You know this one? The dream where you’re being married to someone you don’t like – by your history professor – while standing in your pajamas? Yeah. That one. Nightmares involving public humiliation are the worst: Didn’t study for the test? Don’t know where you are? Forgot to put on clothes!?!
This is why actors amaze me. For the joy of bringing a play to life and a chance to bring an audience to their feet, they are willing to face the possibility of public humiliation. Forgot a line? Missed your cue? Your skirt fell down!?! Yep.
Actors are the bravest of the brave. When the army is forming a front line to charge the enemy on the battlefield, bring up the actors. Tell them just beyond that row of critics holding semi-automatics there’s an audience waiting, and off they’ll go. And in community theatre, they don’t even get paid to run that gauntlet.
Many, many years ago, I became a volunteer in the acting army when I joined the cast of a Growing Stage production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
I hadn’t been in a stage play since college, where I was cast as Angel No. 2 in Medieval Plays for Christmas. I had one line. What I learned from that experience is that when the moment arrives to speak that one line, and you’ve practiced that one line four thousand times, it is virtually impossible to make that line sound normal. After college, I did live radio theatre - the Laz-E Boy Recliner of theatrical effort: no memorization, very little rehearsal, and no costumes, sets or lighting. You can wear your polka-dot pajamas, if you like - a definite plus. But there's no audience — a large drawback.
And so, I dared "tread the boards" again in a Shakespeare production. I was hoping for at least two lines in Taming of the Shrew but was scared to have too many. Highly respectful of my wishes, Tim Jon, the Director, gave me very few lines — and four different roles.
We began rehearsals with a cast from every conceivable walk of life - all with one very important thing in common: no free time.
Planning a rehearsal schedule in which everyone is there for certain scenes takes the skill of an airline pilot (But I swear it was pure coincidence our co-Producer and fellow actor, Stokes Tomlin, was a retired pilot). Tough as that scheduling turned out to be, the real fly in our ointment was a missing actor: we had no Hortensio, because the original cast member bowed out due to illness.
If you’re not familiar with Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio is the one who winds up marrying The Widow (Did I mention one of my roles was as The Widow?). Oh, fine, there’s a little more to Hortensio than just the marriage. In fact, he plays a huge, very integral part of the play — and it was six weeks from Opening Night.
All of us called every actor we knew that fit the director’s description, which by that time had narrowed to “Breathing — possibly male”. I had no luck at all: one guy was gone in August; another had a lead in a different Shakespeare play; another was called out west to fight forest fires for the National Park Service (the nerve...).
Days ticked by. The Widow began having nightmares about history professors and polka-dot pajamas.Practices were unsettling: half the time I was reading for Hortensio, and you can sprain a muscle doing that.
Then it was four weeks before opening night, and I came to rehearsal depressed. But acting is an amazing thing: once practice begins, you somehow come to believe that everything will turn out right. I easily lost myself in the beauty and the humor of Shakespeare, the blocking of the movement in scenes, the characterizations, the thrill that is live theatre. Not to mention getting to work with the best of people.
I’ll bet most folks think of acting as speaking lines, but acting is mostly listening: it's reacting to each other’s lines, working together when someone drops a line to bring a scene back on track, helping everyone stay in character when the set falls down. You hang together or die alone. As a result, you make friends for life with some of the most caring, intelligent, creative and generous people you’ll ever meet. And when you get together, you share war stories like old veterans.
However, in order to bond properly, you also need a full cast — which brings us back to our missing Hortensio.
There we were on a lovely August night, practicing our lines in the courtyard of Leesburg’s Market Station (A very cozy Globe Theatre-like space, as it happens). Lots of diners had been watching us rehearse from the window of Tuscarora Mill Restaurant above, and we were ignoring them - show business as usual - when we heard a voice call down to us in a friendly tone, “So, what are you doing?”
“Shakespeare!” we called up in unison (without prompting, mind you), and we looked up to find a very tall, mustachioed fellow in a three-piece looking down at us from the stairwell balcony.
“Which play?” he asked.
“Taming of the Shrew,” our Director, replied.
The fellow nodded, stepped up to the railing and began quoting from the play. Our play. This play.
We were dumbstruck. But when he kept right on quoting, we began nodding and smiling among ourselves, and our Director - who looked as though he’d eaten the proverbial canary cage and all - said, “Well, there’s our Hortensio.”
When the fellow was done, we applauded loudly and asked for more. He laughed. “Funny. That’s not the response I usually get!” Then he said something about loving Shakespeare and launched right into Hamlet’s soliloquy.
