The year was 1942. For Maxine and Jean, college loomed just a few months away, and they counted themselves lucky to grab jobs as mail girls in a new Civil Service office in downtown St. Louis, Missouri...
Tom and Lee, two young lawyers sent out from Washington, noted the mailmen had suddenly gotten better looking and promptly struck up a flirtation.
In the weeks that followed, Tom developed an eye for the short, blue-eyed blonde, Jean, while Lee? Well, Lee also developed an eye for the short, blue-eyed blonde.
“Too late, Lee. Already got a date with her,” said Tom one afternoon, “but… I think I can set you up with her friend, Maxine.” Maxine - a very tall brunette - was shy and equally pretty and laughed at all Lee’s jokes, so Lee got to thinking that might be all right after all.
Now, one thing you’ll have to know about Lee - besides the fact he was the kindest man that ever lived - was that, just a few years before meeting Maxine, life had dealt him a terrible blow.
The summer after his freshman year of college, he’d taken a job at an Ice House in his southern Virginia hometown to keep in shape over the summer months. He’d played football for the Hampden Sydney Tigers Freshman year, and he wanted to be all the more prepared to play again that fall. But one month into his work at the Ice House, he awoke with pain in his legs. When the pain became excruciating, he was rushed to the hospital.
Lee had contracted polio.
He went through three months of wanting to die, followed by two years of painful, day in and day out physical rehabilitation. His mother came in every day to exercise his limbs to see if the muscles would come back.
Eventually Lee regained the use of his arms - but never his legs. His father admonished him to, “Get up and quit feeling sorry for yourself,” and Lee looked around him – at the sight of those who weren’t so lucky... whose lives would be lived entirely in an iron lung - and Lee decided to take his father’s advice. Metal braces were required to keep his legs straight, and Lee learned to walk with crutches.
But it was not the slow walk of the injured. No. Somewhere during those long two years, Lee made a decision about life, and he walked like a young man who had somewhere to go.
He took himself back to Hampden Sydney College. There were no handicapped facilities back then, but an old football buddy helped by slinging Lee over his broad shoulder and carried him up and down the college’s stairs like a sack of potatoes. And that’s how Lee completed his degree.
When he finished college, Lee was accepted into The University of Virginia Law School. In order to make ends meet, he worked in the Dean’s office through one of President Roosevelt’s youth job programs. Then, after law school, he took a job with the government… and found himself in St. Louis, Missouri.
Which is where he began to fall in love with the tall brunette.
Maxine, for her part, liked Lee from the start. Whenever she came through the offices, he put aside his paperwork to chat. She loved his laugh, his smile, his good looks, and the way he rolled up his shirt sleeves. By the time he stood up and she saw he was on crutches, it was too late to matter.
Some of life would be hard, yes, but what was the point of thinking like that when you’d have those dark brown eyes to gaze into, and enjoy his laughter, his kind heart — really, what did anything matter when you found yourself in love?
But Maxine’s mother, Virginia, was vehemently opposed to her daughter dating Lee. As they began to date during Maxine’s college years, Virginia continued to tell her what a poor choice she was making. “Only think what you’re doing! Throwing your life away on a... on a LAWYER!” Virginia couldn’t admit Lee’s handicap was a problem to her, so she blamed his Doctorate of Jurisprudence. Eventually she demanded Maxine quit seeing him.
Maxine obeyed, and the months that followed were the most miserable of her young life.
The only thing Maxine looked forward to was the marriage of her best friend, Jean, to Tom.
Lee was to be Tom’s best man.
When the wedding day arrived, it’d been twelve long months since Maxine and Lee had seen each other. After the ceremony, Lee approached Maxine, looked into her eyes and asked in his sweet southern drawl, “How you been, sugar?”
After that, Virginia was just going to have to find a way to get over it.
Maxine and Lee were married in 1949 at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. There’s film footage of the moments before they left on their honeymoon. You can see Lee’s parents, looking on with pride. You can even see the somewhat sour look on Virginia’s face. And then there’s Maxine, smiling like the sun just rose for the first time, and Lee, with a lovely grin, rushing to the getaway car so quickly you wouldn’t think he had crutches at all.
And now they’re driving off together — a look of deep satisfaction on their young faces — my parents, Maxine and Lee Bean. Forever in my heart my favorite Valentines.
First, get yourself a mountain. David Ferguson Bean was born November 19, 1842 among the steep, long hills of Hardy County, West Virginia. His parents, Margaret Anderson and George Bean (1), had settled there in the town of Fabius, and David was the first of nine children to actually make it to adulthood. Just in time to try and get himself killed in America's Civil War. The Beans of Hardy County were Virginians before 1862 and West Virginians after 1862, whether they liked it or not. And whether they owned slaves is still unknown, but is, unfortunately highly likely (2), Regardless it's certain the family didn't take to President Lincoln and the Union.
