Dept. of Wounded Thespians | Letters | Chicago Reader

Dept. of Wounded Thespians 

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Dear Jack Helbig:

You saw my play Thursday and your review was in the next issue of the Reader [Section Two, February 19]. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, I do wish you had given a little more time and thought to its composition. Tossing it off in ten minutes--five if you used a typewriter or computer--encouraged you to ignore one of the underpinnings of our civilization: civility.

Let's be fair, Jack. It wasn't the production. Think about it. David Zak's highly intelligent, imaginative directing? An energetic and creative cast? Joe Wade's hauntingly moody set? None of the above, Jack. It wasn't the play. You haven't had much of an opportunity to see my work, grow familiar with some of the quirks of my writing. I have been writing plays since 1978. No luck though--and it is luck, Jack--in getting productions until this decade. Chicago writers are a pretty neglected bunch, as I keep trying to tell "our" arts council. The play in question here, The Cairn Stones, took 20 years to get to the stage, Jack. But this is Chicago, after all, the city of big shoulders and (where the arts council and big theaters are concerned) small self-image.

Was it the seat? The concessions? The lobby art? That recurring dyspepsia? The sprinkling of audience? It was the first night after the opening and the good reviews hadn't kicked in yet. Maybe if you'd brought along a friend, Jack.

Oh, I know about the loneliness of the long-distance writer. All my long life. A secret, Jack. I took up theater with expectations of finally making friends, heaps of friends, but I'm still, for want of a better euphemism, a loner.

It happens, Jack. Big Chicago theaters, the Illinois Arts Council, the NEA (that other rich maiden aunt to big and successful theaters and big and successful play makers) have never heard of me. One of our better-known artistic directors in Chicago had me in the audience, Jack, when she introduced a play maker thus: "Yes, folks, there really are living playwrights, and I'm here to introduce you to one of them." No, Jack, not me or any one of the ten other good Chicago playwrights sitting there. She referred, tactlessly, to one of our legion of celebrated Irish playwrights.

It happens. All the time in Chicago, Jack.

Not everywhere else, of course.

In Edinburgh an artistic director who has shown some interest in my work told me without shame that his "first loyalty" is to his "own playwrights." The Scottish Arts Council has the same austere attitude. So too in Ireland. So too in England, in France, just about everywhere. In too many Chicago theaters, "own" translates as Irish, English, and New Yorkish, anything but our own. When it comes to prizes for playwriting, even when the playwrights are supposed to confine their habitation within the Chicago area, the Illinois Arts Council pulls a fast one and awards it to--but, as any of our Chicago politicians might say, "Politics is politics."

So, Jack. You didn't appreciate the play or the production. I didn't appreciate your review. Not that you had to love either or both, but civility, fairness were lacking. So now that you've had a bit of your own medicine, Jack, how does it play?

Anne V. McGravie

W. Lunt

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