Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Building a Village: A Sewanee Love Letter

ENTERING THE DOMAIN
  

When you arrive in Sewanee you drive through the old stone gates where a sign ominously informs you that you are entering “The Domain of the University of the South.”  Legend has it that when you leave the gates a Sewanee angel watches over you until your return.  I have certainly found my angels in Sewanee and they have given my protection these past fives years.

Located on the Cumberland Plateau in southeastern Tennessee, Sewanee is a small private liberal arts collect governed by the Episcopal Church.  Affectionately called the Hogwarts of the South, the school is modeled after Cambridge in both its architecture and love of tradition:  all of the buildings are made of stone and professors wear gowns to teach.  The fog, which has often been written about, creates a mystical feel.

Home of the Sewanee Review, the oldest continuous literary journal in the country, Sewanee is steeped in literary tradition.  Thanks to the generous support of the Tennessee Williams endowment, the quaint hamlet is also home to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference each summer.  It was the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence which brought me to Sewanee five years ago.

The fellowship was truly a gift; Sewanee arrived in my life when I needed it most.  Here I have had the time and space to write, while also being given a livable wage, housing, and access to health insurance:  basic necessities that artists rarely have.  It’s also allowed me to be the writer I want to be while also being the parent I hope to be. 


BUILDING A VILLAGE  
When I moved to New York I found my tribe for the first time; in Sewanee I built my village.  One thing I have learned from being a parent is that children can create instant community.  The people I met when we first arrived were also parents and we were bound by our desire to be good parents while balancing our work life.  

In Sewanee parenthood has given me membership into a club of compatriots who understand the frustration, exhaustion, and satisfaction that comes with being a parent.  There are other friends who don’t have children.  They play an important role as well:  they provide me a much-needed escape from parenthood. 

When you live on a college campus people who love to learn surround you.  It’s one of the things I love most about the community; I am surrounded by smart people.  Sarah, Betsy, Shelley, Megan, and April are all smart people in ways that don't feel intimidating (well, maybe a little), but inspiring.  Among the group there are two college professors, an English teacher, an Episcopal priest, and the coordinator of the prestigious Sewanee Writers’ Conference. 


When you don’t have living parents or siblings you learn to build community.  Each of these women, along with numerous others in the community, would take my child in an emergency.  They have provided my daughter with play dates while I grade, kept my her overnight while I’ve rehearsed a play or attended an event.  They have engaged in late night texting sessions when I needed to vent about the frustrations of parenthood, and they ask about my grandmother and what I’m writing.  They are invested in my success as a writer, a parent, and a professor.  And when I see them they always ask, “How are you?” That might seem basic, but they ask how I’m doing and really listen to the response.  When you’re a single parent that doesn’t always happen.  


DRINKS AT THE INN
Instead of lunch, we steal away for a drink at the Sewanee Inn.  Sitting by the fireplace, we cozy up on the overstuffed couches and share stories about our children’s latest quirks, challenges at work, and plans for spring break.  We talk about the changes in our bodies as they grow older, aging parents, and the logistics of daily life.  And there’s laughter, lots and lots of laughter.  

This mighty group of women reminds me of the things we should all look for in friends. They never make me feel self-conscious about who I am as a parent.  They love me in yoga pants and no makeup.  They know that my daughter loves frogs and turtles and won’t eat vegetables unless they are raw.  They’ve all seen me cry and they’ve celebrated my victories.  And they have taught me how important it is to have people in your life who have seen your child at their worst  - and perhaps even a glimpse of your parenting at its worse - and rather than judgment offer understanding. 

