Posted in English 1103, Theatre, Writing

ENG 1103: Another Way with Words

Helga (Jane Lucas) and Jozephina (Cass Weston) in the Creative Greensboro production of The Wolves of Ravensbruk (2022).

The essay that follows is the literacy narrative that I wrote as a model for you.

Another Way with Words

What do a Nazi prison guard, a medieval abbess, a Mexican maid, and a seventy-two-year-old bag lady have in common? They’re all character roles that I’ve played on stage. Though acting is one of my favorite pastimes, each new role is a source of anxiety. I am comfortable on stage, but backstage, as I prepare to enter, is another story.  Preparing for my entrances as María, the Mexican maid, in Glorious! were some of the most nerve-wracking moments of my stage career. I remember vividly standing backstage holding a large tray with a tea pot, two teacups, a slice of cake, napkins, and silverware. As I held the tray, my hands began to sweat, and I worried not only that the tray might slip out of my hands but also that the words I was supposed to speak might slip from my mind.

Robert (David Ingle) and Berthe (Jane Lucas) in The Green Room’s production of Boeing Boeing (2017). / Ken Burns

Though the fear of forgetting my lines is always with me backstage, that fear was heightened when I played María because her lines were all in Spanish. The challenge inherent in learning lines was compounded by the cognitive shift required of learning them as a non-native speaker. When I say kitchen, in my mind I see a kitchen, but when I say cocina, I do not. As María, for the first time, I wasn’t visualizing my lines. Instead, I was memorizing a series of unfamiliar sounds. I knew their English translation, but I couldn’t link the signs to the signifiers, not the way I could in English.

Marie (Nikkita Gibson) and Abbess Agatha (Jane Lucas) in Hickory Community Theatre’s production of Incorruptible (2016) / Ken Burns

Preparing to play María meant increasing the hours I devote to my lines, including the practices of writing my lines on note cards, recording my lines and their cues, and writing my lines over and over in my theatre journal. As one of my first steps in the line-learning process, I type my lines and paste them onto three-by-five note cards. On the back of each note card, I write my cues in pencil. I start by memorizing the lines on the first card, usually four or five. And once I’ve learned those, I memorize the ones on the second card, and so on. Learning my cues as well my lines enables me to follow my partner’s words on stage even if he or she jumps ahead by dropping a line.

Arthur (Peter Bost) and Lady Boyle (Jane Lucas) in Hickory Community Theatre’s production of Superior Donuts (2016) / Ken Burns

In addition to putting my lines and cues on notecards, I record them with a voice recorder app on my phone. Listening to myself as I drive to rehearsal further helps me to learn the words. Along with studying my notecards and listening to my recorded lines, I write my lines over and over in my theatre notebook, the same way that as a student I would recopy my class notes as a way of studying for a test.

Now as I find myself studying lines for yet another play, one staged by Goodly Frame theatre company, I am reminded of the importance of trusting the process. I will not learn my lines as quickly as I would like to, and waiting backstage to say them will always be nerve-wracking, but becoming another person on stage remains pure joy. For me as a writer, acting is another way of working with words, a process of transporting them from the page to the stage and transforming the language into the utterances of a living, breathing character—someone who isn’t me but in whom I can “live truthfully,” as the acting teacher Sanford Meisner would say, “under the given imaginary circumstances.”

Posted in English 1103, Theatre, Writing

ENG 1103: Another Way with Words

Helga (Jane Lucas) in Creative Greensboro’s production of The Wolves of Ravensbruk (2021) / Sam McClenaghan

I wrote the blog post that follows as a sample for your own introductory post. You are required to write only one-hundred words and feature one relevant photograph, but I encourage you to write more than the minimum and include additional pictures.

Though I began performing in community theatre as a teenager in the 1980s, I was away from it—focusing on my teaching and writing—for more than twenty-five years. Becoming an acting student in my forties—enrolling in classes in Richmond, Virginia, in 2011 and 2012—rekindled my passion for the craft. I fell in love with acting all over again, and I found myself wondering how I’d ever left it.

