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New Voices Emerging Playwrights Retreat

I’m excited to announce that I’m going to Ashland in June to join four other emerging Oregon playwrights for a retreat! We’ll attend workshops, write, read some of our work aloud to each other, see a play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, forge new connections, and enjoy lovely Ashland.

Mikki Gillette (she/her) is a trans woman playwright, whose work depicts the trans experience in all its juicy, dramatic richness. Her play The Queers enjoyed a sold-out run at Fuse Theatre Ensemble this spring. Her show Mimetic Desire is scheduled for production by the Pittsburgh Classic Players in winter 2022. Mikki’s work has been produced or developed at Artists Repertory Theatre, Transformation Theatre, the OUTwright Theatre Festival, Profile Theatre and Post5 Theatre. Her short work has appeared in inBetween Literary JournalRushing Thru the DarkMasque & Spectacle, and other publications. 

Lindsay Partain (she/her) is an internationally published and produced Oregon playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild. She holds a BA in Theatre from Pacific University and is a resident artist of Theatre Viscera. Most recently, her 10-minute play Cookie Cutter Christmas was selected as a top-10 finalist for VetRep Theatre’s playwriting competition, and her new full-length play The Light Keepers was selected to be a part of Willamette University Theatre33’s 2022 Summer Reading Series. Recent publications include The Way You Made Me and Siren Songs (Next Stage Press). Her body of work can be found on New Play Exchange.

Lorenz Qatava (he/him) is a poet, playwright, novelist, and journalist. He is based in both Palm Springs, CA, and Ashland, Oregon. He is the author of a gay romance novel set during the Almeda wildfire, a volume of recent poetry and short stories, and two stage plays – a poetic fantasia based on five Black gay literary legends and another based on an intergenerational group of Black gay men responding to the Black Lives Matter protests. He occasionally teaches courses on poetry in social context and civil rights history for adult education programs at Southern Oregon University and at California State University, San Bernardino. His writing career began after he retired from thirty years working for the federal government in international affairs, social marketing, and public health.

Ken Yoshikawa (he/him) is an emerging playwright from Portland, OR. His 5-act play Through Bonavia, or The Simple Truth has been workshopped at Artists Repertory Theatre. Also an actor and a poet, his solo show The Art of Flyswattingwas selected for the Pan Asian Rep’s NuWorks 2019 in NYC. His first book of poems, Monster Colored Glasses – published by Lightship Press – is available on his website.

Host playwright is E.M. Lewis (she/her) is an award-winning playwright, teacher, and opera librettist. Her work has been produced around the world, and is published by Samuel French. Plays include Dorothy’s Dictionary (upcoming production at Butterfly Effect Theater in Colorado and world premiere production at Theatre Lab in Florida); How the Light Gets In (upcoming at 1st Stage Theater in Virginia); True Story (upcoming at Artists Rep); Song of Extinction (upcoming at Twilight Theater); Magellanica (a finalist for the Angus Bowmer Award, audio version available from Artists Rep); Apple Season (which had a National New Play Network rolling world premiere at New Jersey Rep, Riverside Theater, and Moving Arts); The Gun Show (Edinburgh Fringe); HeadsInfinite Black SuitcaseGoodbye Ruby TuesdayReading to Vegetables; and You Can See All the Stars (a Kennedy Center commission). Awards include the Steinberg Award and Primus Prize from the American Theater Critics Association; the Ted Schmitt Award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle; a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University; a playwriting fellowship from New Jersey State Arts Commission; the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship in Drama; and the Edgerton Award. Lewis is currently the Mellon Playwright-in-Residence at Artists Repertory Theater in Portland. She is a proud member of LineStorm Playwrights and the Dramatists Guild, and lives on her family’s farm in Oregon, where she is working on several new plays and her first musical.

I am stoked to meet all these playwrights! I haven’t had the pleasure of hanging out with lots of playwrights since I was still a student at Portland State University.

I’m hoping this experience will recharge my batteries and lead me to more opportunities to get me and my work better known.

We’ve reached closing weekend!

Audience response to the first two weeks of The Harder Courage has been intense, occasionally tearful, and overwhelmingly positive.