When I turned 40 they planned a surprise party for me and gathered all of the people who have helped define my experience here in Sewanee.  It was a lovely act of friendship.  I’m not sure how much longer we will remain in Sewanee; uncertainty looms.  But if this chapter is coming to an end I can leave knowing that Sewanee has served me well.  Sewanee have given me a place to call home, an opportunity to write, to discover my love of teaching, and the resources to grow as both.  The community has reaffirmed the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child and that we all have a chance to build family wherever we go.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

All Roads Lead Back


All Roads Lead Back
Kent Thompson is a man who builds things.  He builds stories into plays and theatres into institutions.  
Most people have a defining moment in their life, a moment that all roads lead back to.  When I was in high school the Alabama Shakespeare Festival announced it was producing Peter Pan, so I convinced my mother to drive me the two and a half hours to Montgomery to audition.  My mother later admitted she only allowed me to audition because since I was a chesty 15 year old girl who couldn't really sing, she was sure I would never be cast.  But I was.  

Nothing about it was practical. But somehow my mother, who knew nothing about the theatre, recognized that this was an experience I couldn’t pass up.  So my grandmother and I moved into a furnished apartment for 10 weeks, which I’m sure was financed on credit cards.  My mother drove up on the weekends to play the role of reluctant stage mother.

Working with the company of Peter Pan was a life changing experience. Most of the cast came in from New York and a few had Broadway credits, which for a kid who spent her spare time pouring over old Playbills, was magical. It was in the rehearsal rooms of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival that I learned what it meant to be a working theatre professional.
The production was directed by Kent Thompson, who was then the artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Soft-spoken, with an understated, dry sense of humor, Kent is very much a gentleman.

New Plays and New Voices
Perhaps Kent's greatest legacy at ASF was the creation of the Southern Writers' Project, which shepherded new plays focusing on Southern and African-American culture, to the stage.  As I got older and my focus shifted from acting to writing I lied about my age so that I could participate in their inaugural Young Southern Writers’ Project. 

Soon I was invited to the Southern Writers' Project where I was given time, space, and a cast of smart actors who challenged me as a writer.  At one point Kent stopped an actor who was reading a long monologue about something that happened offstage.  And then he taught me a valuable lesson about active verses passive choices:  an audience would rather see a moment come to life than hear about it.  It’s a lesson that has stayed with me all these years and good advice for lives lived both on and off the stage.
As a lifelong theatre artist, Kent understands the challenges that artists face.  After I had a play at the Royal Court in London, Kent offered me my first commission.  That commission kept me afloat while I was writing and bridged the gap between other paying gigs.  The play I wrote became Gee’s Bend, my most successful play so far. 
After 16 years Kent left the Alabama Shakespeare and became the artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.  There he launched the New Play Summit, a new play development program that now attracts theatre artists from around the country.  Not only is he committed to commissioning playwrights, but he understands the value of then shepherding those plays into production.  Once again Kent offered me a commission; the play, written just after my mother died, became a sweet little love story about death.

The New Play Summit has evolved into something more than a showcase for new work; it has become a place where artists come together for fellowship and dialogue.  Kent's commitment to diversity has seen the voices of more women and people of color represented on the stage.  The Women's Voices Fund, which he created thanks to support from major donors, actively commissions new work each year.

Early Inspiration
Kent was born the son of a Southern Baptist Preacher, who held a PhD from the University of Edinburough and was mentored by Martin Luther King, Sr.  It might seem unlikely for a preacher’s son to grow up to be a theatre artist (or maybe not), but growing up listening to his father preach had an unexpected influence on him as an artist.  His father was doing from the pulpit what Kent has always tried to do in the theatre:  promote dialogue.  “I watched that from my dad every week,” he tells me over dinner. “Let’s talk about what’s happening now.  We have to talk to one another.”  That philosophy is a driving force behind the work Kent chooses to produce. 
Moving On
This spring I learned that Kent would be stepping down as the artistic director of the theatre after 12 years.  I decided to fly out to Denver to see his final production.  Kent graciously agreed to dinner.  We talked about creating new work, the challenges of making good theatre while also making money, and our journey to where we are today.  We talked about our losses over the years, of parents and spouses.  I asked him how he raised his son, now grown and in graduate school, while running a theatre; those who do it successfully continue to be an inspiration to me.  I savored every moment.


