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Posts Tagged ‘Pulitzer Prize’

“I did not believe it was possible to be a woman playwright from Kentucky. The reason I thought this, was that in the early seventies,  there weren’t any. There were writers, all right, wonderful writers, a few of them women, but those writers were all from the mountains. So naturally, I thought being an artist was a matter of where you were born. If you were born in the mountains, you could be an artist.  If you were born in Louisville, you had to go into advertising.”
Marsha Norman 

I don’t know how many writers have won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, but it can’t be a long list—and Marsha Norman is on that list. Norman was born in Louisville, Kentucky and was inspired early attending performances at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. After she graduated from Agnes Scott College in Decatur,GA her first play was produced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. According to Wikipedia she also worked as a journalist for The Louisville Times and taught at the J. Graham Brown School in Louisville.

She moved to New York City and in the 80s her play ‘night, Mother had a successful run on Broadway and won the 1983 Pulitzer in Drama.  Norman also wrote the screenplay for the 1986 film version of ‘night, Mother which starred Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. Then in 1991 she won a Tony Award for her writing the musical version of The Secret Garden. Her work has also brought Emmy, Grammy & WGA nominations. In 2009 she wrote scripts for HBO’s The Treatment:

“Television does such a great job with social issues, with personal family drama, the kinds of things that were the mainstay of a certain segment of theater writers; Arthur Miller, for example.”
Marsha Norman

You can get an overview of her work as a playwright, screenwriter, author and teacher at her website marshanorman.com. Currently she is the Vice-President of the Dramatists Guild of America and on the faculty at Julliard. And here’s a mini-lesson from her professor side:

“In our culture, the main story we like to tell is THE SEARCH FOR X.  Someone wants something, there is something in their way, and we watch as they try to find it.  The Wizard of Oz is a good example of this.  Treasure of the Sierra Madre, All the President’s MenMillion Dollar Baby.  Even all the Indiana Jones stories are of this family.  Harry Potter is the search for peace and justice.  All love stories are of this type actually.  And oddly enough, the thing that most characters are searching for, whatever they decide to call it, peace, justice, truth, love, the holy grail, glory – the thing we’re all really looking for is home.  Lovers are looking for each other not just for sex or fun, but they are looking for the safety and the sense of belonging that home gives people.  Etc.  There is something we cannot resist about the story of a search.  Maybe it’s because we’re all looking for stuff all the time, but something in us, is always searching.  So if you’re looking for a good subject for a story – start with a search.  Organize it like a search, and end it with the finding of the thing.”
Marsha Norman
Story Lecture at Wesleyan University in 2006

P.S. If you’re a young writer (grades 6-12) living in Kentucky or the 812 area of Southern Indiana the Actors Theatre of Louisville has a NEW VOICES TEN-MINUTE PLAY CONTEST you can enter. And for other writers, between September 1 and November 1 the Actors Theatre has a  National Ten-Minute Play Contest which is limited to the first 500 scripts received.

Related posts: Louisville Sluggers 4X

Scott W. Smith


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“Literature abounds with stories about meteoric rises followed by catastrophic falls. There are very few stories, much less true stories, with a genuine third act. But John Nash’s life had such a third act. In fact, it was that amazing third act that drew me to his story in the first place.”
Sylvia Nasar

On the DVD commentary of A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard mentions that mathematicians on the level of John Nash don’t think it terms of numbers but of patterns.  I’m no mathematician (and certainly no genius), but in doing this blog for the past three years I’ve seen a number of patterns emerge. Today it happens to be journalists and Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Just as there was a great trail of talented people that led to the making of the classic film On the Waterfront , there was also a lot of talented people who were behind the success of A Beautiful Mind. And though both of those films were made over 45 years apart there are some common denominators between them.

Important parts of both stories take place in New Jersey. On the Waterfront in Hoboken and A Beautiful Mind in Princeton. I have been to both places, and though they are only 50 miles apart, culturally they are a worlds away from each other. (At least they were years ago.) Both stories center around a man facing great odds with a strong woman helping them endure. Both movies won Best Picture Oscars: On the Waterfront (1955), A Beautiful Mind (2002). Wait, both titles also have three words—this is getting scary.

