by Eric Schmiedl
Spalding MFA Faculty, Playwriting
In his book Love and Living, the writer and theologian Thomas Merton discusses the relationship between the individual and the greater community when he says:“Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us…”
I am a theatre artist, and at the risk of stating the obvious I believe theatre artists are by their very nature instinctive collaborators. The art form certainly demands it. We need each other. We rely upon, we build upon each other’s talents and expertise – upon the conversation that happens throughout the creation of the art. And, of course there’s the audience too. So I suppose it is not surprising that my experience of Kent Haruf’s beautiful novels has been rooted in this process of collaboration.
Each of the productions conceived, created and produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company – PLAINSONG, EVENTIDE, and now BENEDICTION gathered a remarkable family of artists from all over the country – from New York to Houston, Boulder to Philadelphia, from Los Angeles to my own hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Actors. Designers. Stage managers and technicians. Casting directors. A director. A novelist. A playwright. Together we spent countless hours discussing where Victoria might stand when she first meets Harold and Raymond, what Maggie wears when she slow dances with Guthrie at the Legion, how to preg test a cow, what amount of clutter needs to be seen in Betty June and Luther’s trailer, how to stage the violence of Harold’s death, what the monologues tell us about the Lewis family, which parts of Act II we can lose in order to keep the play from running four hours, and how in the world we can bring a stock tank full of water on stage.
I fondly remember chuckling with Kent Haruf in the rehearsal hall as we discussed the astounding amount of time required to put a theatrical production together. It is work. It is hard work. But in this case it sure as hell is worth it.
We had a remarkable experience during the preview period of our production of BENEDICTION at the Denver Center this past February. On a Wednesday we were scheduled for two performances: a 10am morning show for a packed audience of Junior High and High School students from the School of the Arts and an evening public preview. The mean age of the first performance was probably 15; the second was considerably older. However, the reactions from both groups though different in form were equally passionate and electric and it was fascinating to see this multitude of generations find their own way into the various journeys and stories of the production. It was absolutely a testament to the power of Kent’s stories but also a testament to the process of collaboration because although I am terribly biased I cannot think of a better way to celebrate these wonderful novels than with a theatrical production because as Kent Thompson has so eloquently noted on several occasions at their heart they are stories about people coming together.
I mention this here because I have also experienced first-hand the power of collaboration as a member of the faculty of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Spalding University. Every time we gather for a residency whether in Louisville or Paris or Prague we hear those wonderful first words spoken by Sena – “Welcome home.” And all of us writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and fiction for young readers and poetry and film and drama all of us embrace the spirit of collaboration. Echoing Thomas Merton’s observation about a collective community we open our eyes and our ears to each other. In the darkened theatre of creativity we wait expectantly on the edge of our seats ready to be transformed by the work at hand. This is a precious gift. It is rare. It is essential.
Eric Schmiedl is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a graduate of Kent State University and the University of Hawai’i. His plays have been produced by theatres from Alabama to Hawai’i. Eric and the Theatre Company of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts received a 2015 Grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to support the premier of BENEDICTION, Eric’s stage adaptation of Kent Haruf’s acclaimed novel, as well as a new commission for the Theatre Company, his fifth for the company. Eric is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship as well as an Aurand Harris Fellowship and a Sloan Foundation Commission. His work has also received three Edgerton Awards. He is a member of The Cleveland Play House’s Playwrights’ Unit and is on the faculty of the Low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.