As we said goodbye I awkwardly tried to say thank you, to somehow convey the respect I have for the work he's done and what his faith in me has meant all these years.  He said, “Now you’re doing the same thing.”  And I suppose am I through my students.
Kent closed his show at the Denver Center after also celebrating his final New Play Summit.  For now, he plans to finish a book on directing which he has been contracted to write.  He and his wife, actress Kathleen McCall will continue working with Denver Health where they are advocates and fundraisers for the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Unit. My guess is that he will find his way back to a theatre where he will continue to make plays and inspire others.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

On Triumph and Defeat: The Halfway Mark


Being An Active Participant
The 40 Lunches Project has made it to the half way mark.  

When I talk to my students about creating compelling characters, I tell them that a good protagonist is always active rather than passive.  When we think back on our lives it is easy to place ourselves in the passive role.  This happened to me.  This person did this to me.  40 Lunches has forced me to look at myself as an active character.  What did I do?  What role did I play in this relationship?

Launching 40 Lunches has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.  It has challenged me to confront some of the most difficult moments in my life, reflect on friendships, and boldly reach out to people I wanted to connect or reconnect with. It has given me an opportunity to say thank you to most and I'm sorry to some. It has forced me to put those experiences into words and to consider the part I played in each story.  It has also given me a weekly writing assignment (more or less) and deadlines to meet.


Midway Slump

But I’ll admit that I have hit a slump.  Keeping up with the weekly posts has been a challenge when I am also juggling work and parenting. 

And it’s not just the writing.  It’s the 20lbs I’ve managed to gain, because apparently when I turned 40 my metabolism stopped.  (That wasn’t supposed to happen.) It’s fear and uncertainty of being 40 and not knowing what’s next.  (That wasn’t supposed to happen either.)



So What’s Next?

So now, in addition to thinking about what I want the next 40 years of my life to be, I am looking at my immediate future as well.  How can I make the last half of 40 be the best it can be?

There is a lot I don't know, but what I do know is that there will be travel and adventure.  I'll open a new play in San Francisco and workshop another in Omaha.  I’ll be visiting with guests in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, and Alabama.  For many of the upcoming lunches I’ll be visiting with friends I haven’t seen in years.  

But when I launched this project I knew that in addition to reconnecting with people who shaped the first 40 years I wanted to reach out to people who I hope will inspire the next 40.  Many of my remaining lunches will hopefully do just that.
 
The Best Part

The best part has been the support of the people who have been following the project, the people who share my posts with others, and take the time to make a thoughtful comment. It’s been interesting to see the ways in which people connect and relate to the stories I am telling. 

Have any of these stories inspired you to reach out to someone in your life?  If so, drop me a line and tell me about it.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

The Family We Leave Behind


WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Something unexpected happens at lunch sometimes.  One question leads to another and soon revelations are made.  This really should be an essay about my cousin Lee, but it’s also a story about our grandparents. 

Unlike many kids from divorced families I saw my dad every weekend, and because he lived on the same piece of land as my grandparents, I saw them as well.  On Saturday mornings I would run from my dad’s house to my grandmother’s house, wearing nothing but my dad’s long t-shirts that I loved to sleep in.  My grandmother and I had never been close.  She wanted to dress me up in frilly dresses and play with dolls.  I wanted none of it.  
 
But she did teach me to sew.  That was where we found our common ground.  On Saturday mornings she would make biscuits and I would sit on her floor watching cartoons and cutting out squares that would eventually become a quilt.

Raised in rural poverty during the Depression she knew all too well what it was like to go to bed hungry.  She tended her garden and hoarded her bounty in mason jars that lined the garage.  As a child, my father always warned me not to eat anything that came from those jars.  They sat on the shelves like specimens to be studied but not touched.  Then there was the money she hid around the house because banks couldn’t be trusted.  She also hoarded fabric, which was stacked floor to ceiling in her bedroom.
 