When he was done, Tim offered him Hortensio on the spot. And he was wonderful enough to take it.
Four weeks later we opened the show, and I’m pleased to say we sold out every night, few lines were muffed, no sets fell - nor any rain, nor any costumes - and Shawn Malone, (now the former co-manager of The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant), had a blast playing Hortensio.
And, of course, the cast bonded, just as it should.
And this is why, if Shakespeare was correct and all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players, I am certain theatre is the best of all possible worlds.
Give it a try sometime. And be sure to look for me... I’m the Director in the polka-dot pajamas.
Article first appeared in McMath’s "Good Neighbor Column" in the former Loudoun ART Magazine, published by Gale Waldron. Although she is no longer with us, her work and inspiration live on, and this is updated and posted in Gale Waldron's honor.
First published in The Piedmont Virginian, 2008 as
“Out of the Ordinary: Life in Hillsboro, Virginia”
In late summer of 1862, a fellow named Tom Syphert made his way into Hillsboro, Virginia with two things in mind: round up some horses for the Union Army and visit with old friends. The son of a Lovettsville blacksmith, Tom knew the area and the people well – or so he thought...
Before the Civil War, Hillsborough (as it was spelled then) was the second largest city in Loudoun County behind Leesburg and contained some twenty businesses, around 100 voting white males, their families, and a large population of slaves and freedman who, for the most part, lived along the Short Hills Mountain. Before the Civil War, the town was bustling with two flour mills, a textile mill and a dozen other businesses that kept Loudoun wagons rolling with fashioned clothes and furniture, cobbled shoes for humans and horses, and provided three different spots for gentleman to “belly up to the bar.” And over and next to these shops were the homes of the shop owners and behind them, the outbuildings: barns, chicken coops, pigpens, smoke houses, springhouses, and icehouses. Imagine the soot and smell from these concerns and then add one more distinct odor: the tannery smack in the middle of town. The smells could not have been pleasant to the students of the Hillsboro Ladies Seminary a mere four doors down.
This bustling, noisy village would be the Hillsborough Tom Syphert knew as a child - but not the one he found in 1862. By then, both armies had passed through several times and most of the businesses were shut fast due to the inability to re-stock shelves. Yet most of the people remained, and Union uniform or no, they didn’t mind bending Tom’s ear with the latest on all the neighbors.
After being there, Tom updated his brother in a letter: “Amy Ann – formerly Spates – now Fritts, is living in Hillsborough and is rampant Union, while Eliza Hammerly lives right across the street from her and is as rabid secesh [secessionist]. Dick Tavenner still lives in Hillsborough and is Union, while his wife and two girls are violent secesh. Amy Ann has two sons in the rebel Army, while a third who went to Illinois… was in the 68th Illinois and was here in the Army of the Potomac… and was often in skirmishes with [Colonel Elijah] White’s Rebel Cavalry, to which his two older brothers belong. The two older ones, however, were forced into the ranks. But this will give you some idea of how the demon of rebellion has sundered old friends and severed families.”
The next day, Tom rose up early and walked on to Snickersville, “for there are no horses in the country – the war has swept them all.” Oddly enough, his overnight accommodations were provided by the “rabidly secesh” Eliza Hammerly, who thoughtfully packed him a lunch but failed to mention where Tom might find horses: Hillsborough’s remaining steeds were safely tucked in “Jockey’s Cave” west of town in the Short Hills Mountain.
I like to imagine that during Tom’s stay at the Hammerlys, he took a moment to step next door for a drink at Birkett’s Tavern. John Birkett passed away before the war began, but his sons-in-law were still managing the business. Tom might have walked through the front door into the taproom, the air thick with the smell of smoke and liquor and the faint smell of hay from the mix of straw and sawdust lying on the floor to catch whatever fell there, be it liquor, spit, blood. He might have glanced around the room to see if any there would acknowledge his presence without sneering. If he saw no friendly faces, he might have stepped through to the back dining area, remembering the beer and fresh oysters served there (Oysters and beer used to come to Hillsborough fresh from Washington, D.C. via C&O Canal deliveries to Harpers Ferry - hmm, probably ceased by then, come to think of it).
