I NEED YOUR HELP. I am deciding on a poster for our next production of Metronome Ticking. Could you please let me know which of these three posters you think has the greatest impact on an audience? Please share why you liked one poster more than the other. You're all invited to the next performance of my docu-drama, Metronome Ticking, on May 3 at 7:00 pm. Many thanks for your cooperation, Henrik
Click on the posters to enlarge the image.
Of all the three genres of writing featured on this site, poetry comes the easiest to me. If I could, I would write poetry non-stop. Right now, I am working on a new poetry book on war zones. Some of these poems, all addressing gut-wrenching issues, have already made it all over Afghanistan via the Facebook world.
I will never forget the day as a young teacher of English at the Therfield Comprehensive School in Surrey in the early 1970s, when the headmaster selected me to represent the school at a conference for teachers of English to meet some of the leading English poets and study British poetry somewhere up North. I was thrilled, but also intimidated, when I learned on the first day that we all had to present one original poem of our own on the last day of the conference. I suddenly feared that as someone whose mother tongue is not English, but German, and as someone who had never written a single poem, I would be laughed out of court.
I spent a whole week composing just one short stanza, working hours, often late into the night, rearranging the poetic furniture in my one-room poem. To my surprise, my very first poem was greeted not with laughter but with a long applause. From that moment onward, I felt like someone who had been scared of getting his toes wet but who now jumped into the sea at every opportunity possible.
Since then, I have written hundreds of poems wherever I lived, many of which were published, and I taught poetry in many countries with the enthusiasm of a swimmer who had won a championship. I also edited books of poetry, including one with linguistic poetry (University of Essex, 1977) for which Noam Chomsky wrote a forward.
I enjoy conducting interviews, hearing playwrights, directors, musicians, theatre artists, and even critics talk openly about their work can be very satisfying.
Yes, compiling and editing documents, stumbling through verbal fragments and juggling asides, can be time consuming, especially as I often find myself writing follow-up letters, asking searching questions, and then reshaping the writing of the interview to reach a deeper level of understanding.
However, rather than relying on notes, quickly jotted down in a darkened theatre, or getting influenced by superficial first impressions of an interviewee, I send the penultimate version of the interview to the subjects and ask them for their input. Even if theatre artists want to change something that they had said earlier, now they have a chance to fine-tune it. As a result, the readers of my interviews really get to learn what the writers, directors, etc. really want to say.
This photo of me holding a concentration camp puppet with a Star of David expresses exactly how I feel about serious theatre and the Holocaust in particular.
The puppet was made by Robert Smythe and his team as part of The Puppetmaster of Lodz at Mum Puppettheatre in Philadelphia, October 2004.
The image of my star of David was taken by Alex Griffin during the Puppet (r)Evolution convention at Swarthmore College, August 2013.
Drama around the globe has existed since human beings began to dance, make drawings, sing, and deal with conflict. I experienced the drama of life very early on when my mother—wife of a prolific young writer who, as a German propaganda officer and war correspondent, had documented almost every day of the Third Reich—did the unthinkable.
My father, aged 31, got killed while reporting in Russia during World War II. A talented writer who not only penned countless articles and one book, but also close to 500 love letters to my mother from occupied France, he also filled about 20 volumes of journals, covering almost the entire Third Reich on a daily basis. He considered those journals and letters his life’s inheritance. My mother cherished them, and always told me that once I was old enough I could have all of them. However, something horrible happened.
Because I have studied and taught in countries around the world for many years, I could not take her up on the offer. However, once I had settled in the Philadelphia area, I asked her for my father’s journals. I added a sentence that I will regret for the rest of my life, namely, “I want to publish them.” My mother, apparently horrified by that request, threw my father’s life’s work into an incinerator.
This act of deliberate destruction was one of the most dramatic and saddest moments in my life. The burning of my father's journals was the catalyst of my desire to write plays about subjects that people might not know about or may be too scared to touch. Out of that anguish, my first play, Metronome Ticking, grew like a phoenix out of the ashes, followed by more plays.
So far, almost all my plays deal with the oppression of Jewish people and culture, seen from a German perspective. I’ve also begun writing about American characters, presenting aspects that may feel as uncomfortable to some Americans as my German plays may feel uncomfortable to some German audiences. Bambi and Cinderella are not exactly my role models.
If my plays could encourage some people to think about the damage of prejudice, I would consider all the work done worth doing.
For years, a number of my friends had asked me to turn part of my life stories into a book. I always dismissed those recommendations. However, things began to change dramatically in the summer of 2013 when I attended a drama workshop with Michele Volansky, a well-known American dramaturg.
During our introductions, upon hearing that I wrote exclusively about the plight of Jewish people, she told me, point blank, in front of a group of Philadelphia writers, “Stop that! From now on, at least for this workshop, write about your own experiences.” Both shocked and delighted, I began writing a play about WW II and its aftermath, seen through the eyes of a little boy in Germany.
