Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dreaming of Broadway

Yesterday I wrote about how a random request to "read to an invalid" led to a friendship between children's and young adult writer Barbara Wersba and the author of MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Carson McCullers.

Today's blog is about a time when Barbara Wersba's early experience on the stage merged with her later writing career, allowing her to work with one of her theatrical idols.

Ms. Wersba's entry into the world of theater also has a random feel to it.

One evening over dinner a family acquaintance asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Without thinking, Barbara responded that she wanted to be an actress "and the minute the words were out of my mouth they had the ring of truth. I would be an actress." Soon thereafter, the eleven-year-old began working for the local community theater as a "go-fer" -- eventually landing a part in a play. Strangely, she quickly realized she did not enjoy acting, even though it gave her "a purpose in life and I no longer felt alone."

A year or two later her parents divorced and Barbara moved to New York with her mother, where she became a Broadway baby "sitting in the last row of theatre balconies, holding a small flashlight to take notes and watching [various stage performers] act. I was in love with all of them, but one, Eva Le Gallienne, captured my heart with her steady pursuit of excellence in the theatre."

Ms. Wersba would continue to pursue her own theatrical dreams in college, and then professionally, before deciding she was not meant for a life on stage. She shifted her focus to writing, producing a number of small volumes, beginning with THE BOY WHO LOVED THE SEA in 1961. Her breakthrough book was THE DREAM WATCHER in 1968 -- a young adult novel about a teenage loner's friendship with an eccentric old woman.

A few years later, a friend gave a copy of THE DREAM WATCHER to Eva Le Gallienne, who decided she wanted to play the role of the elderly woman in a theatrical adaptation of Wersba's novel. In preparation for adapting her book into a script, Wersba read four plays a day, hoping to learn the craft of playwriting. She also became friends with her long-time idol Eva LeGallienne: "To my surprise, the glamorous woman I had admired in my childhood was herself a loner -- a person who fed animals from the woods every night at her kitchen door, whose main interest in life was her garden, and whose library was the finest I'd ever seen."

(Incidentally, Miss LeG, as she was familiarly known, had also written a couple children's books herself back in the 1950s.)

THE DREAM WATCHER, a play by Barbara Wersba, starring Eva Le Gallienne, opened at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut in 1975.

The author recalled:

That night I had a sudden understanding of why people write plays, of why in the midst of so much difficulty and pain, playwrights persist. For at the evening's end, as the curtain calls began, and as Miss LeG was led onto the stage by the young actor who played opposite her, a kind of thunderstorm broke. People cheered, and wept, and applauded, and stamped their feet, as she took curtain call after curtain call. As the applause continued, I ran into the lobby where refreshments were being served, grabbed a glass of champagne, and, without spilling a drop, ran up the back stairs of the theatre and handed the glass to Miss Le Gallienne. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Never mind that another, later production of THE DREAM WALKER, debuting in Seattle and destined for a Broadway run turned into a complete disaster, derailed by weak casting, a poor set design, and many unnecessary rewrites. Many, maybe most, plays end up failing. The important thing to remember is that, in 1975, Barbara Wersba's theatrical and literary worlds merged in a stage production that, almost unbelievably, starred her childhood idol, giving this author one of the happiest moments of her life.

1 comment:

dave said...

Hi Peter,
Great blog! Very nice to get this information about Barbara Wersba. Glad to know of another admirer of her work! I also recently wrote a bit about Wersba on my blog here:

dave kiersh