But acting's loss--"I'm pretty strictly a writer these days. I haven't done much acting for a while," Thatcher says--is literature's gain. Her first play, Neidecker, was a finalist for the National Arts Club's Joseph Kesselring Award and the Susan Smith Blackburn Award; the latter honor was ultimately bestowed upon her fourth play, Emma's Child, in 1995. Later, after Emma's Child was mounted in Chicago, it also took the 1997 Cunningham Prize from DePaul University, the 1997 Scott McPherson Award (named for the late author of Marvin's Room), and the 1997 After Dark Award for Outstanding New Work from Gay Chicago Magazine. Emma's Child is also slated to travel to Scotland and London this year while Apparitions, Thatcher's ghostly romantic tragedy set in the rural Wisconsin of almost a century ago, was recently produced by the estimable Peninsula Players in Wisconsin's Door County.
The actress who delivered the devastating monologues of Three Hotels for Highland Park's Apple Tree Theatre, wept as Cordelia in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's King Lear, and regularly lit up stages from the lofty Goodman to the tiny Writer's Theatre in Glencoe, is now writing with a vengeance. Not only is Thatcher working on a new musical about a New York cabaret singer but her most recent work, Voice of Good Hope, has opened to critical acclaim at Victory Gardens Theater, where she is a member of the Playwrights Ensemble. Voice of Good Hope is Thatcher's take on the life and work of the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.
A week into the inaugural run of Voice of Good Hope, Thatcher took a breather to discuss her transition from acclaimed actor to acclaimed playwright. "Actually, I wrote a very bad play in college," she recalls from the Evanston home she shares with her husband, actor David Darlow, and their eight-year-old daughter, Kerry. "It was a terrible romantic comedy. We did it once in college. Then it got buried." So did her brief career as a student, first at Lansing Community College and then Michigan State University. "I'm a college dropout," Thatcher says. "I had a full scholarship to Michigan State and I threw it away to be an actress. There was a flurry at home--my parents were worried, not so much that I'd thrown away the scholarship but that I was choosing to make a living as an actress."
Flurry or not, Thatcher's mind was made up, as it pretty much had been since the East Lansing (Michigan) native first become enrapt with the theatrical profession at age of 16. It was then that she started working at Lansing's Boarshead Theatre. "Not in all their shows, but enough to really get the bug," she recalls. "We did Shaw and Shakespeare and musicals in the summer. It was wonderful. I quit college to become their leading lady." A risky move, perhaps, but one that ultimately proved to benefit stages across the country.
Thatcher was an acting gypsy for a while, crisscrossing the country in various tours, doing regional gigs in Hartford, Seattle, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. In the early '80s, on an extended stay with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Thatcher was given a shot at directing by artistic director John Dillon. "He gave me a book of poems by this woman named Lorraine Neidecker and a play to read," she recalls. "He said to pick which one I wanted to direct." At first, Thatcher was unmoved by the play and nonplussed by the idea of directing a staged version of a poetry book. "So I asked if instead of directing these poems, could I take a crack at putting them into play form. And that was my first play, Neidecker."