In the winter of that year, I attended another workshop, conducted by Debra Leigh Scott, writer, playwright, publisher, and founding director of Hidden River Writers. Haunted by the memories of my childhood, I wrote my first two stories: “Brown Paper Bag” and “Black Shoe Polish”—a liberating experience which reminded me of the days, back in England, when I learned to write poetry.
Photo by James Noble
From Callow Young Lover to Successful Playwright: Interview with Eric Conger, writer of BEAUTIFUL BOY
Eric Conger: The latter. My daughter found me when she was thirty-one. She was the product of an affair between two young people in the theatre in the late sixties. As marriage was not realistic, and as the young woman’s parents were devout Catholics, abortion did not seem to be an option. She was sent to Canada with an alibi for the duration of her pregnancy. After the initial discovery of the pregnancy, I was cut out of the picture. The more time went by, the more I suspected that the pregnancy was terminated. Yet, I was not totally surprised to receive an email in 1999 that my daughter would like to meet me.
HE: How did you feel when you were cut loose by the young woman and her family?
EC: To be honest, as a young and callow man, I was happy to be so. I was nowhere near ready to be married and, certainly, it would have been disastrous had we done it.
HE: How did your daughter find out who her parents were and how did she go about it?
EC: After seven years and the services of a professional searcher, she was about to give up, when her stepfather located the name of the birthmother. How, he wouldn’t say, and to this day it is a mystery, but he somehow got a look at the original birth certificate or got a friend to. It was just a matter of days before the birthmother was located and contacted, then me shortly after.
HE: That’s an extraordinary journey, which I see reflected in your play. How did you respond to your daughter’s sudden entry into your life?
EC: I was found at a time when my life was fairly settled, and I had two children with the woman I married. Being found by my grown daughter was certainly a huge event in our lives, but we managed to accommodate her and gradually introduce her to other relatives, who have embraced her with love.
HE: How did you feel when your daughter finally managed to contact her birth mother, and then you—after 31 years?
EC: Strangely peaceful. I knew that I could help heal a wound that had probably been festering for some time. I flew to Canada to meet her and it was very emotional.
The birthmother was another story. Though she eventually relented and agreed to meet her, she was initially reluctant because it was all extremely difficult for her. From being sent away under cover of a lie, to the shame of an out-of-wedlock birth, to the agony of surrendering a child to strangers, the damage to her was considerable. She is gradually warming to the situation, but the scars are deep and lasting. And she is understandably resentful of me.
HE: How has this event affected you as a writer?
EC: It was certainly a story. But I didn’t want to invade my daughter’s privacy, so when creating the play, I used a male lead instead of a female. Though BEAUTIFUL BOY is not her journey, it does focus on the anomie, a feeling of disconnectedness of an adopted person, and the injustice of the sealed records laws. It’s a subject very much in the zeitgeist, especially with the current success of the film, PHILOMENA, and new reform proposals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
HE: How did you then prepare yourself to write a play about the complexity of being an adopted child and the difficulty of being a birthparent?
EC: I acted on the stage and TV for twenty years before putting pen to paper. It was another ten before I began to take it seriously. Writers like drama. This situation was dramatic.
After extensive reading about adoption, adoptees, the laws, and the Catholic Church’s interest therein, and several memoirs of nuns who came of age in the fifties and sixties, I had a good first draft after nine months. BEAUTIFUL BOY, my fourth play, was written somewhat more quickly than the others. It took about a year to create a draft that I was pleased enough with to present publicly. It was another six months of refinement.
It seemed clear to me that [the play] had to be about search and reunion, and that each of those elements should be dramatized. So I constructed a simple “quest” play, where the hero leaves home in search of himself, meets demons and prophets along the way, and finally faces the unknown, which, in this case, is his mother. Most of the events in the play actually happened to one person or another. I kept good notes and could go back and find an anecdote that was suitable to a given point in the journey. There were so many to choose from.
HE: How did others respond to your evolving play?
EC: There were three professional readings at various venues in New York and New Jersey (both Lois Smith and Frances Sternhagen read the part of the Sister), during which the Walnut decided to option it. At that point it felt tight and ready to go.
One of the best examples of how a revision came to be arose from a comment I got from an audience member at a reading about the final monologue of the lead, Bill. When asked by the nun if he was “taken care of,” if he “was loved,” I at first had him reply sarcastically, not wanting her to get off the hook so easily. But then the audience member said, “What if he pivots in the middle of that speech and begins speaking sincerely? If he realizes that he did have a good life with his adoptive parents and only now realizes it?” I immediately saw how beautiful that suggestion was, and took it. If any moment in the play grabs us, it’s that one.
HE: Tell us more about your choice of director, and the impact of the music on your play.
Carla Belver and Jeffrey Coon in Eric Conger’s BEAUTIFUL BOY a world premiere produced by Walnut Street Theatre in its third-floor Independence Studio. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)
EC: It’s a tribute to the [Walnut's] artistic director, Bernard Havard, that rather than assign a director to the project, he let me choose from a small group. I liked the vibe I got from David Stradley, artistic director of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, when I read his resume. I appreciated the interest he showed during our phone conversation, so I felt he would be good—and he was, very much so. There were some refinements, clarifications, and deletions once the rehearsal process started, as there always are with new work, but we were 98% solid on the first rehearsal.