Some of the written comments on social media and by email:

Well written, well performed, and intellectually and emotionally engaging! — R.M., Facebook

Fantastic play! Would make a great film!— D.M., Facebook

Excellent performance. Thank you. — J.P.S., Facebook

Very well done. It brought up many issues for me about our history and our country’s idea of justice. Don’t miss this performance. — R.M., Facebook

This is a wonderful play about things that happened in our area, our county. It is well worth the time to go. Don’t miss the opportunity to go experience The Harder Courage. — S.R., Facebook

So nice to step back into the theatre tonight! I laughed, I cried, and I learned a little bit of history. Wonderful historical play written by Leslie Krausch Slape, and phenomenal performance by Michael and Jennifer Cheney! Thank you for the excellent show! — L.D., Facebook

To history buffs, theater attendees, and anyone who enjoys local social events, this is a must-see. Leslie Krausch Slape did an amazing job and the actors portrayed the characters creating much empathy and sympathy. Great job one and😊 all! — L.B., Facebook

I hope to see people take this show in and truly consider its implications for ourselves and our communities. The passion of the people involved with this show makes It not only an incredibly moving story but also a deeply touching experience. I believe the themes explored will make anyone who watches this show consider the love in their lives and what we do for it in times of conflict and war. — E.F., Instagram

If you have not yet had the opportunity to see this historically-researched performance that takes place in Cowlitz County during the early 1890s, you have opportunities this weekend to do so.  I attended the performance last weekend and recommend it to anyone who values good storytelling, compelling acting, local history, and supporting our local performing arts.  — J.G., via email

I loved the play!  It got me watery-eyed so that’s proof it was excellent acting and storytelling. — J.G., via email

I really enjoyed it. — A.S., via email

Bonus: An except from a review (not for a newspaper) that an out-of-town audience member wrote for some of his friends, then shared with me

The play depicts an amazing true story of Robert Day (a probably innocent man) being hanged for murder. But, more importantly, it tells the story of how he and the arresting sheriff, Ben Holmes, became best friends during Day’s confinement. … and how they help each other face the inevitable! For Robert Day it takes “courage” to die! For the Sheriff Holmes – the HARDER COURAGE is having to kill a man who has become a close friend! In the performance last night there was a “lynch mob” scene – when SUDDENLY two guys in the audience carrying rifles began YELLING ‘HANG HIM” and headed up to the stage! Everyone in the audience JUMPED a bit I think when this happened.. The director/writer, Leslie Slape, also used mood music very effectively during some of the scenes to create an emotional reaction in the audience … much like movies do. HARDER COURAGE is a VERY SAD story … one woman in the audience said she would have been very DEPRESSED leaving the theatre had not there been a “talk-back” session afterwards with the actors & director. The actors were phenomenal. … Amazing to see!

***

I’m hoping for good crowds and good performances for the final three shows. But I’m so, so happy that this dream has come true at last!

Opening Night is here at last!

The big night I’ve been working toward for nearly a decade has come at last. Today is March 11, 2022, opening night of the Washington premiere of The Harder Courage. As Robert Day would say, “It don’t seem real.”

There’s a story in today’s Daily News, which has boosted ticket sales somewhat. But if the reactions from our preview audiences is any indication, word of mouth will sell even more tickets.

I love how collaborative the art of theater is. A play is not words on a page. It’s not actors saying lines. It’s a collaboration of the playwright, director, actors, designers and, most important of all, the audience. It can be a play without a set, costumes or lighting, but it can’t be a play without an audience. And that’s why every performance is different, because even though none of the other elements change, the audience is always different.

At the first preview, the actors heard laughter for the first time, and it startled them at first. They knew there was humor in the play, but until they actually heard the audience laugh they might not have realized how funny it could be. At the second preview, the audience didn’t laugh but was still intensely involved in watching. Both times, audiences praised the writing and the performances.

Will tonight’s audience laugh? Maybe. Cry? Probably. Love it? Oh, I hope so!

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Policing by consent

Just as we were beginning rehearsals for the Washington premiere of The Harder Courage, a member of Ben Holmes’ family told me he never carried a gun. And when I shared that information with Darren Ullmann, the retired undersheriff who discovered the story and inspired me to write this play, he said that’s how he’d always seen Ben.

But I’d written the opening of the play with Ben carrying a rifle when he arrests Robert Day, who is also carrying a gun. And now I had to rewrite the first scene. The rewrite works, but if I’d had more time, I would have threaded this fact more thoroughly into Ben’s character. Because it’s really, really an important part of who he is.

From quick research before I did the rewrite, I learned that Ben’s policy was actually pretty common, despite what we see in Western movies. I think the tradition of sheriffs not carrying guns might have been inspired by the Metropolitan Police of London, which was the first police force in history. It was founded on the policy of “policing by consent” rather than by force. Sheriffs who did not carry guns believed that the power of their authority, represented by the star, was sufficient.