And both stories were first brought to light by journalists. On the Waterfront flowed from 26 front page articles written by Malcolm Johnson. They first appeared in 1947-48 in The New York Sun and later in book form. For his work in exposing organized crime Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize.

A Beautiful Mind was the brainchild of Sylvia Nasar.  She was working as an economics reporter for the New York Times when she heard that John Nash would be sharing the Nobel Prize for his doctoral dissertation that was over 40 years old.

What had become of John Nash? Was he even still alive? He was alive, but he didn’t  understand why anyone would want to write a story on his life and did not give Nasar a formal interview. His friends and peers also were reluctant to speak to Nasar. She knows why, “There had not been a paragraph written on Nash, and no one who knew him wanted to put schizophrenia on the record because he had already suffered so much.” In 1994, The New York Times published Nasar’s article, The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate.

One person who did talk to Nasar was Nash’s sister and that was enough to get started going deeper into the story. Nasar was also able to interview and talk with John’s wife, Alicia.

“In many ways these were the first prints in the snow, and the greatest thing that could happen to a reporter. It was an extremely rewarding experience not just telling a rise and fall story, but the fall and rise of an intellectual giant.”
Sylvia Nasar

Nasar took leave from the Times and spent two and a half years writing the book A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash. In 1998 the book won the National Book Critics Award for Biography and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Nash had a great (though not perfect) first act as a rising academic in the cold war era when some mathematicians were rock stars. He earned his Ph.D. at the age of 21. He married a physics major who also happened to be a cheerleader and was said to resembled Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Butterfield 8

Act 2 is when things got rough. He failed to accomplish the great things he thought he would in his field. He began hearing voices and having delusions. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in an era where the treatment was brutal. He ended up divorced, living in poverty and obscurity.

Five years after their divorce John called Alicia from a mental hospital  in West Virginia and asked her to help him. She did. And a mere 25-years-later he was honored with the Nobel Prize, and later the film A Beautiful Mind. He had finally found the success and fame that he hungered for as a young man.

“I dedicated my biography of John Nash to his wife Alicia. A Beautiful Mind is a drama about the mystery of the human mind, but it’s also very much a love story. It is very much an exploration of what Wordsworth called “the tenderness, joys, and fears of the human heart”...Without Alicia, Nash would have perished. There would be no recovery, no Nobel, no second take on life or the marriage.
Sylvia Nasar
Talk at MIT & Interview

So what does all of this have to do with Yellow Springs, Ohio? That is where Sylvia Nasar received her undergraduate degree in literature at Anitoch College. A place I have mentioned before since it is where Rod Serling graduated from on the road to creating The Twilight Zone.

We’ve all heard the horror stories from authors of books who’ve been less than pleased with the movie results based on their writings. Nasar’s Hollywood experience is on the other end of the spectrum.

“Was I happy with the movie? Well, look….when Ron Howard screened the movie for us I had read many drafts of the screenplay. I visited the set, I talked with Ron Howard—nothing prepared me for how good it was. I was really blown away. To me this movie captured what was truley— yes, in a fictional way— what was truly unique and meaningful about this story, and did something that I have never seen any movie do by this very cleaver device it put the audience in the shoes of someone who can’t distinguish between delusion and reality…To be able to translate a story about two states of mind, mathematics and schizophrenia, that are pretty remote from most people’s experience and to communicate that to audiences in many different cultures  and countries around the world I think is extraordinary. So, I was very happy with it.”
Sylvia Nasar
MIT Talk

Nasar is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Related Posts:
Writing “A Beautiful Mind”
A Beautiful Heart
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany

Scott W. Smith

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“I couldn’t get the book published, and I kept reckoning with myself, consulting with my soul.”
Paul Harding

“For three years, Paul Harding’s unpublished novel, Tinker, sat in a drawer. The writer, a former Boston rock drummer who grew up in Wenham, (MA) had tried selling it, but nobody was interested.”
Geoff Edgers
The Boston Globe

This week 42-year-old Paul Harding won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Tinker. It was the end of a long journey. He’s quoted in The Salem News saying, “I told myself, ‘You’re a writer who writes, and it may be that this never gets published and you teach Freshman Composition the rest of your life, but you have a perfect wife and kids, and that’s already cool.'”