FAMILY ON THE WEEKENDS
For most of my childhood my cousin Joel, who was two years older, spent Friday nights with us.  He was an only child as well.  I got a playmate and his parents got a night out.  We climbed trees, built forts, played in creeks, made mud pies, and did a whole host of dumb stuff that could have easily gotten us killed.  I was riding three wheelers before I could ride a bike.  Eventually I graduated to my own go-cart, a bright yellow model with a formula racing body called “The Hot Banana”.  (I’m not kidding.)  In one near-death experience I ran my cousin’s go-cart, which had hand breaks that my small hands couldn’t reach, into a steel wood splitter, taking most of the skin off one side of my face.  When I finally woke up my first words were, “Mama’s gonna kill daddy.”  Joel and I could easily spend the day outside without once being called inside.  It was the kind of childhood that is rare to find these days.

There was also my cousin Lee.  His parents were divorced; his mother lived in town and his father lived in Florida.  For most of my childhood Lee was shuffled back and forth between parents, grandparents and other relatives.  Because he was a little older he wasn’t always interested in our adventures, but we was always kind.

Some bad choices in high school led to him dropping out, but after two months doing manual labor on the dry docks in the hot Alabama sun, he returned to school.  He began working in IT at Domino’s twenty years ago and has worked his way up to Vice-President of Technology.  He’s been married for 23 years to a woman he clearly adores. 

STAYING CONNECTED
Today, Lee is the only connection I have to my father’s family.  There was an argument shortly after he died, and my mother and I drove away from my father’s house with two antique phonographs and his beloved tweed jacket.  I didn’t return to the house until my grandmother’s death.  It was then that my aunt returned my father’s things:  trunks filled with my childhood artwork, car catalogues, yearbooks, and mementos from Vietnam.  Most was moldy and water damaged from years of being in an old storage room.  I loaded it up and spent two days sorting through it, burning most of it in my mother’s backyard. 

Over the years a gift would occasionally show up at our doorstep.  There was a Christmas card one year that simply said, “Call your grandmother.”  Once, while in high school, I saw her in WalMart, but unsure of what to say, I slipped quickly to another aisle. 

My relationship with my cousins was sacrificed in the process.  People who I saw every weekend, who helped shape and define my childhood, all but disappeared.  As an adult Lee made an effort to stay in touch, which I have always appreciated.  

COMMON GROUND
We meet for lunch in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  He’s a generous, good-natured guy with a big smile.  Even though we haven’t seen each other in 8 years, being with him feels easy. 

We spend time catching up, but the conversation shifts from the present to the past.  We talk about our grandparents and how they shaped our parents.  When you walked into our grandparent’s house there were no pictures, no family portraits or graduation photos. The only picture I’ve ever seen of my father as a child was in his yearbook.  My grandfather was a stoic man who had little to say.  He would sit in his chair every afternoon eating cottage cheese and an apple, which he peeled with a pocketknife.  Patience was rewarded with a slice.  He was a genius and highly regarded by friends and co-workers.  


But as Lee and I exchange stories, piecing together information, we quietly acknowledge that that he was not always a kind man.  We are resigned to the fact that certain truths have been lost over time.  We each have stories that we’ve heard, little glimpses into the pieces of their lives we never witnessed. We talk about our family, who they were and who we perceived them to be.  Even as we talk about the good and the bad, it’s clear that he loves them unconditionally; I respect him for that.

Lunch is over and we vow to stay in touch; we can't let another 8 years pass without getting together.  Sometimes at bedtime my daughter asks me to tell her stories from my childhood.  It's important for her to meet the characters in those stories. It’s easy to take family for granted when they are around, but with my dad gone, I feel the need to make sure she, too, knows where she came from. Later we exchange emails, thanking one another for the time together and recalling our conversation.  He tells me, "It's the life lessons that matter to me."

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Monday, February 6, 2017

I Went to Meet The World: The Vicar of ATL


FIRST MEMORIES
“My first memory that I know to be my own was at the airport,” Donna tells me.  “We went to meet my grandmother at the Atlanta airport.  I was two and she was 72.”  Donna and I met for lunch the week before, but there were still more stories to tell so we find ourselves in my living room sipping tea.  The memory is significant, because now, exactly 50 years later, Donna works as the Episcopal clergy at the Atlanta airport.  Referred to as the Vicar of ATL by many, she is part of an international interfaith ministry dedicated to helping travelers in need. 

