The first draft of my play “Jane Burgoyne” was written almost two years ago. I had booked a room at a hotel in Vermont. It was between seasons in the near empty Mt. Snow Grand Summit Resort. Think “The Shining” without the twins or a kid on a tricycle. A great time for the work that is writing: the brilliant leaves are gone, the trees are bare, there is no snow—and there's a room with a kitchen. The perfect opportunity to get at what had been bugging me: the image of an older woman sitting on a folding chair in an almost-empty room, cardboard moving boxes nearly packed. Who is she? Why is she there? Does anyone care? And where did her name come from?
The last question first: Beats me. Her name was Jane, and the Burgoyne just floated in and stayed. And those who cared, and would come into this room in the last hours before she left her home to move to “assisted, independent living,” were her granddaughter, Allison, and Allison’s mother, Katherine, Jane's daughter.
I had things I wanted to say about age and death in our society, and the play was finished in about a week. That was Version "A". Two years later, Version "W" has had some traction and several outings. And now, Version Y is almost finished.
I remember a college professor explaining why the word is written “playwright,” as opposed to playwrite. “Wright” means laborer, workman, or craftsman. Think, along with my professor, of “wheelwright,” back in the day of iron rims covering the wooden wheels of wagons. The blacksmith at the forge, heating the circular rim and pounding it into place around the wheel before the iron cooled. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t, and the wheelwright would have to start again.
Same thing with plays. First the perfect version in my head has to be put aside when the actors pick up the script and start to become the person whose words you’ve written down. It’s a heady and humbling feeling for the playwright. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s more like “Who wrote this anyway?”
With “Jane Burgoyne” there was a living room read (literally, in my living room, with an audience of five people) with the brilliant cast of Kathleen Chalfont, Geneva Carr, and Laura Dreyfus. Notes and suggestions and notes and notes. Followed by another LRR—with notes and notes and rewrites—and then another. And while the script is being considered at various theatres, everyone (including the playwright) realizes it is a work in progress.
The February 2018 reading at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vermont, involved a week of rehearsal such that the version that started the week became different enough by the end of the week to be called “W.” And this was the version used for the reading at the National New Play Network 2018 Benefit on April 30, also the version used at New Jersey Repertory Company’s reading, with an entirely new cast, on Monday, August 27th.
Every time the play is read before an audience, new information emerges about the characters and their relationships, information that needs to be revealed (by the playwright) or information that the actors will find in the silences their characters inhabit, or somewhere beneath the words they speak.
Next up: A reading in early November at Orlando Shakespeare Festival’s annual PlayFest of seven new plays in staged readings. The latest version, “X”, I hope will mark a positive spot in the hearts and minds of all involved. Jane—where she is and where she’s going—seems to resonate with many different audiences.