On Being Philomena
A few years ago my friend Mark Scharf said to me, I'm basing a character on you in my new play. Well, believe it or not, I had heard this from a playwright friend before, but was flattered and excited nevertheless. "She's a math professor in Richmond", he continued. Oh, okay. I used to like math, simple math, geometry, in high school, was pretty good at it. And I like Richmond, although I knew little of it at the time. It's a ghost story. Well! That's new.
So, I filed this information away, and went on about my life. Now, don't think I was nonchalant about the whole thing, I really was honored. But by then I had worked with enough playwrights to know that good plays take time. The first was Mimi Teahan, in 1996. It was only my third time being on stage, I played Twila in her play "Real Time". We, cast and crew, were presented with a new script as a fait accompli, and rehearsed for about four weeks before opening night. I think I did an okay job. Director Regi Davis did his best to correct my natural tendency towards being overly dramatic. It must have worked, because we took first in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival that year.
That began a long succession of roles in new original works produced by theaters all over the Baltimore area, usually as part of the BPF. All of them pretty much followed that four week pre-opening rehearsal process. A couple of them may have had public readings as part of the BPF's new play reading series in the spring prior to the production. In that case, there was audience feedback, and the playwright may or may not have revised the script accordingly. In one or two instances, if the playwright was local and attended rehearsals, he/she may have tweaked the script a bit here and there. Most productions were good, one or two very good and a couple, yeah, well. Not so much.
But, I digress. I don't remember how long after my conversation with Mark( a year or two? ), but he called me and said, "I finished my new play. We are having a few people over for an informal reading and I want you to come." That was the first time "The Quickening" was read out loud. If I remember correctly, it was pretty long. I know my part was longer. (Wry smile) And I think the fate of a certain character was different (no spoilers here!) On the whole, it was positively received by the small audience of theater enthusiasts.
We've read it three more times publicly since then. At The Baltimore Book Fair in 2015 (only one scene, I think), at the Dramatists Guild Footlighters Series hosted by the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theater later that year, and at the Comparative Drama Conference about a year later (both of the latter being full script reads). Each time, there has been audience feedback, which Mark has used in one way or another. And I've been Philomena each time. So, naturally, when I saw the audition notice for this production I had to step up.
Well, here we are, a little more than two months from opening. We've had two full workshop readings, a presentation of set and costume designs by the designers, and one or two actual on-our-feet rehearsals. What's this elongated process been like? To tell you the truth, I didn't take to the whole idea at first. Although Mark has made a couple of small changes since our first table read workshop, I thought the script was pretty tight already. After all, it won Mark some Maryland Arts Council award didn't it? Plus, who ever heard of starting the rehearsal process for a local theater production nine months ahead of time?! But now, I'm surprised to say, I'm kinda diggin it.
It hit me as we walked through the very end of the second act at the last workshop rehearsal. In spite of being told, repeatedly, that it was my voice Mark heard in his head when he wrote Philomena, and that basically she is me, I've realized she's not. She's kind, generous, and open-minded. Okay, so we have that in common. She's also just a teensy tiny smidgeon of sassy black friend. Ummm, okaaay, I prefer to think of it as being a sarcastic smartass. But she bakes fabulous cookies, and is a deep, deep thinker. Well, I eat fabulous cookies, and remember that high school math I mentioned earlier? That's about as far as it went. She is rubbing off on me a little, though. I went through a New Age phase twenty five years or so ago, and was introduced to the concept of quantum mechanics. I managed to get halfway through "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" by Gary Zukav, then, and I'm a little more than halfway through now. Not sure I'll finish it, unlike Philomena, it makes my head hurt. But more than that, now that I am far more physically infirm than I have ever been, and am surely closer to the end of my life than the beginning, Philomena has brought all my questions about the after-life front and center. Questions we all ponder at some point in our lives. Questions we take a stab at in this production. What happens to us when the life of this physical body comes to a close? Does everything just fade to black? Do we (hopefully) go meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates on our way to the streets paved with gold? Do we join some sort of Well of Consciousness like that shape-shifting character in Deep Space Nine? Are we reborn as some other inhabitant of this Earth in some other time?
Wouldn't it be a comfort to know?