Marya Cohen, our founder Julia Miles’ youngest daughter, recently send me a sketch she found, while clearing out her mother’s apartment, for costumes created for the early eighties production at the Women’s Project of my play, “Paducah.”
Unfortunately the sketch was not signed, but the costume designer would have been one of the cadre of enormously talented women who built the framework on which our work was hung: lights, sound, sets, costumes—all integral parts of the lovely experience of working with a group of talented, like-minded women, excited by being in at the birth of a great adventure.
Paducah takes place in a town in far western Kentucky by that name, which I have always considered one of the funniest-sounding words in the English language, meaning no disrespect to the Native Americans who were rooted out of that part of the state, and whose word this evidently was.
The plot concerns there nice white middle class people long established in Paducah, a man, his wife, and his mistress. Unlike any relationship we ever see on the stage, the relationship between the two women is close, fond, full of humor and treated as absolutely normal. The two women are obviously much sharper than the man they share, and jealousy would have seemed ridiculous to both of them.
The moral conscience of the play is represented by her black butler who alone feels that this three-way relationship is destroying something important and basic to the society, as the new dam, inundating a nearby valley, is destroying a town and its church, whose bell he hears pealing through the water.
The production, like all productions, was fraught with difficulties; a well-known actress couldn’t seem to learn her lines and in her anxiety gained so much weight during the rehearsal period that her costumes had to be scrapped and replaced, at her insistence, with clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue.
When I complained to Julia, our producer, about this behavior which I felt might scuttle the play, she silenced me with her rare asperity: “You mean there’s nothing wrong with the script?” Of course there was plenty wrong with the script. There always is. But perhaps the only thing that really mattered was that the audience couldn’t really laugh at a situation that (outside of George Bernard Shaw) has always been presented in a way that lines up with our most conventional notions of right and wrong.
My life as a playwright has continued to have its large ups and its large down. One experience that combined both to a dramatic degree was my founding of a repertory theatre here in Santa Fe called Santa Fe Stages. The artistic director and my close collaborator, Martin Platt, dreamed up the title, joking that if the experiment didn’t work, the theatre could ride off like a stage coach into the desert.
It did work for a few years, a miracle in a small town that has long been host to a famous summer opera but has never nourished the theatre.
Even now, more than a decade later, some people remember our productions, brought in from all over the country and Canada. My happiest moments came when, driving early one Saturday morning to the Greer Garson Theatre, where we were performing, I saw a lot of people waiting in line to buy our half-price day-of tickets; or the rehearsal of one of the Shakespeare plays when two boys in the row in front of me sat mesmerized by the display of swordsmanship.
So in the end it doesn’t really matter that the theatre failed financially, or that my next play, “Treason,” which examined the many forms of treason, literary and social rather than political, of that poisoned icon, Ezra Pound, was taken to be another encomium, or that “A Dangerous Personality,” my play about the founder of Theosophy Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, was weighed down, literally, by the size of the main actor. We don’t take kindly to large women, on the stage or off.
But today I chose to celebrate all of us who contributed so richly to all these attempts to bring new life, new ideas, new energy to a venerable form. Somewhere among us there is another inspired woman producer, another inspired women director, and surely more than one inspired woman playwright who will bring on the next transformation.