Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
A DRAMA DOWN UNDER: An Interview with Playwright Christina Hamlett by Director Paula CarterPreface by Christina: This month's column takes a unique turn, putting myself in the interviewee's chair and fielding questions from an accomplished Australian director named Paula Carter. The circumstance of this twist in format comes about as the result of my latest drama, "Muriel's Memoirs," being chosen to open the new season of the South Australian Writers' Theatre in Adelaide. The play not only represents a departure from my trademark comedy fare but the chance to contribute a work which strikes a universal chord; specifically, the escalating hardship of adults who are forced to become the caretakers of their own parents as the latter succumb to medical conditions beyond their control.
PC: How did you do the research for "Muriel's Memoirs?" Did you know someone with Alzheimers?
CH: The premise of this particular story was drawn from the experience of watching an elderly friend cope with her sister's progressive decline from the disease over the course of several years. When Katie's condition was first diagnosed, the two older sisters and Katie's husband had made a pact among themselves to take on full responsibility for her care, never anticipating the exhausting physical and psychological toll it would extract nor, sadly, that Katie would end up outliving two of them before finally dying herself. Much of the dialogue reflects my friend's frustration in dealing with a beloved sibling who would vacillate between incredibly sharp details about their childhood in the 1930's but couldn't remember what she just had for breakfast.
PC: Do you think knowledge of the disease makes it easier to bear?
CH: Although the respective plights of a former U.S. president and an accomplished U.K. author have put the subject of Alzheimer's in the media spotlight and accordingly increased the public's awareness, it hasn't diminished the pain of acceptance on the part of its secondary victims: the family and friends. The brief glimmers of cognition, as evidenced in the play's dialogue, offer the cruel hope that all will somehow be well again or, at the very least, not get any worse. The title character's professional career as a doctor may have prepared her for what will inevitably happen but no amount of homework can prepare the human heart for the devastation of no longer being recognized by the person he or she has loved and cared for the most.
PC: How long did it take you to write the play?
CH: Much longer than I expected! (About 4 months.) Notwithstanding the fact that I was working on another book and a musical at the same time, coupled with the requisite chaos of the holidays, this is the first project in which I've ever felt I was deliberately procrastinating. It was my husband who finally unlocked all the mental slogging by pointing out something which should have been obvious to someone who has been writing for as long as I have. Specifically, each of the four characters is based on a real person in my life. As intently as I was trying to infuse the fictional quartet with the best and worst qualities of their flesh-and-blood counterparts, it suddenly occurred to me that, after all these years, none of them have ever met each other. Thus, the imagery challenge of trying to picture the real four in the same room together and having any kind of conversation was conflicting with the objectives and emotional baggage of the fictitious Muriel & Company and giving me more than enough excuse to keep walking away from the keyboard.
PC: Having written children's plays, did you find writing "Muriel's Memoirs," a drama, easier?
CH: Just a quick clarification first for those who immediately conjure the image of second-graders in bunny suits: only a small handful of the nearly 100 plays I've had published and/or produced have been for performers who'd meet the definition of "children" (i.e., elementary school). The majority have been for high school, college and adults, including nearly 8 years of original productions that comprised the touring repertory company I managed in Northern California. The bulk of what I've done as a playwright and novelist, however, has been comedy, making "Muriel's Memoirs" much harder by comparison.
PC: In what way?
CH: Well, like a lot of writers I know, I always like to read dialogue out loud after I've written it to see if it sounds right. Having always had an affinity for humor and a positive outlook on life, crafting scenarios and lines that will generate ripples of mirth is something that just comes naturally. Pathos and angst and volatile bitchiness, on the other hand, are harder for me to muster, especially when I know I'm going to have to read this stuff loudly and tearfully and abrasively 83,000 times or so in order to get it all down convincingly.
PC: When you have finished the initial writing, do you workshop the play with actors?
CH: Absolutely! Although writing, for the most part, is a solitary profession, you can never assume that the lines will come out of the mouths of strangers in exactly the same way you've been hearing them in your head. Certainly one of the great joys of running a touring production company for eight years was all the feedback I received during the rehearsal process. The refreshing willingness of the actors to speak up and say, "I don't think my character would respond in such-and-such a way" or "What if I try the line with this approach instead" made for an even better show than the one originally scripted.
PC: Do you belong to a playwriting group, like South Australian Writers Theatre?
CH: Unfortunately, there are currently no such organizations in Sacramento. I do, however, mentor several writers groups, which enables me to not only critique and encourage the projects of others but to receive comments on my own works in progress.
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ABOUT THE DIRECTOR
Paula Carter's theatrical career began at Adelaide College of the Arts where her course of study covered acting, directing, stage design and the history of theatre. Upon completion of her coursework, she became a member of Troupe, Adelaide's alternative theatre, which developed and workshopped new works with playwrights such a Dave Allen and Doreen Clarke, both of whom have their works performed throughout Australia. In the following years as a theatre professional, she worked on radio, TV and film, interspersed with acting and directing and eventually became a founder member and Artistic Director of Nonsuch Theatre. For a number if years she has been directing plays for different organizations and workshopped and directed Pat Rix's, "Is That It" (renamed "Bananas") for the 2000 Paralympics Arts Festival in Sydney, a production which had a further run in Adelaide and then Vancouver, Canada in 2001. Named the most promising director in the Oscarts (the critics' awards) for Pat Rix's "One Dream To Go," she is currently Artistic Director of South Australian Writers' Theatre and received an Oscart for "Sherlock Holmes and the Coming of the Fairies" by Ross Barrett. She has also written and directed three childrens' plays, adding another Oscart to her mantle for "The Rainbow Planet," voted best children's play of the year.
ABOUT THE PLAY
What happens when the mind behind a lie can no longer tell the difference? Two young women are suddenly confronted with their mother's progressively slipping grip on her mental faculties. Will they physically and emotionally distance themselves from the pain or absorb it as a personal obligation that is not be questioned? Claire and Becca represent polar opposites in dealing with the increasing problem of adult offspring having to become the parents to their mothers and fathers and, accordingly, having their own value systems challenged in the process. The play's 4th character, a home health nurse named Stella, brings parallel issues of loyalty to the fore as a long-time family friend of Muriel's who must now assume the role of professional caregiver.
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Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, travel, health, humor, and how-to's for aspiring writers.