(L-R): Rosa (Beth Strader), Gizela (Nicole Weintraub), Zofia (Mary Quagliano), Helga (Jane Lucas), Ilse (Camille Wright), and Gertja (Rebecca Stanifer) / Sam McClenaghan

Since moving back to North Carolina in 2013, I have performed in plays with Creative Greensboro, Foothills Performing Arts, Goodly Frame Theatre Company, the Green Room Community Theatre, Hickory Community Theatre, the Hickory Playground, Newton Performing Arts Center, and Shared Radiance Performing Arts Company.

(L-R): Helga (Jane Lucas) and Jozefina (Cass Weston) / Sam McClenaghan

Most recently, I appeared on stage as Helga, the Nazi prison guard in the premiere production of The Wolves of Ravensbuk by Sally Kinka, which was received the New Play Project Prize awarded annually by the Creative Greensboro’s Playwright’s Forum.

(L-R): Zofia (Mary Quagliano), Helga (Jane Lucas), Jozefina (Cass Weston), and Gizela (Nicole Weintraub) / Sam McClenaghan

Performing the role of Helga proved to be one of my most challenging roles. Along with the difficulty of playing a despicable character who commits barbarous acts and barks mean-spirited words, the work of playing Helga was rigorous because of the length of her monologues and alterations in my voice required for me to convey some semblance of a German accent. Though Helga did not speak more lines than any other character I’ve played, she spoke more words in each speech, or monologue, than any other character I’ve played. That volume of words coupled with the difficulty of speaking in a foreign voice–one in which my “th” sounds morphed into “z”’s–made me more vocally tired than I’d ever been.

Though the role was tiring, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play it. For me as a writer, acting is another way of working with words, a process of transporting them from the page to the stage and transforming the language into the utterances of a living, breathing character—someone who isn’t me but in whom I can live truthfully, as the acting teacher Sanford Meisner said, under the given imaginary circumstances.

Next Up

At the beginning of class on Wednesday, January 26, you will turn in your completed work sheet for the first lesson in the Check, Please! course. You may handwrite your assignment on the back of the worksheet, or staple a typed copy to it. If you did not receive a copy because you were absent today, you can download the worksheet below or from Blackboard.

Also, in class on Wednesday, you will begin your preliminary work on your first paper assignment, your analysis. You will receive a copy of that assignment at the beginning of the class period.

Posted in English 1103, Teaching, Theatre

ENG 1103: Teacher/Actor

When I am not teaching, you may find me at the theatre preparing for another role. Though I have played an English teacher twice, I am often someone quite different from myself: a seventy-two-year-old bag lady, a medieval abbess, or a Spanish-speaking maid

Clockwise from right: Rosalind (Stephanie Nussbaum), Duchess Fredericka (Jane Lucas), and Celia (Maggie Swaim) in dress rehearsal for the Shared Radiance Zoom production of As You Like It.

When the pandemic shut down live theatre, I found myself performing on a virtual stage, playing the role of Duchess Fredricka in the Shared Radiance Zoom production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Though I missed the face-to-face experience of live theatre, playing the duchess introduced me to performing on camera with a green screen and learning how to carry on conversations convincingly with actors who were invisible to me.

After the pandemic restrictions relaxed temporarily, I found myself performing live again but in a way that was new to me. Goodly Frame’s Finding Shakespeare required me to play three different characters in a fifteen-minute outdoor production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rehearsal for Goodly Frame’s Finding Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (L-R): Theseus (Axel Tolksdorf), Lysander (Tabitha Stillwell Wilkins), Egeus (Jane Lucas), Creative Greensboro’s Todd Fisher, and Hermia (Sally Kinka) / Sam McClenaghan

Now actors find themselves in rehearsals akin to–but not the same as–the ones of our pre-pandemic nights at the theatre. They don literal masks until they step on stage to wear their figurative ones. I look forward to the days when I will not have to pull off a mask before I step into the light, but for now I am simply grateful for the innovative pandemic-era theatre opportunities I’ve had.

Posted in Theatre

ENG 111: Becoming Lady Boyle

Arthur Przybyszewski (Peter Bost) and Lady Boyle (Jane Lucas) / Ken Burns

When I decided to audition for Superior Donuts, Lady Boyle was not on my radar. What had drawn me to the play was its writer, Tracy Letts. A few years earlier, I had seen a production of Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy August, Osage County and had left the theatre hoping that I would someday have the chance to perform a role he had written.