It’s easy for me to imagine Ben adopting nonviolence as his personal policy at the time he left the Civil War. And when he was elected sheriff in 1884, his goal was to keep the peace. Under his eight-year watch, Cowlitz County was mostly a peaceful place — until one weekend in October 1891, when (according to a newspaper headline) “The Devil and his Agents” inflicted two murders and other violence upon the county. Loggers spontaneously formed a lynch mob to hunt Robert Day, and even after Day was in custody, the lynch mob tried again a week later. There had never been a lynching in Cowlitz County. All this violence must have given Ben nightmares, but thanks to his relationship with the community, he was able to restore the peace. The lynch mob calmed down. The county agreed to buy a secure jail cell. One of the murder suspects agreed to a plea bargain and was sentenced to prison.

But Robert Day, alone, would not compromise his moral code for the sake of peace. He firmly maintained he was acting in self-defense, and that his murder victim had every intention of violently attacking — perhaps killing — him and his entire family. To admit guilt would be a lie. Even though the public assumed he was a habitual liar, he actually placed a high value on truth. He was swiftly convicted and sentenced to hang. And Ben, the nonviolent sheriff, the nicest guy in town, had to be Robert’s executioner.

The entire play is about how Ben and Robert form a friendship and help each other come to terms with their destiny. But if I had known years ago that Ben didn’t carry a gun, it would have given me one more element to weave into Ben’s character.

So even though the play will go before an audience in March, I’m not done writing it. I’m not changing what’s going on stage more than I’ve already done; that wouldn’t be fair to the actors. But after the play goes on the boards, I’ve still got a little more thinking to do, a little more tweaking. I regard this play as my magnum opus. Like Ben says to Susan when she tries to pull him away from checking and re-checking his calculations for a painless execution, “I have to get it right.”

Latest news about THE HARDER COURAGE

THE HARDER COURAGE will finally get a full production! It’s scheduled to open March 11, 2022, at Stageworks Northwest Theatre in Longview, Wash. Auditions are on Dec. 6.

It was originally going to be produced in 2019 after its successful developmental workshop at Theatre 33 earlier that year. Unfortunately, one of the actors became seriously ill, so we postponed it until 2020. Then came the pandemic.

It goes without saying that I’m thrilled to finally see the show go on the boards. I consider this the final stage in the development process. I’ve done some work on the play since the workshop, using the helpful suggestions from audience members during the talkback sessions. Most of that has been with the roles of the wives, Susan and Lizzie.

After that, I’m hoping that a LORT theater will be interested in taking the show as a world premiere. The reason I didn’t go directly to a LORT theater after the developmental workshop is because I am fulfilling a promise to the two male actors who’ve been working with me on this show since 2013.

In other news about COURAGE, it has been chosen for an online project called STATES OF PLAY, an online play-reading initiative to cold-read aloud plays by female playwrights, set in each of the United States (one state per week) during 2022. I submitted mine, which was one of several set in Washington, and I was lucky that mine was selected in a random drawing. Every Wednesday in 2022 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, one play will be read, and audiences may listen virtually. A play’s readers will be chosen randomly from those who show up and indicate that they’d like to read, just as if we were all walking into a real room together.

These readings are meant to share our work on the breath amongst our colleagues, to hear what’s out there and foster an immediate, theater-like community (as much as possible via a media platform).

I’m excited about this, too!

Adventures in genealogy research

When I began researching my dad’s family, all I had been told was that his grandparents, Elko and Sophie Krausch, came from Odessa, Ukraine. They left no letters or diaries, and only one photo. I did not expect to discover that many other Ukrainians who immigrated to the Lehr-Fredonia area of North Dakota not only knew my great-grandparents in the Old Country, but were related to them.

Nor did I expect to discover that the relatives who remained behind in Ukraine suffered a terrible fate.

The town most of them came from was misspelled “Serekoko” on one of Elko’s naturalization documents, obviously a best guess by the clerk because Elko couldn’t read or write. A town with that spelling shows up nowhere. Up until I saw that document, I had assumed he was from Kherson or Odessa, which are cities and gubernarias (like states or counties) in the southern part of Ukraine. Odessa is on the Black Sea and Kherson is on the Dnieper River, which flows into the Black Sea.

Another hometown appears on other documents: Marion, sometimes spelled Mariona or Mariana. I can’t find it either. Most of the relatives in this story had both Marion and Serekoko, under various spellings, in their documents.

I assume that these towns are near each other and are possibly in the Kherson or Odessa gubernarias. I’m still searching for them, but have expanded the search to include Bessarabia (present-day Moldova and Ukraine) and Bukovina (divided between present-day Romania and Ukraine). There is a Soroca in Bessarabia and a Czernowka (pronounced chernovka) in Bukovina.

