Have you ever thought about the person, the moment, or the event or circumstance that started you on your creative path?
This was one of several questions asked at a panel discussion I attended recently, titled, "Wellsprings: The Creative Impulse," presented by the New York Coalition of Professional Women in the Arts & Media and the Women's Committee of The Writer's Guild of America, East, held at New Dramatists. Moderated by stage director Sue Lawless, the panel included guest speakers playwright Tina Howe, composer-performer Nancy Ford, and filmmaker Nancy Savoca. They played to a packed house of, not surprisingly, almost all women.
Tina Howe, author of "Painting Churches," "Coastal Disturbances," and "The Art of Dining," among other plays, told the audience that she grew up in a very literary family. At dinner, all the family would talk about was books and publishing. They would read poetry. For Ms. Howe, it was a very intimidating atmosphere. "There was something comical about my being placed in this family," she confided. "I was very tall, nearsighted, and a 'D' student. I had to figure out how to claim an identity in a family of high achievers." It was a class she took while a senior at Sarah Lawrence College that helped her find herself. As an assignment, she wrote a one-act play about the end of the world. She didn't think it was very good, but her classmate, Jane Alexander, loved it and wanted to direct it. The lead got sick, and Jane went on for her. "lt was a hit on campus and that was my initiation into theatre."
Nancy Ford, composer of "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac," "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road," and "Hang On to the Good Times," and a long-time staff writer for daytime soaps, didn't have to wait until college to get started. "I began creating music when I began walking. It was as natural for me to make music as it was to eat and talk. I never thought before about how or why that happened."
Nancy Savoca was the youngest in a huge family, having all sisters who were always in relationships. "That's all I knew," she stated. "I was consumed by people in relationships." And that's been reflected in her films, which include "True Love" (about an Italian wedding in the Bronx), "Dogfight" (boy-girl relationship), and "Household Saints" (an adaptation of a saga about three generations of Italian-American women). She's currently working on "The 24-Hour Woman" (a black comedy about men, women, and having children in the 1990s).
Having been inspired by these tales, 1 asked others in the industry about their initial impulses for artistic expression.
Jeff Cohen, founder and artistic director of RAPP Arts Center from 1984-91, is now the creative vp in charge of development at Epic Prods., an L.A.-based film company. His own film company, Safe Harbor Prods., currently has several screenplays in various stages of development. Jeff is now in New York directing "Coyote Bleeds" at the Worth St. Theatre. He spoke of two specific incidents that provided him with creative inspiration.
"I was an acting student at New York University in 1976. Stella Adler said something to our class that I'll never forget: 'Your talent is in your choice.' Which means if you make an uninspired choice then you will, naturally, be exhibiting uninspired talent. But if you make a bold choice, if you take a risk, then you will be the sum of your talent."
The second event for Jeff was a production he saw at John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 1983: "The Count of Monte Cristo," directed by Peter Sellars, and starring Richard Thomas. "It was a very controversial production, four-and-a-half hours long. I remember sitting in my seat at the end, thoroughly exhausted and deeply upset that it was over. It was the most interesting theatre that I saw in my life. In a fever, I handwrote a 10-page letter to Sellars begging him to take me on as an assistant."
Though he didn't get the job, his work as a director was now cut out for him. He would be making those bold choices.
Sara Louise Lazarus, a theatre and cabaret director who also teaches musical theatre auditioning and performing, naturally began her career as an actress and singer. "At first, I actually resisted my impulse to direct because I wanted to continue performing. It wasn't until I worked a number of years as an actor that I came to realize that I was giving more thought to the production than to my role in it.
"I was a standby in an Off-Broadway revue and as I watched the show every night I could tell some of the actors were just floundering. I knew just how to make the songs work better but, as a standby, it was inappropriate for me to say anything." It was at this same time that a directing job was offered to her. The theatre's artistic director was willing to take a chance on Sara, knowing she had no directing experience, but confident that she could do it.
"Even though I had a pit in my stomach the whole rehearsal, I was able to use sides of myself I had subdued or ignored as an actor. And even though I made plenty of mistakes, I had moments of inspiration unlike anything I had experienced before. I had come home at last."
What had the greatest influence on playwright-screen-play writer (and Back Stage columnist) Jeffrey Sweet?
"Two broadcasts on 'The Jack Paar Show': Nichols and May and scenes from 'Beyond the Fringe' (a long-running Broadway show in the '60s, starring Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennett, which began at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, moved on to the West End, and then to Broadway). "Both knocked me out," says Jeff. "I worshiped that material, and memorized most of it."
Growing up in Chicago, Jeff was able to regularly see shows at Second City (his book about that company, "Something Wonderful Right Away," was published in 1978, and is now in its fourth edition). "I always knew I wanted to write, but after seeing them I knew I wanted to write for the theatre."
Patricia Snyder is going on 20 years as the producing artistic director of the New York State Theatre Institute, based in Troy. As she told me, it was a combination of circumstances that provided her with her artistic insight. "I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Syracuse--a very expressive neighborhood. Then, there was my family and their encouragement of me as a very young child. We visited my grandfather every Saturday and we listened together to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. On Saturday nights my Morn would play the accordion and we would dance and sing. On Sundays we went to church--I was fascinated by the rituals of the Holy Mass. There were also the radio dramas my family would listen to all the time." Patricia's parents enrolled her in a drama class held on the university campus when she was seven years old, which put her on the road to her professional career. "My going into the theatre wouldn't have happened if I wasn't afforded all these opportunities."
Composer-lyricist Francesca Blumenthal wrote her first song when she was four years old. "I came from a very musical, creative, and hammy family," she states. "Everyone was always performing. I got a lot of encouragement and approval from them, so I kept doing it." An advertising copy and jingle writer for many years, Francesca's work is currently at Don't Tell Mama, where a production of "Life Is Not Like the Movies" features 22 of her songs. "It's always been fun," she admits. "I did it to play. It's still like play for me. People suffer for their art. I've never suffered. I don't know then if I'm actually an artist." If you hear her songs, you'll know that she is.
By Sherry Eaker
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