The music, which is wonderfully evocative and helps both tell the story and propel the show forward, was written by Elizabeth Atkinson, someone previously unknown to me. But theatre is a collaboration, and other influences are welcome and necessary. I heard the compositions on her website and trusted that she understood the play and would find the right sound for it, which she did. I am most grateful to the Walnut for not only producing it, but allocating extra resources for video scenery and original music.
HE: Are there any plans of inviting the daughter who searched for you and her birthmother to see your play?
EC: My daughter will fly in for the final weekend. The cast will be most interested to meet her, to say the least. The birthmother is still fragile and would not wish to attend, I’m sure, so neither our daughter nor I have encouraged her to come.
HE: What are the next steps that you want to take with Beautiful Boy?
EC: It would be great if an adoption organization or a person who likes the play and feels strongly about bringing justice to the adoption process would fund a workshop in New York. If I had $20,000 – $25,000, I could import the entire Walnut cast and present it as a backers’ audition in Manhattan, and be able to showcase it to NYC producers. The chance of getting a production would be high.
This article was published originally by Phindie on March 8, 2014.
Charles Dickens grew up in an orphanage, a horrendous period in his childhood that haunted him throughout his life. As a result, many of his books take place in orphanages or portray characters in search of their father, as in Great Expectations.
Unlike Dickens, the playwright Eric Conger was not an orphan but a happy-go-lucky young man infatuated with a young woman. When she became pregnant, he refused to marry her. As a result, her Catholic family cut off all contact with him and forced their daughter to carry out her pregnancy in Canada and then put her child up for adoption through a Catholic agency. Conger, meanwhile, put the affair behind him, studied, and became a successful stage and TV actor, as well as a translator of French plays.
Thirty years later, Conger received a call from a young woman who expressed her joy at finding her birth mother and now her biological father. Conger, already married with children, learned that he had also fathered a daughter. Just as Dickens turned the events of his youth into novels, so Conger transformed his daughter’s search into a play.
To respect his daughter’s privacy, Conger wrote a play not about her, but about Bill, a 49-year-old adopted male (played movingly by Jeff Coon) who, upon the death of his adopted mother, searches for his birth parents— an arduous journey of self-discovery.
Nun as Queen of Hearts
Conger set out to construct a simple “quest” play, in which the protagonist leaves home in search of himself, meets demons and prophets along the way, and finally faces the unknown — in this case, his mother.
The story of the search makes the adopted son a modern Sisyphus who, whenever he thinks he has reached his goal, sees the adoption stone roll down into an abyss.
While searching — initially against the will of his wife (the beautiful and energetic Alicia Roper) — Bill encounters many different characters, becoming a contemporary Everyman.
After a confrontation with an obnoxious former student (played with great gusto by Elena Bossler), Bill encounters a prophetic, down-on-his-luck jazz man who morphs into a modern clerk, and then into a metrosexual genealogy researcher (played brilliantly by the multifaceted Phillip Brown).
The road to discovery takes Bill into a religious world, where he meets a slim, Catholic nun in sundown mode (played with great sincerity by Alicia Roper). He then encounters a woman who holds all the strings like one of the fates in Greek mythology: a stern old nun (played with tenacious conviction by Carla Belver) who, like a religious Queen of Hearts, chops off all attempts to let the adopted son discover the identity of his biological parents.
‘I could be Jewish’
Director David Stradley, artistic director of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, presented this riveting play in such an intimate way that the raw emotion surfaces through facial muscles contracting, spit flying, and tears glistening in the eyes of the characters. Conger’s capacity to make us laugh and cry simultaneously while following this adopted Everyman on a quest for his identity makes this play a remarkable experience.
In one scene, Bill, raised as an Irish American, is so desperate to discover his real identity that he speculates he might not be Irish: “I could be Jewish for all I know. Wouldn’t that be fun? ‘Cousin Seamus. Sit. Have some babka.’”
In one of the final scenes, the senior nun and the desperate searcher cool off, shivering in the night. She falls asleep on the porch, while Bill disappears, leaving us sitting in semi-darkness, soothed by ethereal sounds (composed by Elizabeth Atkinson) filling the air.
During this long stretch of meditation in the dark, the theatre shifted from a pleasant temperature to an ice cold one, resembling the coldness that had settled over the two main characters.
At the reception afterwards, when I remarked how impressed I was by the perfect timing of the room temperature dropping dramatically, Carla Belver replied, “Oh, that? That was a pure coincidence!”
I hope the artistic director will talk to the technician in charge of the air-conditioning at the Walnut and make sure that it will be turned on full-blast exactly during that powerful scene and turned off before the play’s warmhearted and harmonious musical climax.
This review was originally published by the BroadStreetReview on March 04, 2014.