My first memory of Donna was at a gathering of new faculty at Sewanee: The University of the South where we made small talk while balancing plates of hors d'oeuvres. My daughter was turning two and my marriage was a mess.  I took a year-long fellowship as the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence, which I hoped would give me time to figure out what I was doing with my life.  There were events for the new faculty, meant to build community.  When you live on top of a mountain in Tennessee community is particularly important.  

EVERY WEEK

Every Tuesday for a year we met for lunch. Donna had recently completed her PhD at Emory and was waiting her ordination as an Episcopal priest. She came to Sewanee as a sabbatical replacement in the religion department, leaving her family behind in Atlanta; I was feeling isolated and in need of adult conversation.  Our weekly meals became something to look forward to. 

The following year, Donna returned to Atlanta where she was assigned to the interfaith ministry at the Atlanta airport, in addition to taking on duties with a local parish.  But once a week she returned to Sewanee to teach a class at the School of Theology.  In need of a place to stay each week, we opened our house to her.

Donna spent every Thursday night at our house for almost two years.  It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.  We would often sit up talking at night.  She provided me with a sounding board, or as I liked to call it, “personalized pastoral care.”  In those dark days at the end of my marriage, just having someone to share my day with often felt like a lifeline.  It also served as an opportunity to show my daughter that it is important to open your home to others.  

WHERE IT BEGAN

Raised Southern Baptist, Donna first felt a calling to the church in high school.  She was particularly drawn to international ministry, which would allow her to travel.  While in college she spent summers abroad in Israel and Liberia.  But when there was a fundamentalist takeover of the Seminary she was attending, they eliminated the missionary positions that many women filled, leaving her unsure of what to do. 

She took a break from the church and worked a day job before being called to be the Pastor at a church in Louisville.  After two years, she decided to go abroad.  She wanted to live in a place where Christianity wasn’t the dominant religion, so she moved to Japan to teach English.  Immersing herself in Japanese culture, she studied Japanese tea ceremony and Kendo sword fighting.   

After 5 years she returned home to help care for her ailing father.  With her experience in Japan as inspiration, she enrolled in Emory to complete her Ph.D.  After attending the ordination of a friend, she felt a connection to the Episcopal church.  Their inclusive practices felt welcoming.  In 2008 she became an Episcopalian.  In 2010 she was nominated to become a priest and in 2012 became a postulate.  

WALKING THE WALK

She continues to teach at the School of Theology, but now she makes the round trip drive in one day.  Her work at the airport continues to grow. On Ash Wednesday she wanders the terminals offering ashes to those who are observant.  Donna is often called to support to passengers in crisis, like those traveling home for the funeral of a loved one.  She greets active duty service members arriving home and even escorts the bodies of fallen soldiers.  Some of her most important work, however, involves the service workers in the airport, many of whom go from one minimum wage job to another, practically living in the airport.

Donna’s service work extends beyond her work at the airport.  She holds vigil with other clergy each time there is a death row execution in Georgia and is an advocate for women’s and LGBTQ rights.  I admire her dedication to her faith and the causes that she feels promote acceptance and compassion as dictated by the Bible.
But there is still more work to be done.  There are the immigrant families to greet, students to mentor, and what seems like a steady stream of inmates waiting to meet their fate.  But Donna walks the walk.

As our visit comes to an end she says, “In ways I would not understand until much later, when I went that day to meet my grandmother, I went to meet the world.”
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Monday, January 30, 2017

GUEST POST: Why I Didn't Go To My 20-Year High School Reunion


Everyone was expecting me to go. Or to do something.

“Are you gonna go? You have to!”

“What are you gonna do? You have to do something!”

I wasn’t so sure. It felt like it had only been a minute since our 10-year reunion, and, really, hadn’t I done enough to those poor, rich people already? Maybe I should just let them reunite in peace.

But then, on the Facebook PVPHS Reunion Event page, I saw this:

And immediately thought, “Well fuck. Now I have to RSVP ‘yes’.”

Because I’m “that girl.”

Y’know, “the one behind that crap” Courtney Wessonnnnnnn is referring to.

You should have seen what Tiffany Wesson, Courtney’s identical twin commented—it was so bad she deleted it. And don’t judge Ryan Eberhard for “liking” it. He is super into Jesus and apparently (I genuinely did not know this), Jesus is no longer into strippers. Sorry, Ryan.

You see, for our 10-year reunion, I thought it’d be funny if I got a stripper to attend and pretend to be me. I went “stripper shopping” at Jumbo’s Clown Room in Hollywood (a favorite amongst people who want to go to a strip club but also want to seem like the type of person who would never go to a strip club) and found Cricket, a woman in a taco costume who can do things with her person that defy the laws of physics. I instantly knew I wanted her to be me. And just a couple days later, she was a better me than I’ve ever been. I got some cameras, friends to operate them, I hired one of the sound guys from the show Punk’d, and we filmed the whole thing. It was funny. And stressful. Scary. Intense. Shocking. Frustrating. Because for someone who didn’t want to go to a reunion, boy did I go. And I KEPT going for years afterwards; editing the footage, doing a wild press tour when the trailer went viral (oh man, you should see some of the comments on YouTube—they make the Wesson Twins seem like the Wakefield Twins), working on a screenplay adaptation of the idea for the next 1,000 years (approximately), and with each draft, having to make the “me” character a meaner and more insecure person, who does this not to be funny, no, that’s not enough motivation for a movie, but for R-E-V-E-N-G-E. And of course, there has to be a love interest.

I know what you’re thinking: they invited you to the twenty-year reunion? No, they did not. But I think you probably know me well enough by now to know that I wouldn’t let a detail like that stop me. I also have more Facebook friends from high school now than I did before my video went viral. I know this because before the video I had ZERO (0!). And now I’m “friends” with Ryan Eberhard, among others. One of these digital friends added me to the reunion event page, so, I guess, yeah, they did invite me.



I started thinking about what to do for number twenty. Would Cricket go again? Sure the jig was up, but a lot of people liked her a lot. Or, what if I sent as many strippers as there were attendees—one for everyone, as a show of goodwill?  OR or, would my celebrity doppelganger, Mayim Biyalik, aka TVs Blossom or, more currently, TVs The Big Bang Theory’s Amy Farrah Fowler, be willing to go as me? For my high school initiation into the Thespian Club I was dressed in a ridiculous outfit and delivered onto Venice Beach to try and convince people I was Mayim Bialik. I wound up having to sign autographs. So, I asked her if she’d do it (the circumstances aren’t important). And let me just tell you, we had been enjoying a perfectly pleasant conversation before I asked, and then she looked at me like I was a crazy person and slowly backed away. I took that as a solid maybe.

Before I had a chance to hammer out the details with Mayim, I noticed that the Facebook Event Page wasn’t… how shall I put this… testing well. Out of a class of 800-1000 kids (art school maths), only 36 were going to attend.  And we all know the rate of attrition on Facebook events is at least 70 - 111%. That meant 10.8 strippers. I thought I could actually pull that off. But then they announced that the reunion would be in the middle of the afternoon, on a Sunday, at one of the bars at a Donald Trump resort, no private space secured. This way, you could still go to church and pre-pray for forgiveness for going straight from there to financially supporting an orange narcissist by drinking enough gin to be able to reunite with your high school friends... and maybe find a love interest?

This was going to be a sad sequel, and the studio system already makes enough of those.

So I just didn’t go. I don’t know if anyone did. I think I may have inadvertently killed reunions for our cohort. Now I’ll never be able to hug it out with Courtney or Tiffany. 

You can watch “I Remember Andrea” at www.irememberandrea.com and if you meet Amy Schumer, please ask her to play Cricket in the movie (but pitch it better than Andrea did with Mayim).

