Supporting creative work by women
Next month, two Monica Bauer one-person plays will be performed at Stage Left Studio. Made for Each Other was written for John Fico to perform and follows two gay men as they prepare to get married. Each carries a voice inside him: a grandmother with Alzheimer’s for one and the fiery Italian grandfather of the other. Bauer performs The Year I Was Gifted, a memory play about meeting her first gay friend as a teenager at an arts camp. The friend, Bill Sherwood, made the seminal AIDS film Parting Glances years later before passing away due to the disease.
Bauer spoke with Works by Women about how she created The Year I Was Gifted, how the best ways to explore issues is through character development and what inspires her.
WORKS BY WOMEN: The Year I Was Gifted is a very personal story. Tell me about putting it together as both writer and performer.
MONICA BAUER: Friends had been trying to get me to write theatrically about the weird true stories in my life for a long time, but I had always resisted it. I didn’t want to seem like I was either patting myself on the back, or asking for sympathy. And before writing Made for Each Other for John Fico, I had never considered writing, much less writing and performing, solo work. But my experiences with Made for Each Other slowly changed my perspective on solo shows. When done right, they can be much more than an exercise in self-centered self-congratulation, or “poor me” tales of woe.
When I first started out developing The Year I Was Gifted, it read like an essay, and the focus was too much on me. I needed to find the theme, the subject, some universal emotion or truth, that could be the heart of the evening. When I started to expand on my relationship with my first gay friend, Bill Sherwood, that’s when it started to take off for me, and became truly exciting. Because Bill had died young, it seemed to me that I was no longer writing about me, but I was writing about him, and in a strange way, for him. When I first found his voice in rehearsal, I said to myself, “Monica, you are now in the business of resurrecting the dead.” The piece has evolved to become more about the gift that one person can make to another, in a way that influences them for their entire life. These gifts are given and received every day, and once I knew that was the center of the show, what started off as a long autobiographical essay became more and more theatrical, in the service of that theme.
I’ve been performing it now for a year, on two continents, in several different theaters, and revising it after each run. When I came back from performing it for the month of August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I thought I had the play in a very good place. But I found one more place to revise when I performed it at Stage Left as part of the Women at Work series. So it gives me great pleasure to perform it there again, now, when I can finally see it as a polished and complete play.
WBW: The piece is playing in tandem with Made for Each Other. One deals with youth and the other with aging. How do the pieces speak to one another?
MB: In the recent production of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, the play begins when the character of Laura emerges directly from within the furniture, in a great coup de theatre. When I saw that, it powerfully underscored, for me, what it means to write, and perform a “memory play.” Both Made for Each Other and The Year I Was Gifted are memory plays. The past is present, it creates the future.
Other similarities: life and death end up to be very close neighbors in both of these plays, in surprising ways. And each play is about the word “gift.” It’s a great word, with many connotations and shades of meaning. These are also plays with one foot in the world of the performing arts, and one foot somewhere else. And both are unusual love stories.
WBW: Your pieces deal with gay marriage and AIDS as well. How is theater an important space to explore these issues?
MB: In The Year I Was Gifted I show the moment I felt, as a young writer, the need to “say something important about life.” Perhaps the most important thing to say about life may very well be, “pay attention to the pain, and joy, of others.” There are plays that self-consciously try to “explore issues.” But that’s not the way I write. I am exploring people, and once you draw a group of strangers in to explore people, if you do your job as a writer, the issues that make the lives of your characters painful or joyful become, for the audience, things that make their own lives painful or joyful, as they identify with the struggle going on in front of them. That’s the way I use theater to “explore issues.”
WBW: As you’ve alluded,The Year I Was Gifted is dedicated to Bill Sherwood, who directed the pioneering film Parting Glances, and you play Bill Sherwood in the piece. Tell me more about your friendship and how it left such an indelible mark on your life.
MB: Just before I started work on “Gifted”, I ran into a person who had been at the Interlochen Arts Academy when I was there. We had a pleasant conversation of small talk, and that sent me back to look at the Yearbook. I hadn’t looked through it in at least 20 years, and when I came to Bill Sherwood’s photo, I felt my throat tighten and tears come. I wasn’t just seeing his 17-year-old boyish good looks, I was also seeing the man he would become, the film-maker of such promise, the one who died of AIDS just a year before the new treatments saved so many lives.
And I remembered, in a flood of memory, just how much his friendship had meant to me, when we were both so young. We lost track of each other, and I never told him what a transformational friendship this had been for me. When I finally saw his film, Parting Glances, I was so proud of him I could hardly stand it, but I couldn’t tell him that, because he had died years before.
I was a kid from Omaha, Nebraska, and the only thing I knew about homosexuality before I met Bill Sherwood was that my Dad hated “homos.” I knew that the kids in school made fun of “sissies.” Bill was funny, and smart, and direct, and musical, and gay. All those things were Bill. And when sometimes people assume I am gay because I write gay characters with skill and empathy, creating three-dimensional human beings whose sexual orientation is one of the things that makes them who they are, I smile, and wish I could tell Bill all about it. He’d understand right away, and he’d say, “Well, Nebraska, they don’t know you like I do.”
WBW: What’s next for you?
MB: I am going back to my normal writing practice, which is to write full-length plays for other actors to perform. My newest play, Porter’s Will, was seen in 2013 at the Planet Connections Theater Festivity as a staged reading, and won an award. I am looking for a director, and a theater, to produce it!
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
MB: True story: a few years ago, I had a play that was a finalist for the Globe Theater National 15 Minute Play Contest, and this play was called Two Men Walked Into a Bar. A man I was introduced to at a poetry reading asked me if I had a play in production that he might see, and I told him that I was about to see this production of a play I had written about Marines returning from Iraq. This fellow smiled and said, “Well, I’d like to see that. I’ve never seen a play about lady Marines.”
There are no women in Two Men Walked into a Bar. The characters sound like male marines, because I’ve been around men in the military. I served in the Nebraska National Guard when I was in college. Now, it was in the Band, but I still had to go through Basic Training! People assume women in theater write about “women’s stuff.” Unless they’re lesbian, in which case people assume they write about “lesbian stuff.”
I don’t know of many male playwrights who are expected to only write “male stuff.”
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
MB: I love the whole idea of 50/50 by 2020. I love the The Lilly Awards. I love women supporting other women, no matter what kind of “stuff” they are writing about!
The Year I Was Gifted and Made for Each Other will play Stage Left Studio February 7 through March 28, 2014. Visit Stage Left Studio’s website for more details.