story on NPR, caught the film about her at the Telluride Film Festival, or saw her beaming at the Oscars when Music by Prudence won Best Documentary.
There is a lot to know about Prudence Mabhena, a lot to learn from her as well. Born with a disfiguring congenital disorder called arthrogryposis, her twisted limbs meant she’d never walk, and so they were amputated below the knees. Her journey from Zimbabwe to the global stage has been told in many forms, a tragedy-to-triumph in a tale that lifts our spirits to the realm of possibility and teaches us to just get over ourselves. But where we really have an opportunity to learn from Prudence is by hearing her sing. That is possible for Denver this Sunday as Prudence joins jazz concept band Zuri at the Mercury Cafe for a 2:00 benefit concert. Wednesday night’s higher priced film screening and meet ‘n greet with Prudence at the Denver Film Center promises to be a moving and inspiring event. The $30 ticket for the Mercury gig promises to be a blow-the-roof-off-the- house experience! Both raise money for King of Kindness, Noel Cunningham’s foundation. Should be amazing, Grace.
Prudence Sings Amazing Grace at Kennedy Center
Ten days in Telluride for the Playwrights Festival; housed, focused, feted, fed. Perfect.
It also coincided with the anniversary of my brother’s “08 death. The first year on the morning of
that day, I was awakened by a dream and a phone call informing me that my play would be produced by Paragon Theatre Ensemble this season. (w)Hole was the script Steve adored, the last he’d heard read and the one he dreamed of making into a film. It’d been developed in Telluride the month before his fatal fall so this year’s return felt as if the planets were aligned.
On a recent summer’s night I was rummaging through the vintage suitcase at my bedside, the one that houses garments worn infrequently and in private, I opened the case to reveal not only stockings but the last of the remains. My mother, my father and my brother all gathered (as) dust in Ziploc bags, inside silken pouches. What had been my lingerie chest had somehow become my dead family valise. Okay, this had to change.
Our family believes in cremation, but unlike the devout who respectfully select a final resting place for their dearly departed, we divide and conquer. The larger part of our parents have become hearty olive trees, while my brother paddled out into the Pacific to catch the last wave from his favorite surfing spot. It was Steve’s idea years ago that we each keep “A lid of mom” and scatter about the globe as we saw fit, in honor of her wanderlust. The ritual was set in place and mom has made her way into the Arno, the Seine, a grotto in Cozumel and a river in Brazil. Now dad was different, or so I thought. He’d lived for a decade in Mexico and remarried; it was his bride’s wish that the ashes stay together. Having been witness, I was certain this had happened until I got an envelope marked “Bag O Bob” from my brother’s widow. Steve, with his independent nature, had overridden the Catholic tradition to preserve the Shaffer one and siphoned off his ‘lid’ before our tree planting ceremony.
Fourth of July 2010. The boys and I are packing the Volvo, loading up the cooler and ready for the drive to Telluride. Strapping the last bike on the rack I knew I had forgotten something… The family! Bolting back inside the house, I found the suitcase key, slipped what was left of three cherished people into a Victoria’s Secret shopping bag and trotted back out to the car.
On the seventh day in the San Juan Mountains my soul was calm, my lungs strong enough for the trek and I woke the boys in time to reach the falls before the pending storm. The hike is not considered difficult, but a steady climb gaining 1000 feet in 2.5 miles, and popular with tourists. With my head in the clouds, the three of us set off up the trail bearing too little water and the weight of time upon my back. As we ascend I feel the rocks, incline, altitude and attitude with their familiar challenge. It seems I’ve been on this path for years and now I must keep moving toward the water and release. My sons venture into the future, moving deftly ahead as I contemplate the path that brought me here. I ask a hiker on the downhill what the road ahead is like and how much more there was to go, as if he really knew. Could I have imagined my life as it is today from the lower elevations of my youth? This is not the path I’d dreamed of, thought it has a beauty nonetheless. The twists and turns of the past are played out on the path before me. Earth slips beneath my feet along the scrabble as Gabriel waits ahead, granting the wings of encouragement when my pace slows. “Come on Mom, you can do this. Let me help you do this.” He is eleven, this angel child, and wise beyond the moon. The road smooths out and flattens, rises up to climb again, to an open space, a glimpse of the falls, then narrowing in focused preparation for the traveler’s arrival.
Gabe runs ahead, empowered at the sight of falling water, and joins his brother in its spray while I spot a place where the water swirls gently before flowing over boulders to the sea. I face downwind remove my pack, and bring the bones of my ancestors quietly into daylight. August stands behind me like a sentry, aware of our mission and what others may think if they saw us. Gabriel negotiates the rocks and sits, curious to know who’s who, to hold the grandparents he never knew in a simultaneous hello/goodbye. He feels the differences in the texture as we transport ashes from their baggies to the currents and one by one we set them free.
It is done. I have made it up the mountain, released the final remnants of my sadness and I’m glad I made the journey. All of it.
We play along the waterfall until it’s time to go, Gabe taking my hand and holding it quietly all the way down the mountain.
That night I felt the need to fly: my new-found levity of heart. As midnight fast approached I joined my friends in a gondola car to float into the darkened heavens. Mercury Venus, Regulus and Mars were lined up diagonally in the sky above, as the town fell small behind us. Seven minutes later we reached the tipping point. Blowing kisses to my friends, I left our west-bound carriage for my solo return; an Ugh-boot Cinderella. Silent but for the sound of tears rolling down cheeks, the Milky Way and I, vast and close, were awed by all that we will never know. Then slowly… I landed.