For fun, check out the spellings for “Serekoko” that I have found so far, with the most bizarre coming from Ellis Island: Darakowka, Zarkovko, Zorkovka, Dschjarkowka. Djayarkowka, Dsarakowka, Serekoka.

Waves of Ukrainians

Before I start telling you about the new relatives, here’s some historical background on why they left Ukraine.

In the 1890s, due to oppression from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, Ukrainian peasants began leaving the country by the thousands. Eastern Ukrainians headed to Siberia, lured by the promise of land grants. Western Ukrainians headed to Europe, the United States, Canada or Argentina.

The migration is separated into three waves: 1890s until World War I; between WWI and WWII; and post-WWII. 

Our family came with the first wave, when about 254,000 Ukrainian immigrants arrived in the United States. Many were directed to settle in North Dakota. 

In Canada, where some of our relatives ended up, tens of thousands immigrated from 1891 until the start of the First World War. Most Ukrainian immigrants of this period were identified on government records as Poles, Russians, Austrians, Bukovinians, Galicians and Ruthenians, arriving from their respective provinces in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The vast majority of these immigrants settled in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

 Meet the family

The first to come were Josef Kobitz (Joe) and his wife, Marya Chernenko (Mary).

Joe was born in 1874 in Mariona, Odessa province. His last residence in Russia was “Dsarakowka.”

On May 26, 1900, Kobitz, 25, his wife, 24, and their young son John took the SS Friesland from the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Kobitz was a well-to-do farmer who could read and write. At Ellis Island, he told immigration officials he planned to see his brother-in-law, Johann Buehler in New York. It must have been a short visit, because the Kobitzes soon arrived in Logan County, North Dakota, and bought land near Lehr. Eventually, Miketo Nikoleychuk would buy land next to his, and Elko Krausch would settle not far away.

Connection: Mary Chernenko is related to my family through Sophie Chernenko Krausch. They are either half-sisters or first cousins. 

Unfortunately, there are no photographs of the couple. 

Jakim Nazarenko

Next to arrive were Jakim Nazarenko and Tatiana Pelipchuk.

 Jakim, who became Jacob in America, was born in 1869 in Odessa province. Tatiana, who became Jean, was born in 1877. They were married in 1896 and lived in a village 72 miles west-southwest of Odessa called Hryhorivka (Grigorivka) in Krasna, a rural Roman Catholic community in Bessarabia.

The Nazarenkos, 32 and 30, and their three small children arrived in June 1901 at the port of New Haven, Conn., but were farming in Logan County, N.D., by 1904, when another child was born. 

Connection: Without details on his parents and siblings, I can’t determine how he’s related to us, but a lot of our relatives named him as their brother-in-law when they came to America.

The brothers-in-law

On Nov. 12, 1901, the S.S. Vaderland arrived at Ellis Island and discharged the following residents of our village of many spellings: Feodor Demchenko, his wife, Pelagia Chernenko (aka Chernaga), and their six children; Miron Semenok and his wife, Justine, and their seven children, including Demetro; Miketo Nikoleychuk and his wife, Natalia Krausch, and their four children; and solo  traveler Nikolai Kolesnik, who isn’t related to us as far as I know. 

Every one of them said they were going to visit their brother-in-law, Jakim Nazarenko, in Connecticut. They all settled in Logan County, North Dakota.

Were they really all brothers-in-law of the same guy? I don’t know. But I do know small towns, so, yeah, it could happen.

Connections: What I do know is that the Demchenkos are related to the Krausches through Pelagia, who became Polly. Like Mary, she’s either a half-sister or cousin of Sophie.

The Semenuks became related to the Krausches in 1906 upon the marriage of their son, Metro (who went by “Ed”) to Katerina Krausch, Elko and Sophie’s eldest daughter. The marriage produced one child, Martha, but it soon ended.

 The Nikoleychuks are related to the Krausches through Natalia, known as Natalka or Nellie, who is most likely a cousin of Elko, possibly a second cousin.

And in 1935, the Nikoleychuks’ son Bill married the Demchenkos’ granddaughter Annie Slobodin, thereby linking Sophie’s relative Polly Chernenko to Elko’s relative Nellie Krausch.

Left: Polly Chernenko Demchenko. Right: Nellie Krausch Nikoleychuk.

Back row: Mary, Donia, John, Irene. Front: Willie, Lydia, Joe, Elko, Sophie holding Annie. Missing: Katerina.

The Krausches come over

Elko (Ilya) Krausch was born in 1862 in Mariona or Serekoko, son of Josef and Anya (Charlinsky) Krausch. He married Agafia Chernenko in 1886 when he was 23 and she was 19. 