But if the day wasn’t too warm, he might have preferred to step on to the Tavern’s wide side porch – the one standing at the crossroads of Main Street and the old road to Purcellville. Sitting down, he might have viewed the stone house across the way with its chimney marking: “I.H. 1827” and admired the stonework, not knowing the house was serving as a Confederate Post Office. If his eyes then strayed to the backyard, he would have seen some empty animal pens. Before the war, men known as “Drovers” would make the two day walk from Loudoun to the markets at Alexandria, but during the Civil War, Drovers couldn’t cross the line of Union pickets – if they still had animals to take to market. So, at that point, Tom might have realized he was going to get a good night’s sleep – no sheep bleating in the night, no turkeys gobbling from the tavern’s roosting tree. When Tom was ready to order whatever the Tavern had on hand, he might have been served by one of Birkett’s slaves. According to the 1850 census, Birkett owned eight slaves, a 32-year old woman, an 18 year old man, and seven younger children. While their names are not provided, I do not doubt where they lived: three small rooms on the second floor were separated from the rest of the house, accessible only by an outdoor stairwell.
It is likely the woman was the Tavern Cook, and she would have been working in the stone kitchen at the back of the tavern, separated from the house by a “dog trot” walkway. A five-foot high, four-foot wide fireplace with a swing arm was the heart of that kitchen, and the fire there generally never went out. The roof was covered with slate tile, so that if the kitchen burned, the tavern would still have a fighting chance.
Tavern fires were so legendarily frequent that at nearby Harpers Ferry the government bought a portion of White’s Tavern and forced the owner to re-locate the tavern to the back of the building - and as far away as possible from the Armory and its touchy contents. The danger wasn’t just tavern candles burning day and night, nor the straw and straw dust underfoot, nor the drunkards warming themselves by the fire: it was the barrels of alcohol. When the server went for a new barrel at Birkett’s Tavern, he walked out of the dining room, down the back stairs and right under that dining room. There he could stand up straight and choose a new barrel to send upstairs. So, think of a tavern (or “Ordinary” as they were known up north) as a collection of various forms of fire overtop a number of barrels of liquid fuel, separated only by straw, sawdust and a few creaky floorboards.
I'd think about that whenever I changed the fire alarm batteries in the home. I'd think about other things as I walked through the living room, built on the foundations of that old tavern porch. And I'd think a whole different set of thoughts when I grabbed the railing of the 1870 stairwell, built after slavery was abolished and the slave quarters were opened to the rest of the house. I'd think about all these things, because my family and I lived in Birkett’s Tavern... for 30 years.
My husband and I bought the ca. 1819 building back in 1987, determined to restore at least one old home in our lifetime. Turns out that one was quite enough. When we moved there, Hillsboro had transitioned from that long ago mill town to a quiet village of 33 homes and 122 residents, give or take a baby or two. The devastating economic effects of the Civil War and the Great Depression were hard on the residents of Loudoun County, but the homes were basically intact and ready for restoration.
By the time we bought Birkett’s Tavern, it had changed hands seven times. The previous owners were the first to turn the building into a true single family home, but there was plenty left for us to do: electric switches hanging from the living room ceiling, live electrical sockets jammed into cutouts along the baseboards, and our telephone wires coming in over the windowsill (we had a choice in the winter: close the window for warmth or enjoy telephone service). But they’d done some fabulous things, too: like establish baseboard heat and raise the kitchen up from dirt floor level to meet the rest of the house.
We set our own priorities and went right to work removing the rotting Victorian porch from the front of the home. And that’s when it began to happen: neighbor after neighbor came and introduced themselves. They told us all about our house, their own homes, the neighborhood, the history, and then invite us to supper or the next community association meeting. When the old porch finally came down, we received a bottle of champagne from the lady across the street: “With thanks for improving my view.” After another grueling day of clearing away debris, a couple invited us over for cocktails. We were too tired to even think of showering and dressing and began to decline their kind invitation. They smiled and laughed. “Come as you are! We insist!” My husband and I looked at each other and thought to ourselves, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more.
Two years later, our son was born, and then, when my father passed away, we invited my mother to come and live with us. For the next sixteen years we busied ourselves with family, work and restoration. And suddenly 30 years were gone. Our son moved away, my mother had passed, and it was time to move to a smaller home… one that required a lot less loving attention.
But I think Tom Syphert would like what we did to the place. The floors are polished, the building has electricity, no need to chop wood to heat the place, the kitchen is actually inside the house, water comes right in and goes right out, and there’s a different sort of horsepower in the driveway. Oh, and I'll be the drinks are free, if you're nice to the new owners.
Tom would like the look of the whole town, too. Hillsboro survived the Union Burning Raid of 1864 (although it cleared out several backyards). The hills around town are being farmed once more - most often with rows of grape vines, and the neighbors care about their old homes and respect their integrity while they improve the amenities. Right now (2020), the town is in for a huge adjustment: telephone lines and cables to be set under the road, sidewalks improved and road circles placed on either end (instead of hideous stoplights). Can't wait to see the finished product!