One. But he really has to want to share.
For the past seven days, ten writers from around the country and within the Telluride community have been hunkered down at the Sheridan Opera House or gathered in Jennie Franks’ living room for a post-supper salon and informal reading. The event is the Telluride Playwrights Festival, a glorious blend of featured playwrights and theatre professionals existing in a fluid blend of rehearsal, response, reflection and rewrites with the goal of making good scripts better. Now in its fourth year, Ms. Franks has made impressive strides, attracting extraordinary talented writers, garnering support of the community and providing an experience unlike any other. As we lean into our public readings, tonight James McLindon’s DEAD AND BURIED and tomorrow’s offering LOVE ME SOME AMNESIA by James Still, I asked our two Jameses about this Telluride experience:
“I find the Telluride Playwrights Festival unique in that it’s such a small, intimate group of artists working together on these plays. Here, you have an opportunity to get to know everyone and to build relationships and trust. These are essential ingredients for any playwright seeking the constructive criticism necessary to take his or her play to the next level. I’ve also been impressed by the intelligence, artistry, kindness and generosity of the people Jennie Franks has gathered, and the result is, I think, a much better script that will performed Monday night than the one I arrived with last Thursday,” James McLindon told me over cocktails at the TPF funder at the Onyx in the Capella Telluride.
My personal experience two years ago was much like what I learned from listening to James Still. “Unlike a typical one-day reading/workshop… Being given the gift of immersing yourself in your play for 10 days is like finding yourself in a waking dream. The dream is the play you’ve written and are most often rewriting. There’s a tension for me in the fact that the writer’s creative life is a strange combination of the ‘private’ and the ‘public’. Unlike novelists who spend almost all of their writing lives alone (and then later go on book tours and readings in which they interact with their readers), a playwright spends a lot of time alone with his play, and then suddenly finds himself spending time with a big bunch of people and his play. It’s in that moment that the play becomes something else, something more. And that’s what’s happened to me this week in Telluride… I’ve spent time around a table with actors and other TPF members listening to LOVE ME SOME AMNESIA being read aloud, asking it questions, poking it, prodding it, begging it, threatening it, loving it, being mystified by it… And after several days of that, I took the play and retreated back to myself for a couple of days, shutting myself up in the condo where I’m staying and going back to that original relationship: just me and my play. It’s kind of like that moment when you’ve had house guests and you stand on the front porch and wave goodbye, watching them back out of the driveway. You go back inside the house and it’s… quiet. And different. So I’ve been back inside the quiet house that is also my play and is also not so quiet anymore. And I’ve cleaned up some messes, changed some wall colors, rearranged some of the furniture, and even discovered a few rooms I didn’t know were there! Rewriting. Tomorrow I’ll throw the doors open and invite people back in… more time around the table with actors where we’ll read the newest draft, more changes overnight, and then the reading on Tuesday. Private to public to private and back to public. It’s this writer’s life.”
This is the question slated for the Telluride Playwrights Festival Open House on Thursday, 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.”
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.
What a wonderful morning! One of those where it’s a bit overcast and you’re wishing you’d never scheduled those outside meetings on a Friday because you’re so content to work from home. That is how the silvery light in my golden room looked today as I roused myself and vowed to keep my commitment. I’d set up coffee and an interview with Brooke Young, Autism Specialist with the Colorado Department of Education to discuss autism; not something I normally bounce out of bed for. I headed downtown to one of fifteen Starbucks in a five block radius, ordered my Joe and asked around to see if any of the blondes in line was Brooke. Feeling luckily out of luck, I sat to write and enjoy my overpriced java, secretly hoping I was at the wrong Starbucks and guiltily scrolling the Blackberry to find her number. A minute later in walked Brooke, apologetic for having gone to the wrong Starbucks, along with Gina Quintana, Significant Support Needs Specialist, also with the CDE. And the next two hours of conversation were amazing!
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a cognitive disability identified by a triangle of attributes within target areas of brain; communication, social relatedness and repetitive behaviors. Many of us function well in the world with slight variations in these areas of neurological development, but when added together they prevent social adaptation for the person with ASD. There is no known cause and no cure. What we do know is that the numbers of children being identified is growing globally at a staggering rate, each one exhibiting the disorder individually. As Gina put it, “To know a child with autism is just that”, the philosophy being person first, disorder second.
The movie “Rain Man” is to autism what Helen Keller is to the deaf/blind community. They were both anomalies that brought mass attention to our brothers and sisters living with these disabilities but to Brooke and Gina they are sweeping generalities. No one knows what it’s like to live with autism except for those who have it, it’s hard to even imagine. The hearing/sighted world can establish empathy with the deaf/blind experience through sensory deprivation, but it’s impossible to wrap your head around the autistic experience. And though we see commonalities within families of children with autism, even their experiences are singular because autism presents in such a wide variety of ways. Television shows are on the bandwagon now with the introduction of characters with autism, most recently “Parenthood”. So far, it is the HBO special on CSU Professor, Dr. Temple Grandin which presents the most practical, pragmatic look at autism. Temple’s mother, Eustacia reframed the challenge: “Different Not Less,” with the banner that she waved to threads.
Ms. Young is headed to the Southwest Region this week to implement a model program of training and dialogue between educators, families and students in the Telluride, Ouray, Ridgway, Norwood and the West End. Having spent my Friday morning in the inspirational and compassionate company of these two, I can’t help but think how lucky the families and students they so fervently serve are.