In 1903, ages 40 and 37, they emigrated aboard the SS Adria with their five children, sailing from Hamburg, Germany, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. An immigration worker made a notation that they were Bukovinian. This suggests that they originally came from that province.

At Winnipeg, Manitoba, they headed across the border to Lehr to join a brother-in-law, “Feodor Missichenko.” This is probably Feodor Demchenko, who became Fred. If Polly was a half-sister of Sophie, that would make Fred and Elko brothers-in-law. 

Miketo Nikoleychuk and Artem Chermistnuk, brother of Vera Spilloway (see below) were witnesses on Elko’s initial declaration of intent to become a citizen in 1908.

By the way — if you’re wondering why Elko’s surname is Krausch when everyone else in this story has a Ukrainian name, I don’t know. Perhaps the name was actually Khrushch (a common Ukrainian name) but was misspelled “Karausch” by a clerk when he boarded in Hamburg. (It was still spelled Karausch in North Dakota until the 1930s). He might have had a German ancestor or a Jewish one, as that surname is found in German and Jewish settlements. But our DNA analysis shows my dad’s ancestry is mostly Slavic on his dad’s side, with some Jewish on his maternal grandfather’s side. Elko’s family’s primary language was Russian. Then there’s that “Bukovinian” note to consider. Ideas, anyone?

Left to right: Mike and Nellie Nikoleychuk, Vera and Helko Spilloway.

And a cousin

In June 1904, Helko Spilloway, 36, and his wife, Vera Chermistnuk, 34, left the village of Mariona with their five children and sailed to America from Bremen, Germany, on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm. At Ellis Island, Spilloway said he was going to join his cousin, Joseph Kobitz, in Lehr. (For once, not a brother-in-law.)

Connection: In 1912, the Spilloways became related by marriage to the Krausches via the Nikoleychuks when the Spilloways’ son, Ray, married the Nikoleychuks’ daughter, Donia/Donna.

All of the Ukrainian immigrants in this story were living in Logan or McIntosh County during the 1910 census, but within the next several years the Semenoks, Nikoleychuks, Demchenkos, Kobitzes and Nazarenkos had moved to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. I don’t know if Elko had bad breath, B.O. or what the problem was.

The Chernenko women

Chernenko, one of the most common names in Ukraine, comes from “chorniy” (black) and the suffix “enko”. Generally people who were nicknamed “chorniy” had black hair and a brunet complexion, like many people in this family. 

Because neither Elko nor Fred (or their wives) could read or write, it’s been hard to pin down the actual maiden name of Agafia, who went by Sophie in America, and Pelagia “Polly.” Sophie’s maiden name appeared in a daughter’s obituary as Chernick, in another daughter’s marriage application as Gernage, and on a son’s Social Security application as Jernogko. Polly’s descendants spell her name Chernega, another common name in Eastern Europe. I’ve also noticed there are lots of Doukhobors (Russian dissenters) named Chorneyko in Saskatchewan, and I’ve considered that. But there is no evidence that Elko and the others were Doukhobors. 

That brings me to Mary Kobitz, whose family uses the surnames Chernenko and Black for her maiden name. Her husband could read and write, unlike the other husbands, so I’m using Chernenko for all of them for consistency.

Our family shares DNA with Polly and Mary, but not enough for them to be full sisters of Sophie. Therefore they must be either her half-sisters or first cousins. Same reason I believe Nellie and Elko are cousins.

But wait — there’s more! 

Left: Max Trusskey. Middle: Sophie Chernenko Krausch. Right: Max’s grandmother, name unknown.

In 1913, Maxim Trusskey left Ukraine and boarded the SS Birma for Halifax, making the journey alone.

Max, 18, had black hair, brown eyes and a dark complexion. He was born March  14, 1894, in South Russia (aka Ukraine), and usually listed his birthplace as Krasclovka. In one case he wrote Czaskow (Zhashkov), which is in the Cherkasy province south-southwest of Kiev, along the Dnieper River. 

His grandmother’s name is unknown, but she was a striking woman with black hair and large eyes. She somewhat resembles Sophie. Therefore, I believe I have found another Chernenko woman.

We share more DNA with the  descendants of Max Trusskey  than we do with the descendants of Mary or Polly Chernenko. I’ve determined that, very likely, Max’s paternal grandmother is Sophie’s full sister.

Polly’s descendants report no DNA in common with Max’s descendants. Mary’s descendants do show a DNA connection.

Max eventually settled in Golden Valley, North Dakota, but probably never knew anything about his relatives in America and Canada.