The University of Iowa grad (MFA/Iowa Writers’ Workshop ) and current visiting faculty member told the Iowa City Press Citizen,”I worked on it for 5 to 6 years and actually tried to have it published, but couldn’t find an agent or a publisher. From the moment I saw one copy in between two covers, it was all gravy from there.”

Back in 1990 Harding helped formed the grunge band Cold Water Flat while a student at the University of Massachusetts. According to Sam Butterfield, the band toured throughout the Northeast and disband in 1996. Harding graduated from Iowa in 2000. (Wonder if he ever met screenwriter Diablo Cody who would have been attending Iowa at the same time. The Juno—Iowa Connection.)

Carole Goldberg, of the Hartford Courant says Tinker is: “A beautifully written meditation on life, death, the passage of time and man’s eternal attempt to harness it… one of 2009’s most intriguing debuts.”

The big contract for his debut novel? According to The Boston Globe, an initial run of 3,500 copies and a $1,000 advance.

Let’s review Harding assets before that killer book deal:

—1992 Olsmobile station wagon (good for hauling drums around)

—Unemployment checks

—Drum set in corner (leftover from his Cold Water Flat band gigs)

—A 191 page novel, unpublished & unwanted and in sitting in drawer

So since January of 2009 he’s not only had his book published, but it is currently the #11 bestseller at Amazon and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. (And now a nice meteoric rise in book sales.)

Congrats to Harding. The Pulitzer win is actually somewhere around the 50th for someone connected to the University of Iowa.

If you want to see something really unusual for these parts, check out this freaky video shot Wednesday night here in Northeast Iowa. (And be patient because the magic doesn’t start to happen until the 29 second mark.):

Check out NPR to read an excerpt from Tinker.

Trivia: According to Wikipedia, “a cold water flat is an apartment which has no running hot water.” Would make a fine title for a novel or screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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A few years ago I read that in this world that there are over 200 civil wars going on at any one time. We don’t hear about most of them because it would be sensory overload. But when things reach a certain level then the press or the government makes Americans aware of what’s going on. In the little traveling I have done outside the states I have sometimes wondered what keeps certain countries from total collapse.

Seeing Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined takes in a place that has collapsed. Set in the war torn Demoratic Republic of Congo (formerly know as Zaire and the Belgian Congo).  It’s a country that had over 5 million people die in the Second Congo war between 1998-2003. It was also a war where accounts of rape and other brutal acts of violence were widespread. (Nottage has pointed out that though the war is over violence on women continues in that region.)

If you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda which took place is the neighboring country of Rwanda in 1996, and later spilled over into Zaire, you begin to have an understanding of the situation. Another slightly older reference is when the area was known as the Congo Free State it was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness which was published over 100 years ago (and for which in turn was the beginning point for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.)

Somewhere in hearing the modern day suffering of women in the Demoratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Nottage decided there was something worth exploring. According to an article by Patrick Pacheco in the L.A. Times Nottage spent two months “at a Uganda refugee camp interviewing women who had been raped and brutalized in the fierce Civil War that has wracked the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades.”

He quotes Nottage about her desire to write a play on what she had seen and heard, “I thought to myself, ‘This play will be the ruin of me.’ I knew I wanted to tell a story that was not agitprop, that was universal, epic and unabashedly theatrical. Something truthful and yet joyful. And I didn’t know how I was ever going to do that.”

But somehow she did and won the Pulitzer Play in drama this year. I was fortunate to see the play in its last weekend in New York this past Saturday. It’s a powerful piece of drama and instantly took me back to high school when an African-America creative writing teacher showed our class the film A Raisin in the Sun and I began to have a whole new understanding of drama beyond Smoking and the Bandit. That class is also where I first heard the name Zora Neale Hurston. A writer who Nottage has been compared to.

Nottage’s skill as a playwright did not come from nowhere. She was raised in Brooklyn around a family of storytellers and where she began writing plays as a teenage and later graduated from Brown University and has an MFA in Drama from Yale. While working for Amnesty International she wrote a short play called Poof! that she submitted to the Actors Theater of Louisville where it won a competition and she was off to the races.