It was a pleasure to be a part of Hillsboro for a while and rebuild that beautiful old place. It's an experience we will never forget or regret. In fact, we think everyone should restore a tavern... at least once in their life.
"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — don't value your potential or input for whatever reason: too young, too old, too inexperienced... I am not one of those people."
If you’re an actor who’s been in one of our theatre productions, you've heard me say something like this the very first day.
When I direct, I tend to treat young actors like they’re adults and all actors like they're professionals - each one of them with opinions and ideas that matter. And if all goes well, by the end of a production the actors own the show as much as I will... because that's when the magic happens.
I’ve seen other directors' approaches. Heck, I’ve TRIED the other approaches. And if a director is brilliant and creative and can get actors to do exactly what they say, the show will shine. And everyone will feel great about being a part. And that's good.
But I want actors to do so much more than just mimic my intent or the meaning of the play.
BUILDING A PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME
I want actors to internalize the process like professional actors do - things they would have learned in drama school. I'll start them off with a character concept, but from there they need to read the script and make that character their own. I encourage full character development, even if they have no lines or are a member of the Chorus. As we go, I'll teach Method Acting, which involves improvisation and emotional recall, and then go over how thet might best learn a script: audio, visual or movement - whatever helps an actor get where they need to be.
And as rehearsals progress, I'll start soliciting their ideas. And if the idea serves to: 1. Further the plot, 2. Reveal more about their character, or 3. Set the audience up for a pay off (in this scene or later), then I’m going to want to try to work it in. When actors of any age approach a play this way, they start finding relationships and possibilities that as director I might have missed. And I will always want to be open to their idea, because amazing things might come of it.
BE WILLING TO KILL YOUR FABULOUS IDEAS
When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my choices to an editor. 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 payoff, I had to be willing to let it die. Note: clearly this requires the director to know the play inside and out, because if you haven't prepared yourself, you're going to get defensive. Add a really tiny ego, and you just... might... snap.
So in a my directing world, I have to be prepared and confident... but also realize they may not be the best ideas in the room. Yes, I know I have a creative brain, but why wouldn’t I tap into a larger creative brain if I had a chance? Actors have a chance to dive into these characters much more than I do. They're going to find things there I didn't see, and as the other actors do the same, relationships and situations things are going to happen - good things - "If she's going to react that way because of what happened earlier, and as her sister, I would know that, that changes the way I should react..." - if you let them happen.
And, as a result of all of the above, actors begin to take ownership - of their characters, a scene and the play itself. This is where the magic begins.
So even though this will replace the absolutely brilliant idea I had as the Director, well... gulp... let's do this instead.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REALLY BAD IDEAS...
Okay. What if your actor comes up with an idea that just won’t work? Is truly horrible? Makes no sense to the character's history, etc.? And they present it to everyone before I've heard it.
Then I have to thank them for the idea, say No and tell them why. Why? Because 1. I want them to know suggestions are respected and appreciated, and the next one they have may be perfect (and often are), 2. Explaining why it won't work helps everyone understand more about the character, the plot or the scene mentioned, and 3. An explanation gives everyone in the cast a chance to further understand the setting, the character or the plot of the whole thing.
Obviously at this point a couple of things are crucial: a directors needs to love their actors enough to know how to say no diplomatically or actors won't offer ideas for fear of retribution. But directors also need to avoid wanting actors to loooove them, or they'll never know how to say no to a bad idea, and the whole cast and the whole play will suffer.
But, in the end, whether a good idea or a bad one, thanks are due to actors. Because their process and commitment is how a good play becomes great.
LAY OUT THE GROUND RULES
Lest you think rehearsals should devolve into a free-for-all “sharing time,” I'll point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process:
1. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule. Group discussion is good. And this is also a great time for the Director to underscore the story arc of the play, the scenes, and the characters.
2. Then when we begin to run scenes regularly, actors are asked to hold their ideas until the next break - and then share those ideas only with the director.
3. Crucial to the entire process: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Ever. They can certainly ask why another character does something, but... that's it.
Simple reason: every actor must be entirely focused on their own character/s, their actions, feelings, backgrounds, etc.. This is the process professional actors use, and I love bringing it to community theatre, because, when actors take this process on, shows get reviews worthy of professional productions (Think I'm lying? Check out Run Rabbit Run Theatre reviews).
And when an actor is completely focused on developing their character in a scene, it often leads another actor to have a revelation about their own character.
Lastly - without exception - actors should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way" or "try it this way". That would be called directing.