The rest of his family in Ukraine met a tragic end. After World War I, a spirit of independence surged through Ukraine, a  spirit that Joseph Stalin wanted to quash. He forced the farmers off their lands and turned them into collective farms, and turned public opinion against those who resisted by saying they were hoarding for themselves instead of sharing with all.

The new collective farms did not produce enough food to feed Russia, leading to a famine. Stalin punished Ukraine by taking away the peasants’ food, leaving them with nothing.

Max Trusskey had been sending money to his family, who still lived in the Cherkasy province, until one day in 1933 when he received a letter telling him that all had starved to death.

His father, Ivan; his mother, Sofia; sisters Ahafia (the Ukrainian spelling of Agafia), Lubow and Yiferzinia, and brother Mikhail were gone. The forced starvation was known as the Holodomor.

It’s unknown whether Elko, who died in 1934, or Sophie, who died in 1940, knew what had happened to the Trusskeys or any other relatives and friends in Ukraine. Stalin kept a tight rein on information.

My journey pauses here for now, but I hope to make more fascinating discoveries in the future. If anyone sees this and wants to talk to me, feel free to send a message.

The Trusskey family, sometime in the late 19th century. Standing: Ahafia, Yiferzinia, Lubow. Seated: Ivan, Max between his knees, Sofia (Zelitsky), baby Mitchell.

The Cornucopia

Written in Karin Magaldi’s Dramatic Writing course, October 2014.

As promised, here is my crazy little play. We heard several hilarious plays today, but we ran out of time just before my turn, so I’ll be first on Tuesday. The specs were that it contain five elements that I don’t want to see in a play (my list was 1. boring, 2. condescending to the audience, 3. confusing, 4. difficult to stage, and 5. has live animals); includes a rat sandwich; includes a character with a theory; and has 40 uses of my five-syllable word, “cornucopia.” 

We all made wonderful discoveries while writing our plays, which we spent about 20 minutes scribbling out on Tuesday. (So grateful to Max for my AlphaSmart!) One thing that amazed me is that even though I tried very hard to make this play truly awful, I quickly fell in love with it. I started feeling as though I were writing a sketch for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.

THE CORNUCOPIA

(Scene: Living-dining room of MARCY and DON’s house, overflowing with furniture and clutter. A basket of newborn kittens. A fireplace burning. A dog sleeping on a recliner in front of it. DON sleeping under the dog. A television set broadcasting a football game. An elaborate dining table set for a Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people. A doorway opens into a kitchen with a range visible. MARCY enters wearing an apron.)

MARCY
Don, where’d you put the cornucopia?

DON
(snore)


(MARCY walks over to DON, pushes the dog off his lap.)


MARCY
Don, where’s the cornucopia? All our children and grandchildren will be arriving in a few minutes for Thanksgiving dinner and they’re going to expect the cornucopia on the table. 


DON
What’s a cornucopia? 


MARCY
A cornucopia, also known as the horn of plenty, is a traditional Thanksgiving decoration using a basket filled with a bountiful harvest. Peggy and Meggie, our daughters, made the cornucopia in fourth-grade art class. They’ll never visit again if we don’t have the cornucopia on the table.


DON
Oh, that thing. I’ll get the cornucopia out of the basement. At halftime.


MARCY
Please get the cornucopia now. Be careful. I saw a rat down there when I was putting the canned goods on the shelves. As you know, I can every autumn. Applesauce, apple jelly, apple butter, peach jam, blackberry jam, blueberry jam, strawberry jam, green beans, corn, pickles, relish and salsa. Why is the cornucopia in the basement? Rats will chew on the cornucopia!


DON
You put the cornucopia down there yourself last year after Thanksgiving.


MARCY
I most certainly did not put the cornucopia in the basement.


DON
You most certainly did put the cornucopia in the basement.


MARCY
Are you calling me, your wife of 30 years, a liar?


DON
No. I just think you probably forgot you put the cornucopia in the basement.


MARCY
Forgot, huh? I have a theory about you.


DON
A theory is not a fact.


MARCY
It is a fact.


DON
If you have a theory about me, it’s not a fact.


MARCY
It’ll be a fact when I prove it. Don’t you want to know what the theory is?

DON
Does it have something to do with the cornucopia?


MARCY
Of course it has something to do with the cornucopia.


DON
You’re gonna tell me whether I want to hear it or not.


MARCY
My theory is that you put the cornucopia in the basement yourself and are pretending that you forgot.


DON
Why would I put the cornucopia in the basement myself and pretend I forgot?


MARCY
So that I would go downstairs to get the cornucopia and get bitten by a rat. And I can prove it by going downstairs, finding the cornucopia and getting bitten by the rat I saw when I was putting away the canned goods.