David "jined up" with the Confederate Army, becoming a cavalryrman in McNeill's Rangers in 1861. McNeill's Rangers, like Col. John Singleton Mosby's Rangers, were formed to conduct raids on Union supply trains and outposts. John Hanson ("Hanse") McNeill was well-known and well-respected in Hardy County. David's obituary tells us, "He was with the famous McNeill Rangers, whose swift dashes created terror along the Mason and Dixon line" (3). Hanse formed McNeill's Rangers in 1862, and the troop eventually numbered around 200. In 1863, David's father moved the rest of the family into a ca. 1820 Federal brick house on the top of a tall hill (4). The house of Flemish Bond brick was modest but the rooms commodious, and there was a large clapboard addition that held a kitchen with a wide stone fireplace.
Stand in that backyard, and you can see five counties and every mountain for miles around. David visited the "new" place whenever he had the chance. And that high hill, once used to watch for approaching Indians, became an excellent place to watch for approaching Union troops. But then we come to David's most famous wartime adventure, taken from the Hardy County Family History. David was a man of small stature, "an advantage many times in making his numerous escapes." He came home to the mountain on leave once, and word slipped out to the federal troops nearby. They surrounded the house on the sly, trapping 21-year old David inside. As they came in the house, David kept his cool. He "sat down in front of the fireplace, pulled an old cap down over his head, [and] picked up a little [india] rubber ball." He started bouncing it and just "kept bouncing it around while the soldiers searched for someone who 'looked' like an enemy soldier" (5).
And that's how David remained free to fight another day.
In the spring of 1864, an argument had erupted in Richmond over whether to allow these ranger troops, "Partisan Soldiers," to continue. A number of questionable acts had been committed (think Jesse James), and the Confederacy wanted to clean things up. But even legitimate raiders did unpleasant things to try to win an un-winnable war. David's son, L.L., once told his own son he'd traced his lineage back to a horse thief (the worst epithet one could give a man back then) and decided he didn't want to know more. Could be he was speaking of his father, as Confederates were known to steal horses (see 1864 Richmond argument). Col. John Singleton Mosby accepted the name, but blithely added, "all the horses I had stolen had riders, and the riders had sabers, carbines and pistols."(6)
Between November '63 and April '64, David Bean switched his enlistment to the 18th Virginia Cavalry: could be he didn't like McNeill's tactics or worried his troop would be dissolved (But in fact, by 1865 McNeill's and Mosby's Rangers were they only "irregular" troops still recognized by the Confederacy).
On the other hand, it might be David just wanted to be with family: there were thirteen Beans in the 18th Virginia, and only one other Bean in McNeill's Rangers. In any case, he made the switch but by September 30, 1864, he's listed as absent. Yet his obituary says he served four years in the Confederate Army and the Confederate Service Cross on his grave says 1861-1865," so perhaps he went home to help with the harvest, as was the habit of many a farmer/soldier.
Of course in April 1865, the war finally ended, and David went back to his father's farm to work.. He was still there in 1870, when the census listed George, 64, as "farmer," his wife, Margaret, 46, as "Keep house," 27 year-old David as "Farm Labor" along with younger brother, Malon, 20. Also at home on the mountain were Emily 16, Ann 15, and Simon 11 (talk about your mountain man: after Simon grew up and took over the George Bean property, that mountain came to be named after him).
Now, in the same area there lived an 18-year old named Jemima Susan Heltzel who came from an interesting family. Her grandfather, John Charles Heltzel (1792-1866), emigrated from Germany to settle with his wife (Magdalene Grandstoff) in Trout Run Valley, Virginia - which eventually became Hardy County, West Virginia. "He made his living by tinning and firing iron ore furnaces" (7). John Charles also "forged" a nice little family of 12 - five girls and seven boys, one of which was John C. Heltzel, Jr., Jemima's father. Little John, Jr. grew to a whopping six foot, six inches tall, earning the nickname "King Heltzel." He married Leah Myers and had five children, the oldest of which was Jemima. Jemima was 3 years old and David 19 when the Civil War began (8). Quite a stretch for a couple, until you note how many May-December marriages are listed in the census back then. David's own parents had a 15 or 16-year age difference.
The Heltzels were Lutheran, and David Ferguson Bean had "united with the Lutheran faith in early manhood" (9), so the families probably attended the same services. Later in life Jemima was credited with founding a Lutheran Church there (Missouri Synod), and David's obituary says "He was a consistent member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church." In 1873 he married Jemima, and "they lived at the old brick house near Beans Settlement once called 'Coburn's Knob' "(10). By 1874, David and Jemima had a daughter, Cora Dell. Then came Leona Frances in 1876, Lorenzo Lee in 1880, Seymour (1883), Calvin (1884), and Minnie (1900). Seymour and Calvin didn't make it past toddler-hood, so L.L. became their only son.
It was said when their son, L.L., was born, David looked around their log cabin for inspiration and found a history of the Medici family, and chose he the name Lorenzo Lee. But it turns out Lorenzo was an extremely popular name in Hardy County. A lot of Lorenzos are listed in the roster of McNeill's Rangers and the 18th Virginia. Could be David named his son after a fellow-veteran of "the late war." Could be "Lee" was added in honor of his favorite General. Or could be there was a very successful "Medici Family" book salesman thereabouts.
In any case, Lorenzo Lee was a beautiful little boy with blonde hair and clear, blue eyes. Lots of German there, and like his father, L.L. was raised to be a farmer. I once asked his great-grand daughter, Elizabeth (Libba) Bean Savels, what David raised on the farm,
"Chickens?" I asked.
"Apples!" she replied.
"Oh, he had an orchard. He sold apples?"
"Lord, no, child," she laughed. "Granddaddy sold Apple Jack!"
Farming life was hard (the hills are so steep there, the old joke goes, that cows' legs grow "longer on one side than t'other" so they could stand up straight!
Fact is, running a still and selling hooch wouldn't be an unusual choice - especially if you wanted to improve your prospects.
At an appropriate young age, L.L. began to attend school: a one-room, clapboard schoolhouse was all the way at the bottom of the mountain. It was quite a walk, and it was hard on young L.L.'s constitution. Over time, he became weaker than the other boys at school, and, as a matter of course, started getting beat up on a regular basis.
SEE THE FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM OF SIMON BEAN MOUNTAIN AND THE HELTZELS
At around age 12, Jemima Heltzel Bean decided if she kept sending L.L. down the mountain, the day might come he didn't make it back up. So she decided to keep him home to work on the farm for a year. She picked the right age to try to grow that Bean, because he had a "King Heltzel" sprout that year - all the way up to six feet tall, and now he towered over his father.
To give you some idea of the kind of work he might have done that year, Elizabeth Heltzel Walters (a descendent of King Heltzel), recorded her years growing up on the farm in the 1920s: "By today's standards, people would think we were deprived when I was growing up. We lived on the farm in the same area as "King Heltzel" once lived. We had water in the house, we were one of the few that had a car, but best of all we had an ice house. We had a large building with sawdust between the walls for insulation. My father and Uncle Willie would go to the river and saw ice, about 18-20 inches thick, and haul it back, cover it with layers of sawdust, and as we needed it in the summer we would keep ice water in the house. Drippings came down in a milk trough and kept milk, cream and butter cold. But best of all we had a big freezer full of ice cream every weekend." Yep. Hauling ice and a few other like chores would do it.
L.L. grew strong as an ox.
And when his mother let him go back to school that fall, he systematically beat up every-son-of-a-farmer who'd ever laid a hand on him. Perhaps it was then the boy realized he wasn't going to stick around Hardy County. After all, the same boys he'd been fighting would have been fellow-farmers - the ones who were supposed to come over and rebuild your barn after a disaster. Not likely.
Add this to the fact that his father sold Apple Jack, and his mother was a straight up Lutheran who helped found one of the churches in the valley, and you can understand why L.L. might have decided to leave the hills. Less confusion all around.
But L.L. did have some friends at school. This we know because great-grand daughter, Virginia Bean Hylton, said the lack of masculine conversation at home caused L.L. to develop an interesting habit: he took his lunch to school but ate it only on the way back up the mountain at the end of the school day. That way he could spend the entire lunch break talking to his friends. And he had some unusual friends.
At some point, Hardy County saw railroad tracks laid through the mountains above Moorefield, West Virginia. One of L.L.'s buddies was a man of few words, but his pronouncements -when they finally rose to the surface - were thoughtful and profound. So when the railroad tracks were done, and the train was about to make its first run, L.L. walked his friend up the mountain and stood with him near a train tunnel - just waiting to hear his first opinion. The train came roaring through the tunnel and whipped past them. His friend remained silent. L.L. finally had to prod him, "So, what'd you think?" His friend began to shake his head slowly. "That thing shore' would 'a made a mess if it'd come through sideways."
When it came time for L.L. to move forward with his life, he settled on the idea of attending a Moorefield, West Virginia Business School. But first he'd have to raise the money.
Stereoscopes were all the rage at the turn of the century: hand-held picture viewers that interpreted side-by-side photos intp three dimensions when you looked through the binocular-like device.
So when he wasn't farming for the family, L.L. walked up and down the steep hills of Hardy County selling stereoscopes. But he found that sales were slow.
Then one day he came upon a farmer who'd broken his leg. The farmer looked L.L. over and said, "I don't need one of those, son; what I need is someone to bring in my hay!"
"Sorry I can't help you, sir. I'm just looking to make the money to attend business school."
"How much you need?"
When L.L told him, the farmer said, "I'll give you that if you'll bring in my hay."