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Becoming A Writer


I grew up in the South.  And in the South we tell stories.  Every day at 5pm, my great-grandmother would hold court during Happy Hour, where she would drink bourbon and tell stories.  My grandmother and her sisters would join in as they transformed fiction into fact.  It was at their feet that I learned how to tell a story.
But it was in a dark, dilapidated theatre on 52nd Street that I became a writer.  Youngblood is the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s lab for playwrights under 30.  Well known for their annual marathon of one act plays, EST has been an incubator for new work since its founding. 
We met once a week where we would do writing exercises, then members would share new work.  It became a safe space where I could count on receiving constructive feedback.  With different backgrounds, we were all telling different stories.  It was an invaluable resource for a young writer trying to learn the craft.

Youngblood not only taught me how to be a writer, it taught me how to be a theatre artist.  Theatre is a collaborative art and in order for our work to succeed we all had to pitch in.  Recognizing that plays are meant to be seen, not just read, we were always creating opportunities to put our work on stage.  There was Asking For Trouble, a series of short plays written and rehearsed in a week.  Every other year we produced Thicker Than Water, an evening of fully produced one-acts.  In between there were readings and workshops, which created deadlines to hold us accountable for our writing.  And to make those events a success we all had to support one another.  We read stage directions at readings.  We ushered for shows.  We put up posters in coffee shops and asked family members to donate money.  We swept floors, took tickets, and ran lights.  My day job at an investment bank regularly supplied us with copies of scripts.
We were a motley crew of young writers, all working multiple jobs while trying to make theatre and hone our craft.  In the summer months we would pack up and go to the EST retreat in Lexington, NY where we slept in bunkhouses, cooked our own meals, and told stories by the late night fire.  The group has grown and competition for membership has become fierce.
Amy, Jason, and Edith were already members when I arrived a Youngblood.  More than 15 years have passed and we are all still be writing, as challenging as that is at times.  We have all been fortunate enough to receive validation by the theatre and film community.  Amy’s play, Heights, was first presented as a one act during our Thicker Than Water production.  Merchant Ivory optioned the play, which was then adapted into a feature film starring Glenn Close.  As members of Youngblood, we were able to experience the process vicariously through her.  Now a professor at NYU, her most recent film, Equity, debuted in the summer of 2016 to critical praise.  Jason, a lifelong New Yorker, moved to LA a few years ago.  He made the decision to give up playwriting and instead has been focused on writing for film and television.  The winner of the prestigious Humanitas fellowship, he was recently a writer on the Fox show, Pitch. Edith has enjoyed a commission from Steppenwolf and was the inaugural playwriting fellow at Emory where she taught for two years. And after all these years, Edith and I have found ourselves living on top of the same mountain in Tennessee.  Sewanee, which originally brought me to Youngblood (thanks to my mentor at the SewaneeWriters’ Conference), has brought Youngblood to me.
It would have been great to find a nice little café and overstay our welcome while catching up, but with four writers in three different time zones, the logistics were impossible.  Instead we opted for a virtual visit, which was almost as good.
As we talked about our time in Youngblood the thing we kept going back to was that the communal, collaborative nature of the group taught us all about generosity.  We learned how to champion the successes of our fellow writers.  That generosity has served us well as we navigate the professional world where not everyone is as supportive.
But we all still struggle with some of the same fundamental challenges that we faced when we were younger:  What will the next gig be?  As an artist it is easy to feel like your last job will be your last job.  It’s a career that in many ways is defined by uncertainty.  Amy continues to call New York her home, but the rest of us have moved quite a bit, all in search of work.  Life in the theatre can feel very migratory at times.  We talked about our desire to feel settled, to have a sense of permanence.  But even though there are moments of doubt and the occasional threat to leave the business all together, we all love what we do most of the time.  Our visit serves as a reminder that it's important to have a community of people who are a part of your history and share a common vocabulary.  
New to 40 Lunches?  Read more about the project here and check out some of my previous lunch guests here.  You can also follow along on Facebook.