by Alan Woods
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” — Confucious is given credit for this. For me, it is always my starting point in writing. Discovering I know nothing or very little about a given topic, or group, or object, or anything, is humbling. I feel compelled to face that ignorance, rectifying it by research and learning about the subject that has suddenly caught my attention. Thus, when faced with beloved aged relatives’ increasing senility, I wound up writing “I’m Herbert,” a short piece that’s received multiple readings/performances, and is set for the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis in mid July (www.womenstfmemphis.org).
A competition for a local company resulted in the fantasy “Escaping Ayesha,” while a challenge to write a piece with no complete sentences inspired “In the Mall,” and hearing about people who had been made pen pals in elementary school only meeting physically decades later made “Pen Pals” inevitable. At one point, finding myself wondering about Shakespearian characters before and after the plays, I wrote a series of short Shakespearian prequels and sequels. One, “Twentieth Night,” a sequel (set some eight years later) to “Twelfth Night,” received a reading locally at Stonewall, Columbus:
Karla Rothan and Linda Schuler, who starred in Twentieth Night
Another, “Wishing Witches,” brings the characters from the Scottish Play into the present, where one of the sisters demands they replace the cauldron with a slow cooker.
Still another Shakespearean take-oﬀ has Ophelia at the used chariot lot, having persuaded Osric to take her father’s place behind the arras. “Rosaline’s Nurse” has the nurse inform Romeo’s jilted lover, Rosaline, of what has taken place, to her incredulous response.
In “Downstairs at Elsinore,” Ethel, the daughter of the King of the Penzance Pirates arrives, the Pirates having been hired as entertainment for the wedding feast of Claudius and Gertrude. In “What Shall We Do About Daddy?,” Lear’s three daughters work out a plan to deal with his increasing dementia. And in “Viking Hamlet,” Hamlet is in prison; Fortinbras keeps him incommunicado and has put out that he’s dead so as to prevent any eﬀort to put him on the throne. He’s visited by Horatio and learns that he’s to be set free so that he can raid England and Scotland, to try to prevent them from uniting. One small thing: he has to dye his hair red and take on a new persona, as “Erik the Red” so that Fortinbras can deny that Denmark has anything to do with the raids.
Concern about the nuclear arms race early in the present century led to “Last Call,” set in a Canadian bar —the nuclear holocaust having raised radioactive clouds that have already begun wiping out all life —as two guys take in one last drink as they consider impending doom. It was performed as part of the Asphalt Shorts Festival in Kitchener, Ontario, in September, 2006. Great thanks to Paddy Gillard-Bentley, the Artistic Director of Flush Inks Productions, producer of the Festival.
“The Danish” premiered as part of “Family Foibles” at the Heritage Theatre Company in Bend, Oregon, and as part of “Dessert Plays” at the Maple Grove Players in Columbus, both in 2008, and was included in rotating repertory by the Soup’s On Players, Lubbock, Texas, March through September 2011. It treats an elderly man who discovers his accustomed breakfast of 60 years is about to change because his wife has heard that longevity can be increased through diet. And memories of being in a method-acting class while I was in college inspired “At Madame Rastinovina’s” — sitting in class watching fellow first-year folks exploring sense memories and thinking to myself, “We’re all 18. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that Helen Mansfield wouldn’t go to the prom with me. Don’t think that’ll help me much with finding the subtext in Hamlet.”
In the 1990s, I also got involved with Senior Theatre USA, a now defunct but inspirational group dedicated to creating work for older performers that avoided the standard cliches — pieces where older characters were either somebody’s senile grandfather, awfully bitchy mother-in-law, or saccharinely incompetent uncle or aunt. “Not the Delany Sisters” came out of that sensitivity, after working on a local production of “Having Our Say,” a very good play, but one whose sentimentality just got to me. That relationship grew into hosting a festival for senior theatre folks here in Columbus, with writers’ retreats and local performers reading works-in-progress, which proved very popular. “Senior Cruise” was written for that festival; it involves a group of seniors all on the hunt for new relationships on a cruise down the Mississippi. The Eileen Heckart Competition for plays featuring older performers, named for the Columbus native who inspired many with her performances of senior characters (https://library.osu.edu/collections/spec.tri.ehdfsc), also involved readings of the winning plays.
“Limbo, Ohio,” a sequel to that famous play about a dying salesman, places Willy in Limbo; arguing against the premise that suicides can’t make it into paradise.
Limbo, Ohio 2008
All my scripts are available at www.alanwoods.org; I’ve been fortunate, having works performed as either readings or staged productions on every continent with the exception of Antarctica — so if anyone knows any penguin theatre troupes, send info.
That’s pretty much it, except for this final note regarding wonderful experiences I’ve had over the past decades. It has been terrific working with both writers and students. Pairing honor students with playwrights in an intro to theatre class, for example, where the students got to explore all the usual subjects with an actual writer; it was exciting for the students, while the playwrights were ecstatic to have an eager young mind hanging on their every word — and thought! So glad I got into education after my service in the military! I had been working oﬀ-oﬀ Broadway theatre in New York, and could see a future in it, when I was drafted. But since the live theatre wasn’t very interesting by the time of my discharge (things change!), I opted for graduate school (USC) and wound up in Columbus, teaching and running a research collection, and working with theatre legends convincing them to leave their collections — among them, Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee, and Twyla Tharp — but that’s all another story, for another time. I’ll just include this one special moment in connection with the Dramatists’ Guild’s Margo Jones Award when, in 2008, I got to escort Janet Waldo, Lee’s widow, known in her own right as the voice of Judy Jetson and Penelope Pitstop (among many others in her career as a preminent voice artist).
Janet Waldo and Alan Woods at the presentation.
Alan Woods is a playwright, dramaturg, and teacher. He can be contacted through his website: www.alanwoods.org