Then came Superior Donuts. As soon as I read the character list in the audition notice, I knew I wanted to read for the role of Randy Osteen, a woman Letts described as a forty-nine-year-old Irish American cop. (As a fair-skinned forty-eight-year-old, I seemed like a good fit.) After I auditioned for Randy, the director asked me to read for the other female role, Lady Boyle. I didn’t give her much thought until the cast announcement arrived in my inbox. When I read the director’s email, I was elated to discover that I had been cast but surprised that I wasn’t Randy. Instead, I was Lady Boyle, the seventy-two-year-old bag lady.

The role of Lady Boyle was appealing but daunting. An alcoholic living in her own alternate reality, she was a woman whose foul-mouthed nonsense unexpectedly gave way to moments of clarity and wisdom.  Often when I think of her, I am reminded of Letts’ decision to name her Boyle even though her name is never spoken in the play; the other characters simply call her “Lady.” For Letts, the name Boyle granted Lady her humanity, which is what I aimed for as I worked to become her. As I learned her lines and developed the mannerisms that would accompany them, I hoped the audience would see her as more than a type.

That’s how the other characters saw her, with the exception of the donut shop’s owner, Arthur Przybyszewski. In the second act, when Arthur asks about her children, he inquires not as a shop owner making small talk but as a parent struggling to reconcile with his daughter. As Lady Boyle and Arthur sit together at a table in his shop, she tells him that she has outlived three of her four children, and recounts their deaths:

LADY: One of ‘em got shot by the coppers in a gasoline station stick-up. One of ‘em had a grabber, mowin’ the yard. And one of them died in the crib with that disease. Where the spinal cord gets a mind of its own and decides it don’t want to live trapped inside those little bones no more. You know what I’m talkin’ about?

ARTHUR: I don’t think so.

LADY: Your spinal cord gets it in its head to go free and slitherin’ out into the world. That’s what killed my little Venus. Her spinal cord got its own notions. (44)

Delivering those lines of Lady Boyle’s—and finding myself speaking some of them through tears—sustained me during a difficult time. (As Lady Boyle would say, it “happens to all of us.”) My husband had been laid off from his job in Richmond two years earlier. We had landed on our feet in North Carolina, where he was working again as an editor, but I was an invisible adjunct longing for the full-time teaching job and the community of colleagues I had left behind.

Becoming Lady Boyle made me feel whole again.

Letts, Tracy. Superior Donuts. Dramatists Play Service, 2010.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre

ENG 242: Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of May the Fourth

What links English 242 to the British actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller? The answer is three characters, two that we reflected on when we moved online in March and a third that’s the focus for the final week of the course, which begins today.

Both Cumberbatch and Miller have played the role of Sherlock Holmes; Cumberbatch portrayed him in the BBC series Sherlock (2010-17), set in present-day London, and Miller played him in the CBS series Elementary, which transformed the Scotland Yard detective into an investigator in present-day New York City. In between the launches of those two series, Cumberbatch and Miller performed together in the Royal National Theatre production of Frankenstein (2011). The two actors alternated the roles of Victor and the Creature and shared the Olivier Award (the equivalent of Broadway’s Tony) for their performances. The pairs of photographs that follow feature Cumberbatch and Miller as Holmes and in their dual roles in Frankenstein.

Top: (L-R) Cumberbatch and Miller as Sherlock Holmes / CBS, BBC; Bottom: Trading the roles of Victor and the Creature in Frankenstein / Royal National Theatre

Playwright Nick Dear‘s Frankenstein and the series Sherlock and Elementary are but three of the many adaptations that attest to the enduring appeal of the narratives that bookend our semester. The popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective and his many incarnations in film and television inspired the first of three options for your blog response this week.

Option One:

Have you watched Sherlock, Elementary, or one of the Holmes films featuring Robert Downey, Jr. as the title character? If so, address the similarities and differences between the portrayal of the detective on screen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s portrayal of him in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” If you write about Sherlock or Elementary, don’t focus on the obvious difference in the time setting, ditto for the location (New York City) of Elementary. Include both the title of the series/film and the actor’s name in your response.

Option Two:

The Adventure of the Speckled Band” belongs to the subgenre of detective story known as the locked room mystery, in which a murder occurs in a closed space where the perpetrator seemingly vanishes into thin air, and there are few, if any, suspects. Which detail about the locked room mystery of Julia Stoner’s death, or her bedroom where the murder took place, do you find most intriguing?

Option Three:

In The Norton Anthology of British Literature, the editor notes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle named “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” as his favorite Sherlock Homes story and that “[m]any fans have agreed; readers’ polls over the years have frequently rated ‘The Speckled Band’ as the best Holmes story of all” (920). If you have you read another Sherlock Holmes story that you favor over “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” write a response that addresses its merits. If you’ve read other Holmes stories and prefer “The Speckled Band,” explain why.

Extra Credit:

It’s no mystery why the force is with us today, but how does May the fourth figure in one of the works of Victorian literature that we’ve studied? In your response, cite the two lines that together solve the mystery. Follow each quotation with a parenthetical citation.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates.

Work Cited

Robson, Catherine. Biographical Note: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1859-1930.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W.W. Norton, 2018. pp. 920-21.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Follow-Up, Introduction to Poetry

Drama Follow-Up

Thank you for all of your thoughtful and detailed feedback on the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath. Before we turn from drama to poetry, I offer these follow-up notes:

Untitled Monologue

  • Mia noted the problematic detail of Deen’s parole. I didn’t mention that issue in my introductory remarks because it’s one with an easy fix. The officer needs a motive for his encounter with Deen, but that motive needn’t be a parole violation. A confrontation prompted by an unrelated minor offense—such as a speeding ticket or a shoplifting arrest—would add to the monologue’s irony. That said, who other than an officer might prompt Deen’s rant?
  • Brendan, Zane, and Brandy recommended delaying Deen’s revelations about her role in her family’s tragedies. I addressed the subject of sequence in my previous post for the same reasons that Brendan, Zane, and Brandy mentioned. If the audience is introduced to Deen as an unlikable young woman but one who is nevertheless a devoted friend to Carol, the revelation that Deen is responsible for her parents’ death and her brother’s paralysis will transform her from mildly annoying to morally reprehensible. The structure of that transformation might be similar to that of Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” as Brendan suggested.
  • Trevor recommended “Six Feet Under” and “An Inconvenient Inheritance” as possible titles. Is there a line of Deen’s—such as “So here’s the thing”—that might serve as the title?

The Story of Shabath

  • Trevor suggested that the monorail could appear as a projected image in the background, and that sound effects and props could differentiate Shabath Aizwald’s memories. Those recommendations remind us that playwrights’ scripts—unlike creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—are starting points for collaboration (among the director, the actor/s, and the technical crew); it’s important to imagine how the story might move from page to stage. Trevor’s mention of props and sound effects leads me to Mia‘s observation about the number of acts and scenes
  • If stage hands costumed as citizens of Laghaz entered and exited with the props that signal shifts from one memory to the next, those visual cues could enable the monologue to unfold as one seamless scene.
  • Brennan, Zane, Mia, and Brandy observed that the audience learns more about the kingdom of Laghaz than they do about Shabath himself. What motivated him to found Faya? What in particular was painful about his regenerative process? What were the physical and emotional costs, and how might Shabath convey those through his words and actions?
  • Mia noted Shabath’s potential drug problem. Whether the elixir he injects is medicinal or detrimental to his health, its effects could develop his character and serve as a source of tension.
  • Brennan‘s words “the rain . . . mixed with a man pondering his life on a high-speed monorail” brings to mind  Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel that the writer might find instructive to read, or reread, with an eye toward the rendering of the speech of the bounty hunter Rick Deckard.

To the writers of both scripts, I recommend Jane Wagner‘s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It’s a one-woman show featuring a series of monologues linked by the narrator, Trudy, a deranged bag lady who befriends alien visitors who are studying Earth as “a planet still in its puberty” (136). I recommend it to the writer of the untitled monologue for the characters’ diction and speech patterns. To the writer of The Story of Shabbath, I recommend examining how Wagner’s monologues develop the individual characters while also addressing social problems.

Work Cited

Wagner, Jane. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. 1985. Harper & Row, 1986.