So L.L. stopped selling stereoscopes, brought in the man's hay and headed off to a business school . In the West Virginia school, he learned bookkeeping and used it to pay his way until his graduation. At that time, he was the youngest student ever to graduate. Eventually he also gained a degree from Eastern College in Front Royal, Virginia.
And, it may seem odd to us, but all his studies led him to become the Principal of a large school. And, from my perspective, it was a very good thing.
Among the staff was a young lady who was in her second year of teaching the second grade. Her name was Adelaide, five years L.L.'s junior. Adelaide Wingfield Dortch was a proper young lady who'd been born at "Oak shades" (the family home place) in Meredithville, Brunswick County, Virginia. The town was named after Adelaide's relations, in fact. She was raised in Lawrenceville, Virginia and graduated from Blackstone Women's Seminary in Blackstone, Virginia.
In those days, a starting teacher taught the younger classes, and was promoted up the grades upon merit. Well, L.L. soon fell in love with her and asked her to marry him.
But a teacher had to quit teaching in order to marry in those days, and that Adelaide would not do. She loved her job. So she said no.
At the end of the school year, Adelaide came to L.L. with the list of students that would be graduated to third grade. L.L. looked the names over and found one of particular interest: a boy who was an absolute terror. Adelaide had already taught the little hellion two years in a row, and now, although she knew she shouldn't, Adelaide was ready to send him up the ladder.
L.L. smiled and placed the list before him on the desk.
"I see you've decided to graduate Thomas to the third grade."
"Yes, Mr. Bean." she said in her sweet southern drawl (in Meredithville, "yes" is as a two-syllable word, yay-as).
"Well, Miss Dortch, you've done an excellent job with our second grade."
"Why, thank you."
"... And that is why I'm pleased to tell you that I plan to recommend your promotion to the Third Grade teaching slot at the very next school board meeting."
There was a long pause as they looked each other in the eye.
"Mr. Bean, I accept your proposal of marriage."
And that's how a Mountain Man gets himself a fine wife.
There is more to tell, of course, but I'll save it for the next chapter: when the family grew to include my father, L.Lee Bean.
1) "The name 'Bean' is found at Norwich, England 1622. James Bean settled in Virginia: now Hardy County The name occurs several times in Dandridge's American Pioneers of the Revolution... The Scotch emigrants settled at St. Marys County, Maryland. Before 1794 they moved to the virgin forest of what is now Hardy County near North River... The George Bean old brick home site is on top of Simon Bean Mountain and gives a wide view of the area. Very typical of the Scottish Hilander Laddies. They moved into this house in 1863." Hardy County Family History to 1990, p. 73 under "George Bean." (ref. book from Hardy County Public Library).
Extrapolated from "Lorenzo Lee Bean FAMILY DATA, from his record in his own Bible": Robert Bean and his brother emigrated from Wales to Maryland on a boat with Lord Calvert's younger brother. Robert had many children. His son, James, went west for more land. He settled west of Moorefield and founded Bean Settlement. He had many children including son George, father of David Ferguson Bean (In the possession of the Hylton/Bean Family).
2) We do know that in 1870, George and Margaret Bean had a 17-year old black farm laborer by the name of George Willis (1870 Census of Hardy County, Capon Township, http://hardycounty.martin.lib.wv.us/ ). It's likely they relied on slave labor before the Civil War.
3) Obituary of David F. Bean,"Moorefield Examiner," Thurs., 1/29/20 and Hardy County Family History to 1990, (ref. Hardy County Public Library), p. 73 under "George Bean."
4) The hill came to be known as Simon Bean Mountain. The George Bean federal brick home (known as the Simon Bean Farm) stands there still - although the clapboard kitchen has fallen in as of 1998. It's located 9 1/2 miles from Crider Store east of Moorefield, 11 1/2 miles off Route 55. The property was owned by the Orndorffs as of 1998 (information from The Clan M.A. Bean in N. America, pg. 182, Hardy County Library, Moorefield, WV).
6) The Memoires of Col. John S. Mosby, Charles W. Russell, Olde Soldiers Books, Inc. (1987)
7) Hardy County Family History to 1990, (ref. Hardy County Public Library) under "Heltzel Family Name." This could well be the home on the high hill purchased by David Ferguson Bean in 1863.
8) 1860 Census of Hardy County, (West) Virginia - Hardy County Public Library:
447-453: George Bean 55 Farmer, Margaret 39, Mary E 20, David F 16, Lucretia 14, Hannah F 13, Mahlon 11, Emily J 7, Minerva A 4, Simon S 2 and 1/2
395-401: John C. Heltzel, Jr. 44 Farmer, Leah 31, Jemima S 8, Mary M 6, Paul 2
9) Obituary of David F. Bean,"Moorefield Examiner," Thurs., 1/29/20, Hardy County Public Library.