THE GRANDE FINALE
In the end, there is solid success in the "Do what I tell you" approach to directing: learning and doing a task well gives actors a sense of accomplishment and the applause is gratifying. But in the end, those actors will make the required effort – and often little more. They don't want to rock the boat, so they won’t challenge themselves to think about their choices or the process, or engage their own creativity. And they know that the same director can do the exact same show with another group of actors the next year, and it'll look and feel almost identical - with the same applause. They never get to own the show. They just... borrow it for awhile.
But when actors have a chance to make the show their own, the audience immediately knows it. All the nuances are there: they aren't pretending to be someone, they're real - real three-dimensional characters, with relationships, tensions, actions - all real. And that's the ultimate audience reward. And that's professional acting at its best: when every actor - young and old - walks away knowing there will NEVER be another show like the one they just created.
They own it and it will always be theirs. And that's theatre magic.
I learned how to direct from producing dozens of shows with various directors using many techniques. But I learned the most from the best directors in the Loudoun / DC area: Dolly Stevens, Tim Jon and Tom Sweitzer. They start with respect and end with actor ownership, and now I just can't see directing any other way.
First... there was a mouse.
Yes, it's true, We'd bought an old house in the country, and anyone crazy enough to do such a thing should expect country things like mice, right? Well, we were of exactly the same mind, and at first, having a mouse just seemed to be one of many quaint, adorable things about country life.
In fact, as I recall we handled our initial contact with a good deal of humor: "Look what the little fellow put in your boots, honey! Why, he’s taken dog food from the bin, crawled all the way up the side of the boot and dropped it in.... like a busy squirrel!”
In short, we were the worst sort of city slickers. We brought with us all those city sensibilities about “being kind to animals,” and the like. After all, I’d had a cage full of pet mice when I was young. I just adored mice.
“We’ll just buy some air-tight containers and seal up our food good and tight, and the little guy will give up and move to somebody else's pantry,” we said. “Yes, that’s the humane way to handle things. No mouse trap, no, no. That would be cruel.”
And our neighbors smiled and laughed, Heh-heh-heh.
Then the mouse showed us he could do a really neat trick - better than taking dog food to the top of tall work-boots; why, this little fellow could actually nibble through air-tight lids!
"Wow," we said. "Imagine that!" So we decided to try to confuse him by re-arranging the pantry.
Nope. He continued to leave his eensy-weensy little Lincoln Logs all over the shelves — just to show us he had caught on to our little game of “Hide the Food.” And he continued to patiently collect the dry dog food into my husband's work boots.
I laughed and said, “Look, hon, I’ll bet he thinks after he’s filled these up, he can just walk out of here in them,” but my husband’s sense of humor had begun to wane.
We soon bought a clamp-lid, thick-sided bucket for the dog food and brought the work-boot merriment to an end.
Well, it was not soon enough.
This mouse had learned what sort of pushovers we were. And the first thing mice do when they find they have the run of the house is... run all over the house.
That’s when we found out this was not one mouse at all. A large brown mouse ran across the living room floor one evening. A medium sized mouse did it again the next night. The next night a very fast and very small mouse ran around the edge of the kitchen counter as I was making dinner. I could swear it stopped, put it’s little paws up to its ears, and said, “Phhhhft!” before skittering down behind the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, in the great outdoors, my husband found a snake in our garden shed. A nice, long black snake. Harmless, but, hey, it was still a snake. So it needed to be gotten rid of, right?
But while chatting with the neighbors that weekend, my husband found, to his surprise, our snake was a highly-coveted prize.
"So you're saying you don't want your snake?" my neighbor asked.
"Why should I want my snake?"
"Takes care of mice and garden rodents."
"Oh, oh. Well, we don't have a garden yet."
"You saying you'd give up your snake."
My husband hesitated. "Well... yeah."
"Can I have it?"
Our neighbor, who had a shed that needed rodent control, came over that very afternoon and hauled away our three foot long black snake. He was pleased as punch.
This whole incident was just another in a series of difficult concepts for us. Snakes: good. Mice: bad. What was the world coming to?
Then came the day I was doing my son’s laundry. I pulled out one shirt and then another from the clothes drier and they all had these odd reddish-brown spots on them. Did he have a pen in his pocket I hadn’t seen? What’s going on?
I reached in for the next shirt and lay hold of a motley, sort of furry little ball that I took out and examined, and...
That's when we doubled up on the plastic containers.
Hey, it was magic!
Problem solved. No more food taken. No more miniature Lincoln logs. Our cereal was safe once more! We congratulated ourselves. “They’ve moved on!” my husband said. “No more mice in the dry clothes!” I said.
