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Liz Bussey Fentress on Playwriting

Why and how did you write Liz’s Circus Story?

I worked for a circus when I graduated from college, and it was an amazing experience. I always knew the material was incredible, but I didn’t know quite what to do with it. I guess I wrote a short story once about one of the characters, Killer. So I knew this material was in my head. I’ve spent my life working in the theater, so in the back of my head I thought, “Boy, someday wouldn’t it be wonderful to do something with this material?” It’s so rich.

I always kept in touch with the circus, even though my most profound experience with it was when I was 21. As years went by, I always knew where the circus was; and when they were coming north in the spring or south in the fall, I would get the route and visit them, because the circus continued to give me something. Fast-forward to 1997, when I learned that the man who started the circus, who had had a profound influence on my life, was killed doing what he loved doing. That was a huge shock to my system and to my way of looking at life. I understood then that I had a lot of feelings that accompanied his death—grief, a lot of questions. And I understood then that I couldn’t wallow in that grief and questions but that I had to wrestle with the material.

So I wrote a grant proposal to the Kentucky Foundation for Women. I didn’t believe I knew how to write a play, even though I’d been taking a playwriting class for years. So I wrote this grant and carefully constructed the proposal so that I would never have to read the play in public. I wanted to wrestle with the material and figure out what it all meant, but if it turned out to be not good, I didn’t think the foundation would necessarily need for me to humiliate myself in public. I got funded $5,000—so I wrote the play, finished my grant report, and sent it in.

Why did you decide you wanted to perform your play?

I had this chunk of paper. I had satisfied my grant proposal, but then what you understand is that a play does not deserve to live on a chunk of paper. So I realized the only way I would really know if I had a play or not was to read it in public. So once again, I enrolled in the playwriting class at Horse Cave Theatre taught by Warren Hammack. I was taking the advanced class, and to take it you have to have a play in progress. I sent in my $100 but didn’t send the script in.

Why didn’t you send the script in?

I didn’t think I knew how to write a play, but I had to write it. So I said, “OK, I know what I’ll do: There will be one character, and it will be me, and I’ll tell the story.” I convinced myself I could have one character talking for three to four hours. I had taken Warren’s class for years, and I knew his opinion of one person onstage talking and knew he would not approve of one person. I was afraid he would send the script back and say, “This isn’t a play.”

At the first class, Warren did a long speech on “What is a play?” Warren believes in his heart and soul that a play is dialogue—two characters talking—and he held forth on that for a good 30 minutes. He said if you have a character that has a monologue, that character better have earned that monologue. Then Warren goes around the room and asks everyone in the workshop what their play is about. I happen to be the last one. He gets to me, and I handed him the script, and I said, “I earned these monologues.” Because I really felt through my work with the circus—which about killed me—and my work at Horse Cave, which is as close to working with the circus as anything I’ve done, I had earned the right to sit on the stage for three hours and talk. Warren read the play—and he’s an extremely supportive person—and he didn’t throw me out of the class. He said, “Why don’t you get some people over to your house and read this to them?” This made me angry, because I wanted my play read at Kentucky Voices. I felt like I was being demoted. Read my play in my living room? But I also think I’m a good student, so I called some trusted and loving friends and we sat in my living room.

What happened?

I will say that one of the people had played tennis that morning, and also that I gave them some food and it was quite warm in my living room ... But maybe an hour or hour and a half into the play—and I’m acting my heart out—he fell asleep. Which was OK with me; I’ve worked in the theater a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of people sleeping in the audience. Anybody who’s never seen anybody asleep in the audience has not worked in theater that long. But I learned many lessons that afternoon, and that’s why Warren asked me to do that. I immediately started cutting—even before people were out the door.

At the end of the class, Warren gave me the opportunity to read Liz’s Circus Story out loud at Horse Cave. At the end of that reading, which was two and a half hours long, I knew I had a play. I had something that deserved more work and more attention, which is what I started putting into it.

How did the play change for the stage production?

One thing I did was take the play to a playwriting workshop in Florida. At this workshop, they would not let me read the material. Another woman read the role of Liz. What happened was, none of the people knew me, and the audience did not like the character of Wayne Franzen. I still had not put any of the play into dialogue; it was still just Liz talking. The fact that the audience did not like Wayne Franzen—I could not tolerate that. I understood I had to bring the character of Wayne Franzen on stage. So that was a huge change in a script, to change it from just me talking to creating the character of Wayne and letting him talk for himself. I never went so far as to bust it up into male actor and female actor; I never made it more than a one-actor play. Somebody once told me that a story will tell you how it wants to be told. In my heart of hearts, I still think this wants to be told by me playing all the parts.