10) Hardy County Family History to 1990, (ref. Hardy County Public Library) under "Heltzel Family Name." This could well be the home on the high hill purchased by David Ferguson Bean in 1863.
11) L.L.'s work experience was taken from a typed summary of the information: "Lorenzo Lee Bean FAMILY DATA, from his record in his own Bible." Whereabouts of the Bible are unknown, but a typed summary is held by Meredith Bean McMath.
Author's note: the majority of stories from L.L. and Lee Bean's youth were provided by Lorenzo Lee Bean, Jr. himself to the author, Meredith Bean McMath, on occasions too numerous to count. They were re-verified by Lee's wife (the author's mother), Maxine Hay Bean.
"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — who do not value your potential and your input, just because of your age. I am not one of those people." If you’re a young actor who’s been in one of our theatre productions, you've probably heard me say this at our very first rehearsal. From the first day, I tend to speak to young actors as though they’re professionals, with opinions and ideas that matter. And, if all goes well, by the end of rehearsals, the actors will own the show as much as I do, because that's when the magic happens.
I’ve seen the other approaches. Heck, I’ve TRIED the other approaches - the ones where the director has the young actors do exactly what he or she says. And if that director is brilliant and creative, the show will shine, and the cast will feel great about being a part of a great production.
But I want them to do more than mimic my intent, because I want them to take it further than they thought they could. So I'll start them off with a concept for the character, and ask them to develop their character/s from the text and the show’s concept and make those characters their own. From the star of the show to a member of the chorus - every one of them should present fully-developed characters, with their own way of walking and talking and their own traits and intentions.
BUILDING THAT PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME
While directing, I provide all the tools professionals use, i.e. Method acting, emotional recall, etc. Then, as rehearsals progress, I solicit their input and ideas. If the idea serves the character and story, develops the relationships within the play or furthers a plot, then I’m going to want to try to work it in. When you let young actors approach a play in this way, actors start finding relationships and scenario possibilities that I, as director, might have missed.
And if they’ve come up with an idea that just won’t work, I'll say so, but I’ll say WHY… And I still want them to know the suggestion was respected and appreciated. When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my story choices to an editor. And if I couldn’t explain why something was there, I knew I had to let it go -- this is what the publishing world calls, “being willing to kill your babies.” So what if I spent five hours crafting that paragraph? If it doesn’t develop a character or relationship, further the plot, or provide a set up for a later payoff, I should let it die. Same rules apply on the stage. Clearly this requires your director to know the play inside and out. But if a director doesn’t prepare and has a tiny ego, they’ll be the first to snap at an actor with a good suggestion. Yes, I've also seen that plenty of times. I have to be confident of my choices as a director but I also know I may not always have the best idea in the room. Yes, I have a creative brain. But why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of a much larger creative brain? A group of brilliant young people working together? And the big payoff of this "Corporal Brain" process is actor and cast ownership. But wait... there's more
WHO'S IDEA IS IT, ANYWAY?
Another lovely byproduct is that talking through an actor’s idea leads to further understanding for everyone, i.e., my telling an actor, "Yes, that’s a great concept. I can see it builds on the prior jokes. Only problem is, if we do that one more time it'll be the fourth time we've played on the same sort of joke, and now you’ve crossed the 'Comedy Rule of Three.' You won't get the laugh you're hoping for.”
Now if it’s a truly great idea, then maybe as a director it’s at this moment I put my ego in check and realize this hilarious idea SHOULD be used and it should replace the absolutely hilarious thing I came up with for the second scene (See above). And if I’m really, really tired after a long rehearsal, I’ll sometimes ask the cast for suggestions on how best to work in this idea.
But when I'm right - and I'm usually right on this Rule of Three - and I have an obstinate soul who is so certain they'll get a laugh that they "take my advice" and then do as they wish on the stage? Well, they discover the rule in practice. The audience is dead. And a little bit of the whole show dies. And as Director, I die a little too, because I blame myself for not getting through to the actor. Sigh.
THE METHOD IN THE MADNESS
But, before you think my rehearsals devolve into a free-for-all of emotional "sharing time,” I should point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule, and actors know to share their ideas only after we run a scene or an act.
Another important rule of thumb: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Every actor should be focused on their own characters and the actions, feelings, background, etc., for their character. Focus on their own characters may lead an actor to suggest a new concept for a scene with another actor, but they should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way.” That would be called directing. So I encourage actors to tell me if they want to try something new with their scene, and we might give it ago. And sometimes I insist they tell me, because for a play to work, everyone has to be on board. Every. One. Why? Because the audience does not remain focused on the lead characters. If they're having a very good time, as they should, they trust that wherever their eyes roam, they will find delight... as they should! And thus every actor should be in the scene and in their own character 120%. That's when I scene is polished to perfection. That's when the ovations happen... and great reviews.