That's when we began to hear them in the walls.
Yes. They had taken to eating our plaster. As we soon learned, the plaster walls of an old house can be a veritable retirement village for small rodents.
"Honey, could you hit that wall, again? I'm trying to eat breakfast, here..."
And then the dishwasher broke. Only, it didn't break; it was vandalized... by a group of vindictive, plaster-fed mice. Perhaps in retaliation for the guy they lost in that nasty dryer incident - we'll never know - but they actually ate part of the rubber hose that feeds water to the washing machine, et voila! Flooded kitchen.
We mopped up. Called in a repair guy. "What can possibly be the problem," we asked; "This machine is brand new!"
"Heh-heh-heh" said the repairman. "See this hose? They ate right through it."
“Well, I don’t see it very often — like once in twenty years, maybe — but every once in a while mice take a liking to rubber. Yep. Definitely mice.”
"You don't say," I said.
This little interview marked a turning point in our lives: that moment we abandoned our sweet suburban attitudes and began to go for the tiny jugulars.
We bought mousetraps and cheese... in bulk.
The mouse’s response was to pat each other on the back and say, “Look! It worked! They’ve started feeding us again!”
Cheese gone. Traps empty.
One of our neighbors suggested peanut butter in the traps. And we actually caught one! Hurrah! Grotesque, yes, but uniquely satisfying.
We encouraged each other - our trials would soon be over. We were going country.
Days went by. Weeks. The peanut butter required constant refreshing, and no more takers.
After a month of this, it occurred to us the mouse we caught might have been the village idiot.
We finally tried poison. "Oh, puh-leeze," said the cunning little country mice.
Next we gave those new-fangled sticky triangle tents a try.
Only one of their little brown legion was dumb enough to walk into it, and he knocked off half the cans in the pantry in his successful bid to free his snoot from the goo. Of course he made it out alive. He was probably a teenager whose buddies dared him to run through it, and we all know teenagers never suffer the proper consequences for their actions.
It seems to me it was around this time my husband and I finally learned the lesson the country was trying to teach us: in the realm of destructive arts, there is only one thing more effective than human technology and that’s nature itself.
Since we’d been so short-sighted as to give away our fine black snake, we got for ourselves the most efficient, reliable mousetrap nature can make: a cat.
I’ll admit a cat once meant no more to me than a lap warmer with an attitude, but the term "Mouser" brought a new appreciation for the species. "Self-cleaning — low maintenance — never needs sharpening.” We had a great deal of respect for Meow-Meow's natural talents (since you asked, my son named him), and the cat was a valued employee. In fact, I would go as far as to say he became a member of the family.
I know that in the city, felines are often de-clawed for the sake of precious furniture, but country-folk prefer, "Our home is mouse-less" to "Our home was recently featured in Architectural Digest."
We lived in that fine old house for 30 years, and while there we were the death of many, many mice. We also changed from linear-thinking yuppies to open-minded pragmatists. Folks out with an appreciation for the concept of live and let live that city-folks could use more of, but it comes with its own little sanity clause: “Just as long as you stay out of my pantry.”
Furthermore, learning to let nature fight nature has led me to reassess human nature, too.
For example, I’ve decided the best way to keep developers at bay is to encourage them to sue each other for economic hardship due to reckless zoning approvals. See how easy that was?
And, in closing, for the record we really were sorry about the mouse that somehow got himself into the laundry basket between the wet and dry loads and tumbled, as it were, to his death amongst our son's wear-ables.
But we learned something from that experience as well.
Mouse blood will wash right out in the very next load.
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 the new Civil Service office in downtown St. Louis, Missouri...
Tom and Lee, two young lawyers sent out to St. Louis 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 his 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 physical rehabilitation. His mother came in every day to exercise his limbs hoping the muscles would come back.
Eventually Lee was able to regain 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 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, he was accepted into The University of Virginia Law School. In order to make ends meet while there, he worked in the Dean’s office through one of President Roosevelt’s youth job programs. And after law school, he took a job with the government… and found himself working 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 seeing Lee. And as the two dated 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 Virginia demanded Maxine quit seeing him. Maxine obeyed, and the months that followed were the most miserable of her young life. The only thing she looked forward to was being a bridesmaid at the marriage of her best friend, Jean, to Tom.
And Lee was Tom’s best man.
When the wedding day arrived, it had 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 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 my favorite Valentines.
They say, "Oh! to be young again!" --
not something I've wanted to do.
'Though it was grand,
I'll stick to the plan
of living beginning to end.
But, wait! Not so fast.