Another important thing happened in the rehearsal process in Horse Cave. When I wrote the play, I tried to keep it on the language. I’ve directed a lot of plays, and I know how to stage a play, and there are lots of things you can do to make a piece more interesting once you get in rehearsal. But I understood that a play has to live on language—that if it’s not there in the language, you don’t have anything. So even though I had done a puppet show at the circus, I resisted the impulse to make the puppets part of the play. I didn’t want to bring in what maybe would turn out to be a gimmick.

I got ready to go to my first rehearsal at Horse Cave. I’ve kept all my circus stuff for years, and as I was getting ready to go out the door to the first rehearsal, I swear my old tiger puppet from 1974 seemed to roar at me from the basement of the house: “I want to go to that rehearsal.” I showed it to Robert Brock and told him this puppet demanded to come. That turned on Robert’s imagination, and as we rehearsed, he said I needed a horse puppet, I needed an elephant puppet. I rewrote the play after the Horse Cave production and again brought together a group of trusted people and asked, “Should I write the puppets in?” And they said, “Oh yeah.”

Why did you want to take it to television?

My original goal, once I decided I had a play, was to do a live performance of it. I achieved that at Horse Cave. But after that, I had done so much work on it that I felt I owed it to the work to see if there was more life in it.... If you believe in a story, it follows that you want it to be heard by as many people as possible. In the theater there are maybe 150 to 200 people a night, and you have to be there to tell it The idea that it could be told for so many more people on television without my being there every night—those are seductive ideas.

How did you cut it for television?

I did a smart thing: I asked Warren if he would help me. It was a fascinating experience. In a play, a character comes onstage to achieve something; she is there for a purpose. In my writing, I had the habit of bringing my character onstage, have her get what she wanted, and then I think I was so excited that I was onstage [that] I’d let her sit there for another five or ten minutes—talking all the time and doing things, but she’d really already gotten what she needed out of the scene. Warren and I went through scene-by-scene and analyzed, what does the character want and when does she get it?

Vince Spoelker, who directed the production for KET, had given us our marching orders: We had to home in on the theme “Wayne Franzen takes a risk” and his influence on Liz. That was what we were trying to show. Anything that didn’t relate to that theme had to leave.

How did you feel about what got cut?

One thing that Warren said to me early on, before we started rewriting, was, “Liz, you have to understand that this is a different piece.” I think that was very wise. In my head, the piece written for television is different from the play. It’s a different piece....

For me, that I had to rewrite was not news; it’s a given. I think the reason you rewrite so much is that playwriting is highly manipulative writing. Your goal is to bring the whole audience with you on the same journey at the same time. If I’m reading a paperback and fall asleep, that’s fine. I can go back five pages and pick it up. In the theater you can’t do that. The audience has to understand what’s going on. It’s very careful writing, and that’s why it has to be rewritten.

Did it make Liz’s Circus Story a better play to go through the process of many rewrites?

Going through this process—“A play is not written, it’s rewritten”—definitely made Liz’s Circus Story better. When I think back to that script I read in my living room, I die. I cannot believe I asked people to sit and listen to that. It definitely came better to life as I continued to work on it and let the drama happen between the characters. I hope to do one last definitive version. I have decided I would like an 80-minute piece for the theater, with no intermission, so it can go on living in theater, and I’ll try to get it published. That’s because I believe in the story.

What advice can you offer to others who have a story to tell?

I would say write it and find an opportunity to read it. I think all creative people need outlets. My first outlet for Liz’s Circus Story was my living room, and that was just fine. The important thing is that it gets heard. Write it and read it—if it’s a one-person play. If it’s for three people, get three of your friends to read it.... And find a mentor. Warren Hammack was my mentor. Without his guidance, his concern, his love, his incredible knowledge of theater and what works on stage, this never would have gotten out of my living room.

about Horse Cave Theatre and the Kentucky Voices program, visit the Horse Cave Theatre web site.

600 Cooper Drive, Lexington, KY 40502 (859) 258-7000 (800) 432-0951