SO... "DO WHAT I TELL YOU" or "DO WHAT YOUR CHARACTER TELLS YOU"?
In the end, the "Do what I tell you" approach to directing gives young actors a sense of accomplishment in learning and doing exactly as the director tells them. But that asks them only to make the required effort and nothing more. They don't need to challenge themselves to think about their choices or the process, or engage their creativity. And they know the same director can do the exact same show with another group of actors the next year.
But my goal is have actors walk away knowing they own that show - they put themselves into that show - and the parts of a scene changed because their character saw something new in it. Their character became more interesting, because they found something no one else had found before. And, in the end, there will NEVER be another show like this one, because they came up with that concept, they made those choices, they earned that characterization, they came up with that idea, and those scenes belong to them. In fact, they own that play.
The tip-off came when the mother of a friend overheard me telling my friends what to do - and angrily complained to my mother I was being too bossy.
The woman just didn't understand. It was my JOB to create stories for all our Barbie dolls, and this was at my friends' requests. And, quite frankly, I was in demand. I'd create sets and plot lines, and we'd act out scenes for eight hours at a time. Dead serious about character development, too -- which isn't easy when your actors are plastic-injected. And I took it as a personal challenge to get my friends to like the Meg doll as much as they liked their Barbies. My solution? Create a great story line just for Meg. And did we need another guy doll? No problem. I grabbed my brother's G.I. Joe. Sure, Joe was shorter than Barbie, but he had way better pecs than Ken.
Also had another skill that made me the hit of the neighborhood: I was the only one who could do guy voices for the male dolls. Quite a skill for a five year old.
Fast forward to my excruciatingly boring years at an all-girl Catholic elementary school. There my best friend and I created what we called, "The Story”, used mostly as a device to daydream about boys. She and I would trade off telling "The Story” - an uncomplicated tale of two fabulously well-dressed, jet-setting female spies who traveled the world on the arms of their James Bondian boyfriends. One day I stopped the story line to pass it off to her to continue – just as we always had, and instead, she said, "No, Meredith. You keep telling it. You're the real story teller."
That was an important day.
My big break came when the school offered our 4th grade class a chance to produce its own talent show. I immediately sat down and wrote a play, then cast my fellow classmates, directed my friends through rehearsals, and brought it to the stage. It was a disaster…. And it was all my fault. Classic rookie error: I’d cast myself in the lead. Figuring I’d written the lines, I was certain I’d remember them. Yeah. No.
From that I learned I had a lot to learn. Also learned I really, really liked directing humans. They had their own voices, could make their own character choices, and those bendable arms and legs were a definite plus.
As I grew older, I developed another passion: history, Figuring I’d have at a chance at a normal income, I chose a History major at college, and, after graduation began to work at a small museum that was once a tavern. When the staff was asked to create public programming, I naturally wrote a play about tavern life and asked my college friends to join me. Best casting decision I ever made was asking a tall redhead named Chuck McMath to play the Stage Coach Driver. He said yes. And a year later, I said yes.
When Chuck and I moved to Loudoun County, I began creating living history programs for area museums, schools and libraries. Through our son’s preschool class, I met Laurie Farnsworth - the most amazing seamstress I've ever had the pleasure to know. Laurie and her friend, Dolly Stevens, had just formed a theatre company: The Growing Stage. Would I like to help with costuming? Indeed I would.
While working with The Growing Stage, I spent a lot of time observing Dolly's brilliant directing techniques. Then Dolly hired Tom Sweitzer out of Shenandoah to direct one of her shows, and I watched Tom's brilliant directing process. Then Tim Jon — a Loudoun Co. Radio DJ who'd spent eighteen years of his life as a professional actor — started doing theatre in the area, and I watched his brilliant process. I appreciated every minute of these unofficial internships. Each director was unique, but each one was generous with their time and talents, and each changed the lives of everyone with whom they worked.
In the meantime, I kept writing plays. There was one play I was particularly happy with: it was based on true stories from the pages of Loudoun County Civil War history. Had no idea what would happen to it, but I knew it was time to try it on the stage… as long as I stayed out of the cast.
And then Dolly Stevens took a chance on me and decided to direct my Civil War play, All for the Union (then known as The Waterford Girls). Dolly had been the first Musical Theatre graduate from Shenandoah University, and she was the teacher of my first real acting class. From Dolly I learned things about commanding space on the stage, effective blocking, and an entire goodie bag worth of acting techniques. One day during rehearsals for my play, Dolly watched a young actress who kept crying during an emotional monologue. She stopped her and said, "Listen. If you cry, the audience doesn't have to… and they won't. But if you almost cry, the audience will cry for you, and then you have them." Dolly was dead right, and I've used that technique ever since.