Hold on just a sec...
There's one moment I'd gladly re-do!
That's when our eyes met,
Our hands touched,
and he whispered, "I love you!' "
(August 8, 1943)
- Maxine Bean, 2011
First, get yourself a mountain. Then put a house on it - perhaps a spot where you can see five counties and every mountain around it for miles around - ideal for seeing the approach of Indians long long ago, or troops during the Civil War... which brings us to the history of a Mountain Man and his wartime “adventures” - taken straight from our Hardy County, West Virginia Family History.
David Ferguson Bean was born November 19, 1842 in the town of Fabius, surrounded by the steep, tall hills of Hardy County, David was the son of Margaret Anderson and George Bean (1), and was the first of their 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. The state line was drawn without asking their opinion on the matter. Whether they owned slaves is still unknown, but is highly likely (2), Regardless it's certain the family didn't take to President Lincoln and the Union.
In 1861, David had "jined up" with the Confederate Army and become a cavalryman in McNeill's Rangers. Like Col. John Singleton Mosby's Rangers, McNeill's Rangers was formed to conduct raids on Union supply trains and outposts. John Hanson ("Hanse") McNeill was well-known and, among Confederates, well-respected. 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.
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 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, the 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.
John, Jr. grew to a whopping six foot, six inches tall, earning the nickname "King Heltzel." He married Leah Myers and they 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 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, their little boy, Lorenzo Lee, was a beautiful child 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 David's granddaughter, Elizabeth (Libba) Bean Savels, what David Ferguson Bean 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 Applejack!"
Farming life was hard. The hills are so steep there, the old joke goes, that for cows to stand up straight, their legs have to grow longer "on one side than t'other"!
Fact is, running an Applejack still and selling hooch would not be an unusual choice - especially if you wanted to improve your prospects in the mountains.
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 never made 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, Lee systematically beat up every-son-of-a-farmer who'd ever laid a hand on him. Perhaps it was then young Lee realized he wasn't going to stick around Hardy County, because the same boys he'd beat to pulps 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 into a three-dimensional image 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 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.
PS: The lovebirds headed back to Moorefield, Virginia, where L.L. took a job as Bank Bookkeeper (11), but he soon moved with Adelaide all the way to Fort Meade, Florida to begin work as a Bank Cashier. There they began a family. Elizabeth Harrison ("Libba") was born in 1911 - the same year L.L.'s mother passed away, "a kind and affectionate wife, a fond mother and a friend to all." In 1914, Helen Virginia ("Virginia") was born, and in 1916, a son: Lorenzo Lee Bean, Jr., the author's father.
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.
When my friend’s mother overheard me telling her daughter what to do, she went to my mother and complained that I was being bossy. But my mother understood, bless her. I was just doing my job.
My friend had asked me to create stories for our Barbie dolls. In fact, all my friends asked me to do create stories for them.
And, quite frankly, I was in demand...
I would create sets and plot lines, and we'd act out scenes for eight hours at a time. Dead serious about character development, too - not easy when the actors are plastic. And I took it as a personal challenge to get my friends to like their Meg dolls as much as their Barbies and Kens. My solution? Create a fabulous story line just for Meg. Uh, oh. A guy doll for Meg? No problem! I grabbed my brother's G.I. Joe. Yes, yes, he was shorter than Meg, but Joe 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. While 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 – as we always had - but 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 our 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. But it was a disaster…. and it was all my fault. Classic rookie error! I’d cast myself in the lead role. 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. But I also learned that I really, really liked directing human beings. They had their own voices, could make their own character choices, and the bendable arms and legs were a definite plus.
As I grew older, I developed another passion: history, figuring that major gave me a better chance at a normal income, I chose History as major at William and Mary, and, after graduation began to work at a small museum that was once a tavern. When the staff was asked to create public programming, naturally I 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. Did I mention I'm really good at casting?
When Chuck and I moved to Loudoun County, Virginia, 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 Conservatory to direct one of her shows, and I watched Tom's brilliant directing process. Then Tim Jon — a Loudoun County Radio DJ who'd spent eighteen years of his life as a professional actor — started producing Shakespeare 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'd continued to write plays. There was one play I was particularly pleased with: it was based on true stories from the pages of Loudoun County, Virginia 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.
Through Tim Jon’s company, Not Just Shakespeare, I learned a professional actor's approach to Shakespearean text... and several more of the Bard's dirty jokes. From Tim I also learned actor 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. His use of improv has encouraged me to experiment over the years, and that's been a gift. Around that same time, I was taking Master Improv Classes with Tom Sweitzer, so, together, these two have had a huge influence on how I use improvisation 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 American soldiers were looking for him, and when they came knocking at the door, the British soldier pulls out a knife and prepares to defend himself. But the young woman pushes him behind a door to hide him 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 — only the young woman's face.