Introduction to Poetry

As we turn from drama to poetry, consider again Janet Burroway’s, Carolyn Kizer’s, and Theodore Roethke’s observations about the similarities between the two genres:

Her [Carolyn Kizer’s] mentor Theodore Roethke . . . advised thinking of a poem ‘as a three-act play, where you move from one impulse to the next, and then there is the final breath, which is the summation of the whole.’ Kizer points out that Roethke’s poem ‘I knew a Woman’ (p. 127) contains the line ‘She taught me turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand,’ which is ‘the essence of the dramatic structure. It’s what a long poem has to do. It doesn’t require physical action, but there has to be some mental or emotional movement that carries through the poem.’ (313-14)

If a poem mimics dramatic structure and involves movement, it will need, like a story or drama, to achieve conclusion. In Roethke’s description, this achievement is the ‘final breath,’ or, in his line above the ‘and Stand’ of the poem. (314)

In Chapter 10 of Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway includes three self-reflexive poems about language and writing (319-21). If you haven’t chosen a subject for your workshop poem/s, consider writing a poem that focuses on language or one of your own pieces of writing, another poem or a work of prose.

You might also try writing an ekphrastic poem: one about or inspired by another work of art. “Overblown,” the sample poem that I posted for you on Blackboard, is an ekphrastic poem that I wrote based on Momoyo Torimitsu’s Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable (the giant inflated pink rabbit in the photo) for an Art of Poetry Catawba Valley event at the Hickory Museum of Art.

For additional models and sources of inspiration, I encourage you to reread these poems in Imaginative Writing:

  • “I Knew a Woman” by Theodore Roethke (127)
  • “Nude Interrogation” by Yusef Komunyakaa (156)
  • “A Story about the Body” by Robert Hass (187)
  • “Columbine High School/Littleton, CO” by Albert Goldbarth (188)
  • “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin (188-89)
  • “The Hammock” by Li-Young Lee (189-90)
  • “The One Girl at the Boys Party” by Sharon Olds (312-13)

Also consider reading Louise Glück‘s “Gretel in the Darkness” as well as her poems posted on the Poetry Foundation website.

Since you are working on your poetry workshop assignment this week, you are not required to post a comment in response to this post, but I strongly encourage you to post one of the following as a brief response:

  • Any other poems in Imaginative Writing that you recommend to your classmates as models or sources of inspiration
  • A link to a poem that you admire and would encourage your classmates to read
  • Any of Janet Burroway‘s “Try This” exercise that have been helpful to you as you’ve drafted your poem/s

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Work Cited

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing. 4th ed. Pearson, 2014.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 3

Welcome to our third drama workshop session, and thank you for your thoughtful feedback on The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound. Before we turn to the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath, I offer these follow-up notes:

The Slow Decline 

  • Trevor mentioned the jail break in the sixth paragraph as a possible alternate starting point. How might Mr. Castillo’s story unfold between the narration of the jail break, which was “a rather profitable venture” and the change in gun restrictions when the Castillo organization’s “profits plummeted”? In other words, how might a riches-to-rags sequence framed by those events affect the play’s momentum?
  • Brendan, Zane, Brandy, and Mia all noted the lack of development of Mr. Castillo’s relationship with his father. The detail that he is “quiet” and the writer’s choice of having Mr. Castillo address his grandfather, but not his father, in the conclusion may serve to indicate a gulf between father and son. Was it a relationship that was too difficult for the son to put into words? If so, what in his speech or actions might convey that difficulty?
  • The question of details–what to leave in and what to leave out–leads me to a question that Mia raised: “What made the main character unsuitable for the job while his father and grandfather ran things so seamlessly?” The answer may lie in something else that Mia mentioned, the moment when Mr. Castillo reveals that as a young man he contemplated running away from the family business. That’s the moment I had in mind when I posed this question: What other obstacles, internal or external, might complicate the delivery of his story?

Monologue from Bound 

  • Trevor remarked that it was admirable that the writer chose to begin at the end of the narrator’s story and focus on the mechanics of the journey.
  • Brennan, Mia, Zane, and Brandy noted the number of unanswered questions in the monologue. Zane also noted the apparent inconsistency in the narrator’s mental state. How might the writer convey through the narrator’s speech and actions that his consistent inconsistencies make him dangerous to the gods, or to himself, or to both?
  • Brandy and Brennan both noted that the monologue felt like part of a larger piece–such as a character’s speech “halfway through a fantasy novel,” as Brennan mentioned. With that in mind, reading and comparing H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and the radio play adapted from the novel might be a useful exercise for the writer.

