Hearing the Clarion Call of the Playwright, and Playing Along
Catey Sullivan profiles and analyzes the multifaceted career and aspirations of the playwright and actress Kristine Thatcher, author of Victory Gardens' current production, Voice of Good Hope.
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.
The Milwaukee Rep staged Neidecker, but it would still be over a decade before the play was re-discovered by Writer's Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam and put on the docket for another mounting. By then Thatcher had been making her home in Chicago for over a decade, settling in after a 1985 stop of a tour of Nicholas Nickleby. "I fell in love with the city," she explains--and, as it turns out, she also fell in love with Darlow. The two were cast as Henry the playwright and Annie, his conflicted wife, in an award-winning Northlight Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing.
Thatcher's career as a playwright then started in earnest in 1986 with the death of playwright Larry Shue (The Nerd and The Foreigner) in a plane crash. She and Shue had been friends and colleagues at the Milwaukee Rep, where Dillon also had made room for Shue to try writing along with acting. "Larry was a huge encouragement to me when I was starting to write, and a strong advocate of my writing," Thatcher says.
Shue's parents sent Thatcher their son's papers with the request that she search for another play within them, or perhaps for the basis of another play. "They said to me, 'If you can find another play in here, please do it,'" Thatcher recalls.
Looking through the papers, Thatcher says she did not find a play but rather an intriguing series of journal entries in which Shue described a not-to-be romance while performing in a New York production of a Mamet play. "It seems Larry got a fan letter from this woman named Gina Meyer," Thatcher says. "The stage manager told Larry she was gorgeous." Shue was supposed to meet her after a performance, but she had left the building by the time he strolled out to the lobby. It bothered Shue enough to write an account of her absence in his journal. "So I wrote a play, 'Waiting for Gina Meyer,'" Thatcher says. The piece was done as an Equity Showcase in New York and then disappeared. "I don't really push to get a lot of my work out there," Thatcher admits. "I suppose I should."
The play, however, did re-launch her writing career. In fact, the play that got Thatcher "out there" and on the map as a playwright was Emma's Child, a deeply personal drama that grew out of her plans with Darlow to adopt a child which turned out to have cruel complications. The birth mother delivered a child with hydrocephalus--a condition that causes fluid to build up in the cranium. "I went to the hospital every day until [the baby] died," she says.
Thatcher then wrote Emma's Child on a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it ran for nine months and then was produced in Chicago at Victory Gardens in 1996. VG's artistic director, Dennis Zacek, was among the first in Chicago to spot the talent Thatcher had for words--asking her, after the run of Emma's Child, to write another play--one about men--and the result was Among Friends. "She's a strong woman--she rose to the challenge," Zacek says. Today, Thatcher is one of a dozen resident playwrights at Victory Gardens, and it was there that Voice of Good Hope came to be produced.