Then there's Tom Sweitzer - another theatre force. From watching Tom, I learned other important things, like how to layer and build rehearsals — how to take into account where each actor is in the development of their character and give them one step at a time to work on (instead of asking for everything at once). Tom had been working on a musical based on his childhood in Altoona, PA. I was thrilled when he asked me write the book using his concept and outline. When we began rehearsal for Porches, I remember speaking to him about a particular actor, asking him why he wasn't pushing this person more. Tom said, "He's not ready. I'll bring that to him when he's ready." And he was spot on. That blew me away.
And from Tim Jon I learned how to approach Shakespearean text. I have a thing for the Bard — been in love with his work since 5th grade, when my best friends and I acted out the scene with Juliet, Lady Capulet and Nurse. I was Nurse. Our teacher, Mrs. Romito, taught us how to interpret the text, and endeared her to us forever by explaining all the dirty jokes (Years later I learned Mrs. Romito had been a professional actor. Did not surprise me at all, and I am so thankful she took the time to share her talents with us). Fast forward: Through Tim Jon’s company, Not Just Shakespeare, we learned the professional actor's approach to Shakespearean text... and several more of the Bard's dirty jokes.
From Tim I also learned actors' preparation and the efficacy of improvisation. Tim has a deep respect for an actor's process, and he excels in teaching actors how to build three-dimensional characters. Tim's use of improv encouraged me to experiment over the years, and that's been a gift. Around this time, I was taking Master Improv Classes with Tom Sweitzer, so, together, these two have had a huge influence on how I use improv while directing.
For instance, when actors over-focus on remembering their lines or stage movement, improv is a great way to shake them loose. When I was directing my play, Arms and the Highlander*, we were working through the first scene - where a young woman was beginning to fall in love with a British soldier. Colonial soldiers were looking for him, and when they came knocking at the door, the British soldier pulls out a knife, preparing to defend himself. Instead, the young woman pushes him behind a door and lets in the searching soldiers. It was crucial the actress caught the gist of the moment, because the audience wouldn’t be able to see the British soldier's tension — they could only see the young woman's face.
But there was no tension in the room at all.
So I stopped rehearsal and asked the British soldier to act out what would happen if those Minuteman found him hiding behind the door. Okay. Granted there was no real knife, but they got into a serious brawl that ended as Minuteman disconnected the British soldier's thoughts from his actions.
The actress got it, and played the tension from there on - and she was brilliant, and the scene began to glow. Improv once more saved the day.
Another huge influence has been the actors themselves. When you have a talented actor, there are times you just stand back in awe... and learn as much as you can from them. Without question, the actor who's influenced me most was my own mother... that beautiful woman who happily defended me from my friend's mother when I was five years old. Maxine Bean was an amazing actor - a child radio star in St. Louis, Missouri, and the star of many college productions at Grinnell. After my father passed, she came to live with us in Loudoun and worked with me in area theatre: favorite roles include the "School Marm" in Dolly and Tom's, The Musical Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the starring role as "Miss Violet" in Tom's and my Porches. She was incredibly generous on stage - this is a little hard to describe, but every actor who worked with her knows exactly what I mean. But she was deeply serious about the craft, and so there were limits to her generosity. In one production, an actor suddenly stole a line from her - and took the huge laugh my mother's character was meant to receive. Maxine didn't lose a beat on stage, but when she got backstage with that actress, she looked her straight in the eye and growled, "Never do that again"... and she never did.
For me, directing has always been a heady mix of my passion for storytelling, and the constant pursuit of learning - earning how to be a better writer, a more helpful director, and a more creative producer. I’ve appreciated every director with whom I’ve worked, every class taken, every rehearsal attended, and every actor and crew member’s efforts. And I remain particularly grateful to all those friends from my old neighborhood who wanted me to boss them around. This one's for you.
* My adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man.
A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him. – Edna St. Vincent Millay
So why in the world do authors do it? Why, after her one-hundred and first rejection letter, did Madeleine L’Engle take A Wrinkle in Time to the hundred and second publishing house? Are writers simply arrogant? Patently optimistic? Grotesquely naive? Yes, yes, and yes. But the full truth is this: we write because we must.
We write, though the words go slipping through our fingers like wet soap; though the feelings of a girl living in 1863 are interrupted by a phone call; though the agent doesn’t want us; though the publisher let us go out of print; we write because we must. And when we visit bookstores and stare at the rows of name-brand writers whose publishing houses buy them shelf space and oodles of marketing, we weep at our pitiful condition.
But the act of writing always brings us back from the edge of the abyss.
Something begins as a single thought and eventually rises up to stare back at us fully formed — walking, talking, thinking, feeling — in a world created out of nothing. When we write, we’re a perfectly balanced ball spinning on the tip of God’s finger. Perpetual Motion. Time machine. Pleasure beyond description.
Arrogant? You bet. The sort of rollicking arrogance that comes from knowing the pen is mightier than the sword. Optimistic? Always. We are addicted to hope. Naive? Oh, yes. Entirely. The rejection letter is always a complete surprise.