Rather than making additional reading recommendations tailored for the writers of The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound, I am offering one that’s relevant to all of us now: the recent New York Times article “Has Your Dystopian Play Come in Handy?,” which features snippets of conversations with playwrights who have authored plays about cataclysmic events and are now living through one themselves (as we all are).

Marisol, the first play addressed in the article, was written by José Rivera, author of Gas, the Persian Gulf War-era play that we read in Chapter 11 of Imaginative Writing. The eight other playwrights and plays featured in the article are these:

  • Anne Washburn, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (2013)
  • Jennifer Haley, Nether (2015)
  • Mac Rogers, The Honeycomb Trilogy (2015)
  • Penelope Skinner, The Ruins of Civilization (2016)
  • Zoe Kazan, After the Blast (2017)
  • Robert O’Hara, Mankind (2018)
  • Andrew R. Butler, Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future (2018)
  • Duncan Macmillan, Lungs (2020)

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments about the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath. I offer them as suggestions only. I will address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our next session.

Untitled Monologue

  • In the second paragraph of the monologue, Deen reveals the inciting incident, the event that creates the situation in which she finds herself: “and then they died.” In the fifth paragraph, she first mentions her current obstacle: the officer to whom she is pleading her case. Consider how altering the order of the details that Deen presents would affect the monologue’s tension and the audience’s perceptions of Deen.
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes the importance of varying shorter lines with longer ones. In her words, “[a] change of pace, from a sharp series of shorter lines to a longer speech and back again, keeps the rhythm interesting” (338). The writer varies lines within paragraphs and also between paragraphs one and three, and again between paragraphs six and seven. What other paragraphs might be presented as shorter–perhaps even one-line–paragraphs?
  • What suggestions, if any, do you have for a title?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

The Story of Shabath

  • Consider the sequence of Shabath Aizwald’s recollections. How would moving what he recounts in 1:2 or 2:1 to 1:1 affect the tension?
  • What stage directions would clarify how the monorail figures in 1:1? Is it an actual set piece, an image projected on a scrim (a gauze cloth used as a screen or backdrop on stage), or does it figure solely as a diagetic sound?
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway observes that the inability and unwillingness at times to say what we mean “breaks the flow of the talk. This is especially true when emotions are heating up. People break off, interrupt themselves and each other. Use sentence fragments. Don’t always finish their . . . (338). Where might the writer break the flow of Shabath’s words to indicate an inner conflict? What memories might be difficult for him to recount?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

Post your two responses, twenty-five words or more each, as replies. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply. Post by midnight on Friday, April 17.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 2

Welcome to our second drama workshop session, and thank you for your thoughtful feedback on the first script, Twins of an Ill Fate. Before we turn to the next two scripts, The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound, I offer these follow-up notes:

  • Brandy, Brennan, and Zane mentioned the difficulty of distinguishing Harry from Henry. That’s a point that I’ll return to later in my notes.
  • Mia and Brennan both envisioned the story as one better suited for another medium, and Brennan added that there were moments that would be difficult if not impossible to stage. Since the realm of Twins of an Ill Fate lies somewhere between fourth wall realism and extreme theatricality, it might be staged with scene changes–as Mia suggested–and the Angel-to-Grim Reaper transformation could take place in a black-out or otherwise out of view.
  • Trevor recommended condensing the stage directions, and Brennan noted that some of them could be omitted. Often the characters’ words alone suffice. As I mentioned in our first session, in Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes that “good dialogue will convey most of its tone as an integral part of the lines, and when this is the case, there is no need to announce the tone of voice in a stage direction” (327).
  • Although Henry and Harry are easily confused on the page, seeing them on stage played by two actors, wearing clothes that aren’t identical, would enable the audience to distinguish Harry from Henry more easily. And in all likelihood they’d be played by actors who aren’t identical twins. That said, I’ll return to the what-if I asked in our first session and add another.
  • What if Henry and Harry were never on stage at the same time? What if everyone except the surviving twin–Sally, Margret, the Grim Reaper, and the audience–was left without an answer to the question, did one brother lie to save his own life?
  • Mia questioned the need for the twins to be identified as adopted, and Trevor mentioned Romulus and Remus, the adopted twins of Rome’s founding myth, and the opportunities that twin characters present, both as archetypes and subjects for exploration of nature and nurture. One reason for the revelation of the twins’ adoption–which Margret’s phone conversation provide–may be the existential crisis that crests with the realization that we are not who we thought we were, whether children of God or the children of the people we believed were our biological parents. I don’t know whether that’s what the writer intended, but the symbolic framework of the play leaves it open to that possibility.
  • One play I recommend to the writer is Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days, a dark comedy about a family preparing for Armageddon. The mother has visions of Jesus, and the daughter has visions of Stephen Hawking. One actor plays both Jesus and Hawking.