Well, 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. It's a fake knife (collapsible), but they got into a serious brawl that ended when a Minuteman disconnected the British soldier's thoughts from his actions.
The actress got it. She played the tension from there on out. She was brilliant, and the scene began to glow. Improv saved the day once more.
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 College in Iowa. 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, TREASURES: 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. An added connection to the actors on stage - gaining the character's full attention. In short, she was deeply serious about the craft, bit there were limits. One of Miss Violet's lines always got a huge life. Always. And one night, the actor who plays her sister suddenly stole the line. Maxine didn't lose a beat on stage, but when she got backstage, she looked the actress dead 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. Learning how to be a better writer, a more helpful director, a more creative producer... I never stop learning. And 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 my friends from the old neighborhood who asked me to boss them around.
* Arms and the Highlander is my Colonial adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man.
So why in the world do authors do it? Why after the 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 cellphone call,... though the agent doesn’t want or 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 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 that began as a single thought has eventually risen 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 always comes a complete surprise.
Will we start again despite it all? Of course we will. We must.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
- 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, with its broad, odd, wholesome, creative, charitable views of the world - all found because I chose NOT to vegetate in a little corner of the earth.
Theatre will do that for you. Those who join me in theatre's organized chaos have the pleasure of inhabiting dozens of people and perspectives, new worlds and old, along with all sorts for magic and mayhem.
"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."
- Mark Twain
Well put. For the pleasure of inhabiting a completely different perspective for a time, an actor will risk their self-respect, deal with sleep deprivation and midnight terrors. and live through some terrible things. And the things that happen to them in real life? Those feed right into the actor’s art and enrich every character portrayed.
"Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing; it was here first".
- Mark Twain
Ah. The actor who walks into auditions wanting a particular role… then argues with the director about casting choices. Yes. That’s going to go over well; do that. And then try auditioning again… anywhere but here. Of course, Twain could also be describing life as a director. And, yes, I tell myself to get over myself... a lot, actually. And I better, because…
"When people do not respect us we are sharply offended, yet in his private heart no man much respects himself". - Mark Twain
I hate a bad review, but if I don’t leave room for my improvement, what do I think I am, perfect? Ridiculous notion. Every great actor I know doubts themselves, because they’re always reaching for perfection. Conversely, when an actor has said they’re really good, nothing good has ever come of it.
And then there's Twain's great advice for getting organized:
"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."
- Mark Twain
Spot on. Spot on...
And when chaos descends — and it will, without fail, one to ten days before opening night - I remember these wise words:
"When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear."
- Mark Twain
He may not have had the theatre in mind, but his words sure do come in handy... Yes, they certainly do.
When I was first published, I thought all I'd ever do is write... book after book, attend signings, speaking engagements and Book Clubs, submit another manuscript to my publishing house, and start all over again.
A good life - very good life - but then...
1. A story came to me that begged to be a play. It’s impossible to explain, other than to say the characters didn't want to live in a book. They wanted to be 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. Then my book publisher disappeared. Specifically, the Editor who loved, loved, loved my work and promised to publish everything I sent her for the rest of her life... changed jobs two months after my books came out. And the new Editor was taking the company in a new direction, and my next manuscript came back in the box unopened. And historic fiction became something beneath securing evening cleaning staff on their list. And I knew I should get my manuscripts out to another publisher, but there was something about theatre. Seeing those characters brought to life was amazing. And I loved what every acctor brought to the table – this ever-changing dynamic.
So I decided to take a break from the publishing world and 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're lonely. They want to be heard, and sometimes they’ll whisper to you: “HEY, why don’t you trying getting me PUBLISHED again, JERK!” Or something like that… never listening that carefully.
Then along came eBooks!
A sea change in publishing occurred. As of 2020, Amazon appears to be calling most of the shots, and their Kindle platform is calling 83% of 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;
– Dive easily into 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, so I have a stack of unpublished manuscripts to send out, as well. Oh, and plays! And nonfiction! And… heyyyyy, this could work!
But now 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’?
Finally, I’m one of those people who have always appreciated being my own boss, and eBooks are giving me the chance to manage my own publishing experience and along with the reader's experience. How can I say no to that?
Thus, I decided: to Kindle. And we will see.
Meredith Bean McMath is the Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc., a prize-winning playwright, award-winning historian and a critically acclaimed stage director.