DON
The rat is in your imagination.


MARCY
That’s your theory. Prove it. You go downstairs and find the cornucopia. I bet you’ll get bitten by a rat.


DON
What if I don’t want to get the cornucopia? What if I would rather sit on my recliner and watch the game?


MARCY
Why is the football game suddenly more important than the cornucopia? 


DON
Why is the cornucopia suddenly more important than our Thanksgiving dinner? 


(The smoke alarm goes off. MARCY rushes to the kitchen range and opens the oven door. Smoke pours out.)


MARCY
You ruined the turkey because you wouldn’t get the cornucopia.


DON
Suddenly it’s my fault. Weren’t you all ready to go downstairs and test your theory about the cornucopia and the rat?


(All the children and grandchildren arrive at once. The stage is filled with people taking off their coats, crying babies, small children, and various additional pets including a goat. Several people hold containers of food and try to find places to put them down. DON and MARCY’s daughter MEGGIE and PEGGY — two personalities in one body — goes to the dining table.)

MEGGIE
Where’s the cornucopia?


PEGGY
Thank god the cornucopia isn’t here.


MEGGIE
How could you? We made that cornucopia in fourth grade.


PEGGY
And I’ve hated it ever since.


MEGGIE
Mom, Peggy’s being mean to me.


PEGGY
Grow up.


MARCY
Girls, settle down.


MEGGIE
Mom, what happened to the cornucopia? It’s supposed to be on the table every year.


PEGGY
Please please please tell me it’s lost.


MARCY
It’s in the basement. Dad refuses to get it.


DON
Mom is delusional about the cornucopia.


MARCY
I am not delusional about the cornucopia.


DON
(To rest of the family) She is. She also thinks there is a rat in the basement.


(Their triplet grandsons, KEVIN, EVAN and DEVON, age seven, jump up and down.)


KEVIN, EVAN, DEVON
A rat! A rat! We want to see it!

PEGGY
Go ahead, boys.


MEGGIE
And bring up the cornucopia.


KEVIN, EVAN, DEVON
Thanks, Mom.


(ANNE, daughter-in-law of MARCY and DON, enters in the kitchen and puts on an apron. She is cheerfully domestic.)


ANNE
Is there anything I can help with? Ooh, I see that you’ve made blackened turkey this year. Is that a Cajun recipe?


MARCY
Taste it. If it’s good, the answer is yes. If it’s ruined, it’s Don’s fault because he wouldn’t get the cornucopia.


(ANNE tastes it, gags)

ANNE

Ack. Ack.


DON
You want the truth about the cornucopia?


MARCY
Finally, the truth.


DON
The truth about the cornucopia is that I accidentally set my toolbox on it last Christmas and broke it to pieces. I threw the cornucopia in the dumpster with the Christmas trash.


PEGGY
Hurrah, I don’t have to look at the cornucopia any more.


MEGGIE
Oh no! I wanted to leave that cornucopia to my grandchildren!


MARCY
What about the rat?


DON

The rat in the basement is in your imagination.


(KEVIN, EVAN and DEVON re-enter with a large dead rat)


KEVIN, EVAN, DEVON
We found the rat! We found the rat! Looky Grandma, looky Mama, we killed it!


PEGGY
Good boys!


MEGGIE
Eeek!


MARCY
Aha! The rat was not in my imagination. Did it bite any of you?


KEVIN, DEVON
It bit Evan!


EVAN
Owie.


MARCY
Aha! It told you it was a biting rat.


ANNE
But what are we going to eat for Thanksgiving dinner? (Gags) Ack! This turkey tastes like soot!


PEGGY
I vote for a rat sandwich.


EVAN, KEVIN, DEVON
Yummy!


DON
Wake me when dinner’s ready.

Adventures in Zoom

As this pandemic drags on, it feels like live theatre is never going to return. I keep reminding myself that Shakespeare must have felt this way during the plague, but he wrote some pretty fine plays during lockdown.

My first efforts at playwriting were about the pandemic, more cathartic than anything else. Along with nearly 1,000 other members of the Dramatists Guild, I wrote a one-minute play in March on the theme of capturing that moment in time. Mine was Till the Eagle Squeals, about a pessimist/realist worried sick about the virus and the economy, and an optimist hoping that they’d make it through OK. All the plays were presented via Zoom in April. It was my first time watching a Zoom performance, and it was fascinating. One of my favorites was of a couple meeting for what at first looks like a drug deal, but they’re trading a roll of toilet paper for a bottle of hand sanitizer.