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments about The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound. I offer them as suggestions only. I will address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our third session.

The Slow Decline

  • Mr. Castillo begins with his earliest memories and offers his story chronologically. Where else might he begin, and what might that alternate starting point contribute to his monologue?
  • What costume notes could place Mr. Castillo at odds with his words? Is there a stage lie? Is he wearing pajamas or or a pin-striped suit? How does that affect our reading of the line, “[t]he doctors say I don’t have much time left”?
  • The tape recorder’s breakdown thwarts Mr. Castillo’s plan. What other obstacles, internal or external, might complicate the delivery of his story?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

Monologue from Bound

  • What is the risk of beginning, as this monologue does, with a solution rather than a problem?
  • Where might the writer use italics for emphasis? David Ives’ play The Philadelphia (see Imaginative Writing, 158-64) uses italics effectively in the conversation between the characters Al and Mark. Imagine the narrator emphasizing “finally” when he repeats it, then imagine him emphasizing “god.” How does the change in emphasis affect your perception of the narrator’s stance?
  • Consider the stage lie again. Is the narrator reliable? What actions or gestures might reveal his reliability or lack thereof?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?
  • Post your two responses, twenty-five words or more each, as replies. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply. Post by 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 9.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 1

Welcome to our first drama workshop and our first WordPress gathering. Although I wouldn’t have chosen for us to work exclusively online as a community of writers, I value the opportunity that it will afford us, in May, to look back and weigh the merits of the two versions of our class: the before and the after–or, more accurately, the before and during (COVID-19 time).

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments. I offer them as suggestions only. I will probably address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our second session.

  • From the first line of the play, we know what one of the characters wants. What do other characters want? How do the conflicts among their desires advance the action?
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes that “good dialogue will convey most of its tone as an integral part of the lines, and when this is the case, there is no need to announce the tone of voice in a stage direction” (327). Are all of the tonal directions necessary? If not, which ones could be omitted?
  • The particular day, year, and hour of the setting are essential to the play. Are any other time or setting cues essential as well?
  • What is the symbolic significance of the ’87 black Chevy Silverado? What other set pieces take on symbolic significance?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?
  • And lastly, some what ifs: What if Harry and Henry were never on stage at the same time? What if Sally was alone with Harry at the beginning of scene 1? She could still make the same mistake, and Harry could still correct her–but then what?

Post your response of twenty-five words or more as a reply. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply.

You are welcome to post more than once.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.


Posted in Teaching, Theatre

A Portrait Inscribed “To My Teacher”

When I saw Corey Mitchell’s picture posted on Facebook, I was reminded of how familiar he seemed to me. That was back in July, not long after the Hickory Community Theatre announced that he would direct the musical Hair. The show would open in September, which was still a spot in the distance back in mid-July. I was unpacking stacks of boxes, ones that had sat untouched in my house since 2013. After our lives were upended in 2012–when my husband was laid off–we relocated from Richmond, Virginia, to a house in Lenoir–a Dutch Colonial Revival that for all its beauty lacked the storage space provided by a two-car garage and a partially finished basement. The contents of my husband’s cubicle in Richmond had already found a home: the office of the newspaper editor (the job that had brought us to Lenoir). The shelves of books and drawers of files that had filled my own office towered precariously like a cardboard city in what was supposed to be the guest bedroom. Instead it was one of those rooms that you hope guests will never see.


Then after five years as an adjunct, I was offered a full-time teaching job. I had my own office again but not the time to move into it. So after the school year ended in May, I began to unpack the artifacts of my buried life and transport them to campus. As I opened box after box, fragments of those earlier years of teaching reentered my consciousness, including the image of a young man who appeared in my mind as a decades-younger version of Corey Mitchell, a young man I’d taught at UNC-Wilmington. Hadn’t I read that Corey had graduated from UNCW?–and didn’t I teach a Mitchell there?

