Bringing my memoir from page to stage

Like President-elect Joe Biden, I am embarking on a challenging new path in my 70s.

In early 2021, the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York will have a Zoom staged reading of my play “Finding Mr. Rightstein.” A June 8, 2020 in-person reading there was canceled because of the pandemic. The artistic director, who accepted my play two years and three drafts ago, the play director, and the marketing director are “excited” and “delighted.”

I share their ‘excitement’ and ‘delight’; however, I am not sharing the date and registration information with relatives and friends I invite to my essay readings. This first reading of my first play is a personal work about loss, family, the effects of mental illness on the members and too many Wrongstein men. I am biting my nails.

The artistic director and other theater professionals will give me feedback. Audience members who stay for the Q&A might, too.

I hope no one suggests I try pottery instead. Whatever anyone says, my gut will not let me to quit.

My parents took me to my first play, “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1957 on my first trip to New York City at age 10. We had all read the book and discussed it.

At the Cort Theater, we sat in the second row of the orchestra. I was riveted. Choked up. After, as my parents and sister walked up the aisles, I could not move. How could they just get up and leave? At the hotel, we discussed the story, hideout, Nazis, and the actors’ performances, mainly those of Susan Strasberg and Joseph Schildkraut as Anne Frank and her father.

We took yearly trips to New York to see a comedy, drama, and musical. Plays by Neil Simon were first. I have seen “Fiddler on the Roof” five times from Zero Mostel’s to Steven Skybell’s Yiddish-speaking Tevye, and have been playing the scores of Rogers and Hammerstein through Harnick and Bock musicals on the piano since I could read music.

=As an NYU undergraduate, after hearing at home that a college education was a preparation for one of three professions and Jewish girls do not go in for nursing, so social work and teaching were my alternatives, I took the education courses required for New York City teaching license. I wrote on the side.

My experience as a Lower East Side public school teacher provided great material. My first published essay in 1972, “Lunchroom,” begins with a paragraph describing the setting and characters, Rhoda and Sylvia, second grade teachers. The rest is in dialogue. The piece is a scene. A mini-play. A playlet.

Dialogue came naturally to me. It still does. A conversation or a voice — overheard or imaginary — often propels me into writing. I hear voices. Had I not become a writer, I would probably be in a padded cell.

Dialogue is not the whole deal in a play. Also included: what is unsaid, said between the lines, gestures, behavior, entrances, exits, action, and so much I do not know. I am discovering, too, how playwriting is like essay writing. Let me count some ways.

  1. Revision — If one is not a reviser, one is not a writer. I get out the kitchen sink, often letting time elapse before making changes, and carry around a little notebook to jot down ideas. I kill off precious darlings that do not serve the work.

  2. Criticism — I treasure constructive comments. My editors have enhanced what I put on the page.

  3. My gut — is my deepest truth and ultimate guide.

  4. Courage — I reveal what is in my heart and mind.

  5. Passion and urgency — if those are absent, what is the point?

  6. Discipline — My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a writer. It is work. I am at it even when I am not writing.

  7. A plan — One is good, but allowing things to happen, surprising myself and letting what comes to me come out of me is the best part of all.

I am eager to revise my play, submit it for future Zoom readings and to theaters when they reopen. I hope everyone I know and do not know will see a production.

Joe Biden’s age, eagerness to dive in and hang in inspire me. Joel Grey, directed “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish in his 80s, not knowing Yiddish.

I am not done.

Nancy Davidoff Kelton, is the author of seven books, including “Writing from Personal Experience,” and her memoir, “Finding Mr. Rightstein” which she is adapting into a play with the same title. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Buffalo News, AARP, Next Avenue, Parents, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at the New School, privately, and at the Strand Bookstore.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Bringing my memoir from page to stage

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