WRITERS AT WORK, Wrestling with Endings (Part 4)

Hi everyone,

I especially like this month’s topic about endings because it keeps leading us into new genres. Sandy Asher, who speaks today, is a gifted and often recognized children’s playwright and today she gives us some insight into that world. In June, Sandy will be part of New York University’s New Plays for Young Audiences development workshop at the historic Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. There will be rehearsed readings, free and open to the public, on Saturday, June 11 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, June 12 at 3 p.m. Sunday’s reading will be followed by audience discussion with the director, actors, and, of course, Sandy. I know of at least thirty friends of Sandy’s who are making the trip to NYC to celebrate with her. You might want to add the date to your calendar if there’s a way to attend. I’ll be in New York on June 6-8 following my poetry workshop in Honesdale. I’ll miss the performances by three days but hope to hook up with Sandy for a visit while we’re both there.

Our WRITERS AT WORK chats are meant to be casual and practical without getting preachy. Sandy has hit it perfectly.

Topic: Wrestling with Endings
Response 4: Sandy
March 22, 2011

Yes! David, I couldn’t agree with you more about the sheer perfection of Barbara Robinson’s last line in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect book. Tears of joy, indeed.

In fact, I ran downstairs – okay, limped downstairs with my recently bashed knee — to my autographed copy bookshelf to read it again. Then I remembered I’d lent it to a friend. (I really need two copies of that book, one to lend and one to keep in case the other never gets returned.) But here’s what I was looking for: Is that unexpected but totally appropriate shout of “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” really the last line? Don’t the other characters react? Doesn’t Barbara want to say a few words about the religious and social significance of that line? To me, that line in that context has its traditional meaning, but it also applies to our need to wake up and pay attention to all children, including the very challenging Herdmans of this world.

Nope. There is nothing after that line. There is no reaction from the other characters. There is no speech from the author. It’s not surprising to learn that Barbara Robinson has a theater background. She knows that when the problem is solved (the pageant is uniquely saved), the tension of the story drops and there’s only one thing left to do – get off the stage! By doing so without so much as a backward glance, Barbara accomplishes exactly what you’ve advised, David: Want to think more deeply about what the other characters’ reactions might be? Want to explore the meaning of the story further? Read the book again!

Oh, my. You really sat us down at the feet of a master, David. Now there’s an even longer line of wise words for me to follow. What can I possibly add?

Well, I can answer your question about the boomerang ending. Yes, absolutely, I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. For example, there’s my second book about Rabbit and Froggie, WHAT A PARTY! My original title for that book was WHAT A DAY!, and I wish the marketing folks hadn’t messed with it. (But that’s another topic we can take up later.) For me, this is a story about the fullness of a day. Froggie wakes up in his comfy bed in his cozy home, wildly excited about attending his grandfather’s birthday party. Off he goes, and, indeed, he has a wonderful time. But the party ends. Everyone’s tired. It’s time to go home. Froggie doesn’t want to leave — ever! Eventually, he does go home, as we all must, and rediscovers the comfort and coziness waiting for him there. It’s a fine place to be at the start and at the end of a lovely day. If the reader wants to linger a bit longer at Grandpa’s party, of course, he or she can read the book again.

Since you’re moving on to non-fiction and poetry endings in your next post, David, I think I’ll say a bit more about plays. In fact, I’ll talk about boomerang endings AND plays. Right now, I’m working on a new script called “Walking Toward America.” It’s based on my dear friend Ilga’s experiences in Europe during World War II. When Ilga was between the ages of 10 and 17, she and her family fled their home in Riga, Latvia; spent time in a forced labor camp in Germany; walked over 500 miles in two wintry months; spent several years in Displaced Persons camps; and finally sailed to America through the worst Atlantic storm in many years. Ilga has written about these events in a series of short stories and also in a longer essay for a community life story project. So I have plenty of material to draw from. More than enough, as you’ll see.

After much thought and shifting around of those jigsaw puzzle pieces you mention, David, I’ve decided to start the play with Ilga on the ship; then, as the storm is at its worst, cut back to a joyful time in Riga; go through the labor camp and the long, treacherous walk westward; and finally cut back to the ship again as the storm ends and Ilga and her family arrive in New York harbor. The end. That leaves out about six years in DP camps. It also leaves out Ilga’s delightful story about her family’s final destination of Oak Lawn, IL, where they’re introduced to the wonder of Wonder Bread.

Why omit such rich material? Believe me, it hasn’t been an easy choice. But even though there were challenges in those DP camps (two or more families to a room, for instance) and great humor in that loaf of Wonder Bread, at those points, the family is safe. And “safe” means a drop in the story’s tension. Recognizing that, I feel I have to stick with the high tension moments, mention the DP camps in passing, then get her to America, and get her off the stage. By using “the boomerang ending,” I’m able to do that. No P.S. about the Wonder Bread, just as there’s no P.S. after Barbara Robinson’s final line.

That said, I’ll get off the stage myself. And that’s your cue, David.