I wrote other plays about the virus, all pretty mediocre, but at least I was exercising the writing muscles. One was called Word Cloud, kind of a tone poem comprised of words and phrases commonly used as the nation moved through the pandemic. Then I realized I was going about it wrong. Zoom might be all we have for a long time. I needed to write specifically for the medium.

The result was A First Time for Everything, about a lonely office computer who develops an attachment to a custodian, the first human who enters the office after more than three months of lockdown. As fate would have it, just as I completed the play I saw a request for  short plays with small casts designed for Zoom performance. Shortly thereafter, it was performed via Zoom by a theatre group in the United Kingdom. Such a thrill! This group, Caravan Theatre, is producing some fantastic work in lockdown. They add costumes, props and green-screen backdrops, but the acting and writing (all new works) is the best part.

Energized and inspired by them, I’ve been entering playwriting bakeoff challenges. These are loads of fun! Playwrights are given a list of ingredients and a deadline, and they write a play using all these ingredients. I had entered a few bakeoffs early in the pandemic, but my work wasn’t good. Now I seem to have found my groove. I wrote The Feather of the Firebird, a comic adaptation of one of my favorite Russian fairy tales, and it got in! The Zoom reading was loads of fun, and the next day I took a new set of bakeoff ingredients and wrote The Pub at the End of the World, another comic play inspired by a folktale.

I am having a blast! My imagination has been unleashed. As much as I loved writing The Harder Courage, there are a lot of constraints when you’re writing about real people in history. With what I’m writing now, I feel totally free, like I’m soaring in the sky.

My goal is to write enough good material to present a ticketed Zoom show to benefit our local community theatre, Stageworks Northwest. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

I miss the theatre

It was March 5. We were in early rehearsals for CLUE (due to open May 1) when our director, who works in the county assessor’s office, learned that one of the county officials may have been exposed to the virus while in Washington, D.C.  In addition to our director, one of our actors also works in that office. The director and artistic director discussed the situation and put our show on hiatus. We hoped it wouldn’t be for long. At that point, Cowlitz County had no cases.

On March 20, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered residents to stay home except for essential activities.

As of this writing, Cowlitz County (73 cases, no deaths) is in Phase 2 of the reopening process. Live theatres can reopen in Phase 4, but we don’t know if we can operate in those guidelines. We don’t know when, if ever, we’ll get to do CLUE, which we’ve been looking forward to for more than a year. I’m the stage manager.

I wrote this song to express my longing to get back to the theatre, even though I know it won’t be the same as before, not for a long while. I’ve been feeding my hunger in other ways, such as entering play competitions for Zoom, but there’s no substitute for live theatre and the symbiotic relationship with the audience.

If you love and miss the theatre as I do, I hope you’ll enjoy this little song, inspired by Tin Pan Alley.

The Unwritten Song

I’m unsure when I wrote this. At least ten years ago this tune leapt into my head and I began humming it to preserve it. I was certain it was a tune to an existing song. It sounded very familiar and old, as if it belonged in the era of Daisy Bell and Sidewalks of New York.  But I haven’t been able to find the song, so until I do I guess it’s mine.

I was reminded of Paul McCartney’s experience with Yesterday. He awoke one morning with a tune in his head that sounded like something he heard before, but he couldn’t find it anywhere, so he decided he must have composed it in his sleep. (Not that I am equating this little ditty with Macca’s masterpiece.)

Every once in awhile I try writing words to it, but nothing seems to fit. But a couple of days ago I decided to write some silly lyrics, inspired by Paul’s “Scrambled Eggs” nonsense lyrics to Yesterday. Even if I ultimately discover that the tune belongs to another song, at least I know the words belong to me.

The Unwritten Song

[C] Someday I’ll write the words [F] to this [C] song

[C] Someday they’ll come, and they [D7] won’t be [G] wrong

[C] Someday I’ll write them down

 [F] They’ll be the best in town

[G] People will like them and [C] they’ll sing this song

[C] La la la la la la [F] la la [C] la

[C] La la la la la la [D7] la la [G] la

[C] La la la la la la, [F] la la la la la la

[G] La la la la la la [C] la, [G] and

[C] Everyone will like the [F] music

[G] Everyone will like the [C] words

The [F] earworm will [Dm7] spin like a [C] merry-go- [A7] round

[D7] It’ll even charm the [G] birds, [D#] and

[C] Moms’ll croon it to their [F] babies

[G] Soon it will be all you [A7] hear

If it [F] ever gets [Dm7] written, the [C] world will be [A7] smitten

The [F] very best [G] song of the [C] year, [G] La [C] la la la [G] la

The [F] very best [G] song of the [C] year

copyright 2020 by Leslie Slape