Since then many of her plays have been performed; Mud, River and Stone, Por’Knockers, Crumbs from the Table, and Intimate Apparel. And in 2007 she was named a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.

Before Ruined found its way to the stage at the Manhatten Theatre Club it was first commissioned and produced by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The performance I saw in New York was theater at its best. It’s hard to be transplanted from a beautiful summer day in the city to some harsh realities in war-torn Africa–but somehow Nottage and the actors made it as seemless a transition as taking the subway from Grand Central Station to the Bronx.

And part of Nottage’s gift and talent as a writer is show us an incredibly painful world full of moral ambiguity and depravity and to weave a story of humor, humanity and hope.

Scott W. Smith


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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
                                    Blanche DuBois’ character in A Streetcar Named Desire
                                    written by Tennessee Williams (Univ. of Iowa grad)
 

Last Friday after my shoot in New York I asked an actress what was the must see play in New York and she said Ruined. I was unfamiliar with the play written by Lynn Nottage despite it winning the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.  So it was time I got up to speed. In pervious trips to New York I had seen Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Chekhov’s Three Sisters and was game for a drama as they appeal to me more than the large musicals.

I was told tickets were $75 so I was hoping to score some discounted tickets. Then I found out the show was closing its run on Sunday which meant that getting tickets to see one of the last three performances Ruined might be a challenge. I found out that all three performances were in fact sold out, but that I could come to the box office and see if there were any returns.

So here is the short story of how I relied on the kindness of strangers.

The first stranger to help told me which subway to take to get to the City Center where Ruined was being performed. The second stranger to help asked me if I wanted to use her subway ticket that was still good for another hour. I arrived at the City Center box office half an hour before the window even opened and an hour and a half before the performance. And there was already a line of 13 people.

As the line grew longer we were told that only a handful of people would probably get in. At least one couple toward the back of the line sent one person into the street and the eventually got tickets which was a little frustrating. It was turning into its own little drama. As it got closer to the time for the start of the play the line in front of me got smaller but it the odds didn’t look good. Would I be best to try my luck on people walking in who had an extra ticket?

Since I had waited in line so long I decided to try my luck staying in line. The was only one person in front of me when the lady at the box office told the group in line that there were no more tickets. Sorry. Thanks for playing. A few of us lamented about how close we came. The women in front of me said she came half an hour before me and somehow that made me feel better. The guy behind me was from L.A. was flying back and this was the only performance he could try and see. I at least could come back for the show that night and try my luck again.

But I’m also not prone to giving up. And this is where persistence and providence met. I also factored into it that there might be one person running late who had an extra ticket. So all alone now to scrap for tickets I asked a couple people running a little late if they had an extra ticket. I got that knowing smirk that says, “Sorry beggar.” 

Then my third stranger of the day, Renee from Brooklyn, showed up. “Do you happen to have an extra ticket?” Without stopping she said, “I sure do. Follow me.” And a few minutes later I was sitting down watching Ruined. I’ll write about the play itself tomorrow, but what makes my story all the better is when I tried to pay Renee from Brooklyn for the tickets she said, “No, just enjoy the play. And pay it forward.”

I haven’t always depended on the kindness of strangers, but it’s nice to see it played out in real life every once in a while.

The whole experience made me think back a couple years ago when I was freelance producing for a company in Orlando and the owner of the company gave me a couple tickets to an Orlando Magic game just a couple hours before the game started. I couldn’t find anyone to go so planned to give the ticket away to whoever asked. I walked around for a few minutes before this little boy about 10 years old said, “Do you have an extra ticket?” I did.

He was savvy enough to notice I was giving him a valuable lower bowl ticket and his eyes lit up. Made my day.

Remember the old saying, “You have not because you asked not.”

 

Scott W. Smith 

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This week I spent four days in New York City shooting a video in a location that overlooked the Hudson River into Hoboken, New Jersey. I knew that was where Frank Sinatra was from but I didn’t realize until today that that is On the Waterfront territory.

The 1954 film that AFI listed as the #8 American film of all time and which I would list as one of my top films ever. And while I have written about it before I discovered sonething today that gives some reasons for its lasting appeal.

