A year ago, as a model for my students’ introductory assignment, I composed a post about my work as a writer. Now as I revisit that assignment, rather than turning again to my writing, I have chosen to write about acting.
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. Since moving back to North Carolina in 2013, I have performed in plays at Foothills Performing Arts, Hickory Community Theatre, the Green Room Community Theatre, and most recently at the Hickory Playground’s second annual festival of new one-act plays.
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 Sanford Meisner would say, “under the given imaginary circumstances.”
In Nancy Gordon’s first scene in Third, she sits on a park bench outside the college bookstore and tells her friend and colleague Laurie Jameson how a boy she dated her freshman year taught her that Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” scans exactly to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Nancy begins to sing the lines and Laurie joins in. Singing heartily, so caught up in the fun of it, Laurie doesn’t notice at first that Nancy has stopped singing. She can’t repeat the line “And miles to go before I sleep,” because she doesn’t know whether she has miles to go. Soon she will undergo a bone marrow transplant.
The early drafts of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, didn’t include Nancy. Three years ago as I prepared to play her, I learned that when Wasserstein added her as a friend for Laurie, she was adding an autobiographical character, a cancer survivor who would live on after Wasserstein died, just three months after Third opened in New York in October 2005.
Whenever the prospect of playing Nancy frightened me–which it did, often–I reminded myself of Wasserstein’s courage and how creating Nancy sustained her as her health declined. What an honor and a privilege it was to tread the boards in Nancy’s shoes.
As I reflect on Foothills Performing Arts’ production of Third, on the third anniversary of its opening, I remain grateful for director Mark Shell’s artistic vision and faith in me, and for the stellar cast and crew: Jill Roberts, Justin Thomas, Carla Robinson, David Kerley, Dustin Greene, Amber Ellis Biecker, Tony Hendrix, Heather Lee Hendrix, Aleesha Hendrix, Jared Smith, and Josh Wolfe.
. . . I was rehearsing to perform one as well. Tuesday, April 28, as eight of my students prepared to perform their collaborative one-acts for SOURCE, Lenoir-Rhyne‘s Symposium on University Research and Creative Expression, I was preparing to perform a script of a different sort, one that I’d co-written with two other members of the Board of Directors for the community theatre group Foothills Performing Arts.
Though I had seen the students’ plays once, in class, I wish that I could have seen their encore performances at SOURCE. I had no idea that I would have a schedule conflict, much less one of such coincidence. I had designed my students’ genre assignments–including the one for their collaborative one-act plays–in early January, before the semester began, with no way of knowing that a month later, organizers of the volunteer celebration for Caldwell Hospice and Palliative Care would ask Foothills Performing Arts to provide the entertainment for their banquet in April. They wanted a skit about the importance of volunteering. So I volunteered, along with Michelle and Chrystal.
Writing an eight- to ten-minute skit is no eight- to ten-minute task. It requires hours and hours of work, and in our case that included finding a way to to honor the work of volunteers who help people during their most difficult hours. We would be there to entertain them, not to remind them of that, though. And volunteering is all about help and support, the very antithesis of the tension and conflict essential to drama and to all storytelling. And then there was the theme for the banquet, elegant safari. How do you work the idea of volunteering into a safari, an elegant safari?
With all of that in mind, I drafted the first pages of the script that Michelle and Chrystal and I developed into a five-page meta-play about writing a script, one that broke the fourth wall with this sequence:
JANE: But we don’t have a story, or rather this is the story. What we have is a skit about not-having-a-skit.
CHRYSTAL: What we have is writers in desperate need of help. (SHE pulls binoculars from the bag.)
MICHELLE: We could get volunteers.
JANE: How can we get volunteers? We can’t just snap our fingers and suddenly have a roomful of volunteers . . .
(JANE, MICHELLE, and CHRYSTAL exchange glances.)
CHRYSTAL: Then again . . .
MICHELLE: It’s worth a try.
The process of collaboration was worth a try as well. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity, in part because it’s my practice to do what I ask of my students, including writing along side of them, composing the same assignments that I require them to write. But when I wrote a one-scene play in March as a model for theirs, it wasn’t the product of collaboration. I couldn’t show them the script I could show them now–one that I’ll offer to my students as a model in semesters to come.
For their first paper of the semester, an annotated bibliography, my students have the option of choosing as their subject something they’re studying formally (for a class) or informally (on their own). As a model for them, I’ve composed a bibliography on Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, a play I’m studying—both formally and informally, in a sense—as I rehearse for the upcoming production at the Foothills Performing Arts Theatre.
The bibliography that follows includes the play itself, as well as two secondary sources: a review of the original Off Broadway production at the Lincoln Center Theater, and an academic essay by a professor of theater and literature, a harsh critic of Wasserstein’s who reexamined and reevaluated the playwright’s work after her death.
Ben Brantley’s “As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins” reviews the original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, which opened Off Broadway at the Lincoln Center Theater on October 24, 2005. Observing the similarities between the play’s main character, Laurie Jameson (Dianne Weist), and title character of Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles, Brantley asserts that Third shares the shortcomings of her other plays: “an overly schematic structure, a sometimes artificial-feeling topicality and a reliance on famous names and titles as a shorthand for establishing character.” Brantley also notes that the supporting characters are more convincing than Laurie Jameson, both as written and performed. Nevertheless, Brantley commends the play as an affecting portrait of a woman confronting the “certainty of the uncertainty in life.”
Brantley, chief theatre critic for The New York Times, is the editor of The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century (2001).
In “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein,” Jill Dolan cites the death of Wendy Wasserstein as the impetus for rethinking her harsh criticism of the playwright’s work and the mainstream feminist playwriting that it represents. Dolan asserts that a close examination of Wasserstein’s last play, Third, demonstrates the impact of her work as well as its importance in raising public awareness of the debates within and about American feminism. Along with her analysis of the play’s text, Dolan presents a study of two divergent productions: one at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (2007), and a second at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (2008).
Jill Dolan is the Annan Professor in English, Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Feminist Spectator in Action: Feminist Criticism on Stage and Screen (2013).
Wasserstein, Wendy. Third. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2008. Print.
Wendy Wasserstein’s Third spans one academic year at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England. The play focuses on Professor Laurie Jameson, an acclaimed feminist literary scholar, coping in midlife with her father’s advancing Alzheimer’s, her daughter’s departure for college, her husband’s detachment, and her best friend’s recurring cancer—all amid the onset of her own menopause, replete with hot flashes. On the first day of class, when Laurie encourages her students to contradict her, she has no idea what challenges she’ll face when one of them—the title character, Woodson Bull, III—takes her up on the offer. Angered by what she perceives as the Bush administration’s rush to war, she sees Third as a “walking red state” (27). When she accuses him of plagiarizing a paper she believes he’s incapable of writing, Third claims he’s a victim of “socio-economic profiling” (22).
Wendy Wasserstein’s other plays include An American Daughter (1997), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), and Uncommon Women and Others (1977). Her most critically-acclaimed play, The Heidi Chronicles, won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989. Third opened Off Broadway in late September 2005, four months before Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma.