I’ll be 70 this summer. 70! I can’t wrap my head around it.
Still, it doesn’t seem as old as I expected, because it’s never occurred to me to approach life with anything less than joyful curiosity. At least so far. And, I have a 90-year-old best friend with the same youthful outlook. She’s still writing plays and she was in her 80s when she had her last acting role.
So when an opportunity came to take a San Francisco workshop in which I would write and perform my own work, I embraced it. But it didn’t come out of nowhere and for me it was a reminder of the importance of being awake to life in a way that helps us identify opportunities when they present themselves.
Last summer I flew to my hometown to shepherd our second home through construction. New York State required a two-week quarantine, so there I was, in a hotel room in my hometown with desk, laptop and a churning mind. I began to write and didn’t stop. I thought it was an essay, but nine pages in? I knew it was a performance piece. Even though I’d never done one before.
Asking around in my creative community, I found the perfect San Francisco workshop to develop my piece, and it was being given via Zoom because of the pandemic. It would begin in January. Our class performances would be in April. I signed up.
Finding a safe place to be vulnerable
I knew I wanted to talk this piece to an audience. I’m not sure where that drive to share in that way originated. My story was deeply, deeply personal and came from a super-vulnerable place. I would have to reveal things to an audience I have only rarely talked about. Kudos to the director and to all my fellow writer-performers in class, who gave me a safe place to do that.
Also for not laughing me out of the class. I was the only student who had never before performed. I’m an experienced writer, but mostly of essays, not plays. The last time I wrote a play I was, maybe, 10 years old.
Most of my classmates were super-experienced actors and had been on stage many times. One had a successful off-Broadway show that got great reviews from the New York Times. Our director had taken many productions to stage.
Was I crazy to do this new thing at almost 70?
I should have been intimidated. I wasn’t.
Taking critical feedback
I approached class with a student’s perspective. I knew I wanted to try my best to do a good job so I took in every bit of writing and performance feedback I got, and I got plenty. As an experienced writer I’ve worked with editors for years so I had no false pride at all–I made clear to our director that he didn’t have to pussy-foot around criticism. I wanted it!
It looked different in April than it did in January
Thanks to the work I did in class, and the great examples of my classmates, my piece changed and developed over the months, until it couldn’t have been more tightly written. I knew it was good. But could I actually perform it?
Acting is hard!
It is. But when you’re lucky enough to have a good friend who retired as a successful Broadway actor (nominated for a Tony, even!) and classmates who are generous with feedback, a director who knows how to coach and a playwright bestie–you couldn’t have better coaches.
“I’m not nervous at all!” I marveled, in the days leading up to performance. I was strangely calm the day of, too. Until about five minutes before my curtain time, when I was sure I was going to throw up. But then, “curtain” went up and I started, no longer nervous but rolling the story out smoothly, thanks to many, many rehearsals. Yes, I had worked hard to get there and now I just told the story.
I wanted to do a good performance and–mostly– not embarrass myself. In fact, I did a good job. First performance ever and I got so many comments about how moving it was, how raw, how touching–and also some that acknowledged the courage it took to tell that story. It wasn’t award-worthy, but it was respectable. That felt GREAT.
The other outcome of the workshop was that I excavated the through-line for the memoir I’d been fooling around with for a dozen years. All along I felt my memoir lacked meaning and was just a list of things that happened to me. In writing workshops my excuse for not wanting to take my memoir draft forward was “I’m just not a likable narrator–I haven’t changed at all in my life!”
But a light went on when retired Broadway actress friend said to me “If you don’t think this is a story about you and your father, you are CRAZY.”
Oh. My. God. She was exactly right.
And after that epiphany I saw a path through the many things that have happened to me. I saw the meaning. The lesson. And also I saw what it was that my audience responded to. What did I see? I saw my memoir.
I am now in my hometown starting to write it and will be here doing that the entire month of June. A month alone, with nothing to do but write. And also be with people who were part of my story, who knew the major players. It is my story. Not anyone else’s. It’s told from my point of view. Not anyone else’s.
I’ll miss my amazing husband and my sweet dogs. Michael has facilitated my writing in a way few men would or could. He knows I am driven to write and I am driven to write this story.
Oh and BTW….
I’m also in the new term of the writing and performance workshop. I’m working on something that I want to be fun and funny. It’s getting there. But, I’m not worried. I know my classmates and director will help me do my best.
I’ll turn 70 in July and I’m still in the game.
It’s never too late. You’re never too old. Trust me on that.