Not long after that–a couple of days later, perhaps–I opened a box that contained all of my old grade books, all the way back to the first semester I taught, as a grad student, back in 1990. The gradebook that I used two years later at UNCW was the oldest in the stack, one passed down to me by my parents, an unused one pulled from one of their own file cabinets after they retired. The column for student names in that vintage Hall’s Class Record Book was so narrow that only the last names fit. I found what I was looking for between Lofton and Onuffer: Mitchell. I was relatively certain that it was Corey.

As the director of Hair at HCT, Corey was working closely with the theatre’s Artistic Director, Pam Livingstone, whom I knew from my own stage work there, so I sent her this email:

Corey Mitchell has looked familiar to me since I saw his face on the Tonys and in the news back in 2015, now I may know why. I read recently that he’s a graduate of UNC-Wilmington. I taught there for the 1991-92 school year before moving to Tallahassee to begin my PhD work.

The last class that I taught at UNCW was a four-week summer survey of American literature. When you teach a class of thirty-seven students for only a month, you don’t remember much about  them 25-plus years later. But I do remember a highly intelligent, charismatic, deep-voiced young man who was clearly going places, Today I found my gradebook from that year. I didn’t record the students’ first names, but ‘Mitchell’ is there, and I think it’s Corey.

Would you please ask him when he attended UNCW? If he was my student, I would like to speak with him briefly before one of the rehearsals.

Pam answered, yes, it was Corey, and he came into sharper focus. I could see him sitting in my office. He was wearing a hat. He often wore a hat. I began to remember part of a conversation we’d had. I emailed him to recount how he’d spoken with me about his admiration for Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Today, a month after I found his name in that old gradebook, I went to HCT’s rehearsal hall to surprise him with a brief pre-rehearsal visit. I chose today because it was my first day of teaching for the fall semester. Today I met thirty-seven of the one-hundred-plus students who will teach me this semester–as Corey taught me–as much, if not more, than I will teach them.

After I introduced myself to Corey, he invited me to sit down. He remembered reading an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club in my American literature survey course. He had enjoyed that chapter of Tan’s novel so much that he bought a copy of the book. Was her novel the subject of that outstanding oral presentation that he delivered? As he spoke with me, he demonstrated the attentiveness that the best teachers possess. That attentiveness is one of the many qualities that led Corey to win the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education back in 2015.

His devotion to his students at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts is chronicled in the 2015 documentary Purple Dreams, which traces his students’ lives–both on and off stage–as they rehearse and perform the musical The Color Purple, an enormously ambitious project for which their school raised over $170,000  “to take 107 people–cast, crew and orchestra–and rent the original Broadway set and costumes to perform at the International Thespian Festival two years ago [in 2013] in Nebraska” (Toppman par. 9).

In my email to Corey, I wrote: “As a teacher, I am always grateful to witness my students’ achievements in the classroom and beyond. Congratulations for all that you have accomplished, and thank you for all that you have given back.” I tried to say that again tonight as I left the rehearsal hall, but what came out was simply “I’m so proud of you!”

As I drove home, my thoughts turned to one of Stephen Sondheim’s anecdotes about his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein:

Just before he [Hammerstein] died, he gave me a picture of himself, and I asked him to inscribe it, which is sort of odd because he was a surrogate father to me. It’s like asking your father to inscribe a picture. He thought for a minute and was clearly a little embarrassed. Then he got a smile on his face like the cat had just eaten the cream. And he wrote something. And when he left the room, I read it. And it said, ‘For Stevie, my friend and teacher.’

Corey, this former teacher of yours, just three years your senior, isn’t your mentor or your surrogate mother. But these reflections are a portrait inscribed to you, “To my teacher.”

Lucas, Jane. “Corey Mitchell.” Received by Pamela Livingstone. 15 July 2019.

—. “Greetings from a Proud Teacher.” Received by Corey Mitchell. 17 July 2019.

Sondheim, Stephen. “To Me, Teaching is a Sacred Profession.” Sondheim on Sondheim. P.S. Classics, 2010.

Toppman,  Lawrence. “Charlotte Teacher Wins Tony Award.”, Accessed 15 Aug. 2015.