Before the film won 8 Oscars the events that lead to the movie were published in a 24 part series in the New York Sun back in 1948 by Malcolm Johnson. The series titled Crime on the Waterfront won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. (The articles are now in book form called On the Waterfront: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Articles That Inspired the classic film and Transformed the New York Harbor.)

There is a book version of Johnson’s articles that has been published and I look forward to trying read it. Here’s how the book starts.

And I also read that the famed Death of a Salesman writer Arthur Miller also wrote a draft of the script. Though he is not credited on the movie, I find it hard to believe that they didn’t use any of his work.

Scott W. Smith

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Part of the legacy that writer James Michener left behind (other than more than 40 books) is the writing program at the University of Texas. The program that Michener helped start is now known as The James A. Michener Center for Writers and according to their website is “An interdisciplinary Masters of Fine Arts program in fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting of the University of Texas at Austin.”

But Michener did not start out with a grand plan. 

“I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ All I knew was, that I was able to write better than a lot of the stuff I was reading, and I was going to take a shot at it. That it turned out the way it did was accidental — purely accidental. Not a matter of design at all. I had a great start. Everything hit me favorably at the beginning. It was five years before I had the courage to become a freelance with all that start because I knew what the facts were. I had been an editor myself, and I knew that people do not make a living writing books. ”
                                                  James Michener
                                                  Author of more than 40 books
                                                  Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Tales of the South Pacific 

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“I picked a difficult subject, a little lost Texas town no one’s heard of or cares about … But I’m at the mercy of what I write. The subject matter has taken me over.”
                                                                 Horton Foote 

“What Foote knew was Wharton (Texas). By now, he was in New York, but everything he had learned about life had come from Wharton — all the eccentric characters he’d grown up around, the stories his loquacious aunts had told in order to pass the time, the family legends. His memories were and are strings of oral histories born from the triumphs and failings of the Texans he knew.”
                                                                 Becca Hensley
                                                                 American Way 

 

Writer Horton Foote died a few days ago, but his writings will live a long, long time. And though he was born and raised in a small town in Texas that was never a hindrance— it was his greatest inspiration.

In 1962 he won an Oscar for the screenplay adaptation for To Kill A Mockingbird. That alone is enough to be remembered by. Here are a couple things to consider about that movie:

Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, was voted the #1 hero in AFI’s Top 50 heroes and top 50 villains 
The film is listed as #34 in AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time

In 1983 Foote won another Oscar, this time for Best Original Screenplay, for Tender Mercies.

Foote was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (which also was nominated for a Tony).

Foote won an Emmy in 1997 for best writing for a TV miniseries or special for Old Man, (which was based on a novella by William Faulkner).

He also had several plays on Broadway and off-Broadway. Horton Foote was brilliant. Horton Foote was accomplished. But Horton Foote paid his dues. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he says that it takes an artist 10,000 hours to have a firm grip on his craft. (He uses Mozart and the Beatles as examples.) It is talent, but it is also a numbers game. And those numbers are hours and hours, year after year of learning one’s craft.

Foote’s set out to be an actor and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and in New York. He wrote his first play in 1940 when he was 24 years old. But it would be another 13 years before you’d find a play he wrote that most people today would recognize, A Trip to Bountiful. (And at that point, counting his acting experience he had invested 21 years in theater.) When he started to write for the TV program Playhouse 90 in 1956 Foote was 40 years old. When he won the Academy Award for To Kill a Mockingbird he was 45-years old, and when he won his second Academy Award 67-years old, and 79-years old when awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995,  and 81-years old when he won his Emmy in 1997.

He continued to write until he died and was quoted not that long ago saying, “I can’t quit (writing) I woke up last night at 1:30 and had to get up and write. It’s compulsive.”                                            

Horton Foote is that tall tree in the forest that didn’t sprout up overnight. Here are some of his quotes:

“But I don’t really write to honor the past. I write to investigate, to try to figure out what happened and why it happened, knowing I’ll never really know. I think all the writers that I admire have this same desire, the desire to bring order out of chaos.” 
                                                               Horton Foote 

“I knew little about adapting or writing for the screen.”
                                                               Horton Foote  

When you’re a writer, you have to write these stories, even if you don’t get paid.”
                                                               Horton Foote 

Related posts: Screenwriting from Texas

 

Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.'” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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