Arts: Work

When Work is Play

Interview with playwright Terri Wagener about the premiere of her newest play, Work, at Bloomington Playwrights Project

By Madelyn Ritrosky

Bloomington Playwrights Project (BPP) has a specific purpose within the broader theatrical purview of the stage:  to be a “leading artistic force in the production and encouragement of new American plays and playwrights.” 
That encouragement entails a variety of performance series, including numerous calls for short plays, several full-length Mainstage productions each season, an education program, and a new play development series with performance and educational components. 
One other way that this nonprofit theater in Bloomington, Indiana, accomplishes its mission is through its nationally recognized playwriting contest.  Each October, the thick scripts of un-produced plays stream in for the annual Reva Shiner National Full Length Play Contest. 
It is named after contest founder Reva Shiner, a longtime BPP patron and donor.  The contest received more than 180 submissions for the 2007-2008 season.  And generally speaking, edgy, bold, humorous, irreverent, socially progressive, and politically aware are the adjectives that best describe the many, year-round ‘colors’ of this ‘black box’ stage.  

But with the Reva Shiner contest, there can be only one winner.  And this year, that is Terri Wagener’s script about (as the tagline says) “those who run things and those who get run over...”  It is the social climate of the 1960s.  It is a musing on today – intended to be amusing as well.  It is Work, directed by conductor-composer Dr. James Mumford and acted by Breshaun Joyner and Jeff Craft. 

Originally from Texas, Terri Wagener has lived in New York and LA, writing scripts for the stage, then for the screen, and now back again.  Her plays have been produced at Yale Rep, South Coast Rep, Actors Theater of Louisville, and O'Neill National Playwrights Conference.  There have also been several highly acclaimed productions in LA and New York.
Her highest profile work for the big screen is Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).  “I was the last writer hired, and I wrote the draft of that movie that got Jessica Tandy to say ‘yes’ – which got the film made,” Terri explained.  “I was very familiar with the world of Whistle Stop, Alabama (it was much like small-town Texas), so I felt very comfortable in that story.” 
She continued to work as a “script doctor” in the film industry:  “I wrote movies in L.A. for a number of years.  I made a living at it.  So many go nowhere, of course – for no reason having to do with the script – and it can be very frustrating and discouraging.  I love the writing part of it, but the business and people part of Hollywood has always held little charm for me.”
Terri went on to explain why she has shifted her focus back to her first love, playwriting.  “There are many writers making great livings in Hollywood with none of their works ever being produced or seen.  If I had a family or mortgage to support, I might go that way, but I am a single, selfish artist, and I want to make a difference in the world and in people's lives.  Working hard on a script to see it shot down in an afternoon is not a life I can lead – even if it means I get a new car every year.  So I got a day job, and returned to the theater.”    

She decided her goal would be one play per year, submitting to playwriting contests and “not caring if they got picked or not” – though she admitted that is easier said than done.  She wrote Work in the summer of 2006, her first play in her return to the theater.  And “BPP's nod – and production – has been an invaluable encouraging word,” she said. 

That full production, along with a cash prize, sets the Reva Shiner contest apart from most other similar contests around the country.  And past winners have gone on to further acclaim, such as Sarah Treem, Buzz McLaughlin, and Janet Burroway.   

Work is the story of an African American woman who receives an unexpected visit from a representative of her late husband’s employer.  He is there to give her a widow’s compensation check, but it turns out to be anything but a routine delivery.  The ‘60s setting becomes a reflection on current times, accomplished with, as Terri put it, “comedy and a surprising poignancy of the characters and their tenuous relationship.”

When I asked Terri how her story came about, she answered, “I was thinking about how our president sounds so much like my dad (they are both oil men), and how hard it was, as a child, with LBJ as President, for me to question my dad or his values – since he and the leader of the free world sounded exactly alike.  I thought about how voices and language affect us, and the parallels went from there.” 
War makes for an unfortunate but notable comparison.  The similarities between “Vietnam and Iraq were being drawn.  And I kept thinking about some small girl today, watching the world.  What will she know when she is my age that we cannot foresee now?” Terri wondered.  “Any suggestion in 1968 that the Soviet Union would no longer be a Super Power would have been met with universal disbelief.  ‘Communism’ was the great enemy, as ‘terrorism’ is today.” 
Although she did a lot of research and a lot of remembering, she had to whittle down a foot-tall stack of notes to a 75-page script (“with very wide margins”).  As is her style, comic dialogue mixes up serious subjects.  She explained, “When you make an audience laugh, they naturally are eager for whatever you have to say next.” 
And a woman having something to say through her stories, characters, and themes, on stage or on screen, is important because of the unequal representation of women in writing, directing, and producing.  And thus the unequal range of roles available to women as performers.  “The world needs more writers – writing good roles for women – more than it needs more actresses right now,” Terri asserted.  “And the writer’s life suits me.” 
If you’re in this neck of the woods, Bloomington Playwrights Project’s world premiere of Terri Wagener’s Work begins May 8 and continues on weekends through May 24, 2008.

Photos are courtesy of Bloomington Playwrights Project

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