Will we start again writing despite it? Of course we will.
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 was reading “Seven Life Changing Lessons You Can Learn from Mark Twain” and thought, Hey, this IS my life, for pity’s sake.
My weird little theatre life.
Depending on your point of view, I live somewhere between free and paying theatre, a community theatre with cash or a poor man’s professional theatre. And Mark’s words turned out to be hilariously apt to this particularly form of organized chaos.
I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened. - MT
Thank you, Mark. For the pleasure of inhabiting another perspective for a time, actors will risk self-respect and criticism, face sleep deprivation and midnight terrors… just to enjoy living through some terrible things. And the things that actually happen? They feed into the actor’s art and enhance the richness of every character portrayed.
Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing; it was here first. - MT
Ah. The actor who walks into auditions wanting a particular role… then argues with the director about their casting choices. Yes. That’s going to go over well; do try that. And then try auditioning again… somewhere else. Of course, he could also be describing life as a director. And, yes, I tell myself to get over it a lot, actually. And I better had, because…
When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet in his private heart no man much respects himself. - MT
I hate a bad review, but if I don’t leave room for improvement, what do I think I am, perfect? A ridiculous notion. Every really good actor I know doubts themselves, because they’re always reaching for perfection. Conversely when an actor has said (however shyly) they believe they’re good, nothing good has ever come of it.
Mr. Twain even has great advice for the actor and director’s technical processes:
The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. - MT
Spot on, sir. Spot on.
And when chaos descends — as it will, without fail, one to ten days before opening night - remember these words:
When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear. - MT
Twain may not have been thinking about the theatre when writing any of these, but his words sure do come in handy to a thespian; yes they do.
Should I turn my old books and manuscripts into Kindle-ing?
Years and years ago, when I first became a published author, I was content to believe all I would ever do is write book after book, and attend signings, speaking engagements and Book Clubs. A good life. A very good life. But then two things happened that changed everything:
1. A story came to me that begged to be turned into a play. It’s impossible to explain, other than to say that, instead of the characters wanting to be housed in a bookly habitat, they told me they would much prefer being brought to life. So I wrote a play for the first time in many years and a local company decided to produce it.
And I added “play writing” to my daily list.
2. My publisher disappeared. Specifically, the Editor who loved, loved, loved my work and promised to publish everything I sent her changed jobs two months after my books came out. And the new Editor was taking the company in a new direction and neatly rejected my next novel in the series. Well, more accurately he rejected the box it came in, because the envelope was never even opened. I knew I should get my manuscripts out there to another publisher, but there was something about theatre. Bringing those characters to life was amazing. And I loved what actors brought to the table – an ever-changing dynamic. So I decided to take a break from the publishing world.
And I moved “play writing” to the top of my daily list.
Years later, I manage my own production company, Run Rabbit Run. I work with fabulous people, do speaking and teaching engagements once in a while, and submit plays for production or go ahead and produce them myself. This is working well for me, but every once in a while I think about the characters in my unpublished books. If you’re a writer, you understand. They want to be heard, and sometimes they’ll whisper to you: “HEY, why don’t you trying getting PUBLISHED, again, JERK!” Or something like that… I try not to listen.
Then along came eBooks.
In the last year a sea change in publishing has occurred. Amazon appears to be calling most of the shots, and their Kindle platform is definitely calling 75% of the eBook shots. But still there’s that icky “self-publishing” thing, right? Well, apparently in the last year that’s changed too. In fact, the publishing process is being reversed as we speak: eBooks that sell well are being picked up for “real” publishing by the majors.
Hmm… Suddenly I’m looking like a pretty good bet here, because I…
– design websites and love to learn new internet tricks. I am, in fact, a Net Geek;
– love creating video promos, graphics and taking great photos;
– dig every aspect of marketing (my focus during my Masters in Arts Management studies);
– have a group of previously published works with solid reviews;
– never stopped writing, and so have a stack of unpublished manuscripts to send out, as well. Oh, and plays! And nonfiction! And… heyyyyy, this could work!
But now for the reality check: the eBook formatting process isn’t easy (a lot of people opt to hire someone to do this for them, and, after mucking around, we’ve been tempted), but I thank heaven daily for my Software Engineering husband, and it’ll get easier after the first one. Next problem: It’s true 99% of eBooks just don’t sell, but there’s no harm in trying, and I do appear to have better odds than some. Besides in this day and age, $20 is $20, know what I’m sayin’?
Lastly and best-ly? I’m one of those people who have ever and always appreciated being my own boss, and eBooks are giving me the chance to manage my own publishing experience. How can I say no to that?
Thus, I have decided: I will Kindle. And we will see.
Meredith Bean McMath is the Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc. She has books and plays and degrees and stuff. Her life is good, and she is appreciative, but sometimes she wishes writers and directors were paid a little more.