Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Liberal Education

I graduated from high school early and moved to New York where I spent what would have been my senior year of high school working.  I babysat, worked as a Broadway usherette, and did office work at the Theatre Development Fund. Then one day a letter arrived from my mother that said, “Enroll in college or come home.”  Worried I would have to leave New York, I found myself highly motivated to continue my education.  My roommate, an awesome Cajun chick from Lafayette, had a brochure for Purchase College.  It was a small SUNY school with an emphasis on the arts, and with my well-invested year in New York, I qualified for in-state tuition.  Win/win.  I applied and enrolled sight unseen.
After spending a night in the dorms for freshman orientation, I quickly realized that I was not made for communal living.  Instead, I rented an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and commuted.  I would walk to Grand Central Station, take the train to White Plains, then a bus to Purchase.  Door to door it took 2 hours.  At 18, it seemed like a good idea.

Coming from Alabama, Purchase exposed me to a diverse mix of students from a myriad of backgrounds.  Pouring over the course catalog during registration, my mind was blown. For my freshman seminar I took a literature course called Exploding American Identities, where I was introduced to Latino, Asian, and Native American voices.  There was the philosophy class where I read Kant and Marx and a course on the Psychology of Gender.  Then I begged my way into The Political Economy of AIDS a three hour seminar only open to upperclassmen.  It was the mid-90’s and the AIDS crisis defined our generation.  Hugely popular on campus, it was taught in a lecture hall by Kim Christensen, a favorite among students.  I never missed a class.  She took a topic that was so complex and broke it down in a ways that made it accessible.   She found ways to teach us about the past in a way that resonated in our contemporary world.

There was no formality with Kim, but she didn’t need it to gain our respect and admiration.  Kim was the professor that the students loved, the pied piper on campus who motivated students to stand up and fight back.  Her classes were always full.

The things I learned in Kim’s class have been just as beneficial to me as a writer as the skills I learned in graduate school.  I learned about the balance of power, about the role of women and minorities in society, and the relationship between money and power – all issues that inform the characters I write and the stories I tell.

Kim taught at Purchase from 1985-2010.  A four- time recipient of the Students’ Union Award for Outstanding Teaching, Kim was an outspoken ally.  She also earned the President’s Award for Innovative Pedagogy and the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished College Teaching.  Her research focuses on the intersection of economics and public policy with an emphasis on race, gender, class, and labor.

I eagerly took every class she offered; by the time I graduated I had enough credits for a minor in economics.

There were certainly other dynamic teachers along the way.  I read Aristotle, Ibsen, deTocqueville, bell hooks, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Adrienne Rich.   I lobbied for a seat in a playwriting class, which was only open to drama studies majors, armed with samples of the short plays I had written.  I started out as a psych major, but a brush with behavioral statistics led me to change my major to women’s studies. My mother wondered what I would do with a degree in women’s studies:  I became a writer.

I’ve become an advocate for the liberal arts, especially for young artists.  A foundation in the liberal arts provides artists with a well-rounded education, which then informs the work they create.  Additionally, by providing students with access to the arts we give them an opportunity to engage in the creative process in a way that allows them to not just analyze the work, but to learn by embodying the characters.  Artists, like academics, examine, record, and endeavor to understand the world around them.  Theatre artists must learn to see the world through the lens of the characters they create, which is essentially the goal of liberal arts education. 

It’s been 19 years since I last spoke to Kim.  I was disappointed to learn she had left Purchase, but an internet search found her teaching at Sarah Lawrence.  She was quick to respond when I reached out.  After trying to coordinate schedules while I was in New York, we had to settle on a chat by phone.  Hearing her voice and laugh immediately brought back memories.  I was able to tell her what her classes meant to me, how they shaped my worldview, and informed my writing. 

As I continue to grow as a teacher, I look to the dynamic teachers I had along the way for inspiration.  Kim’s classes not only forced me to step outside my comfort zone, but they also served as safe spaces where difficult topics could be discussed openly.  She wasn’t just a professor; she was also an advocate, a cheerleader, and a truth teller.  Now that I’ve found my way to academia, I see the value in the liberal arts in a new way.  There is a certain excitement when students start making connections between the texts we read in class and the topics they have studied in other classes.  They begin to see the interconnectedness of the world around them.  My goal is to challenge them to take creative risks, think critically, and work collaboratively.  All of these skills will serve them well.
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Friday, July 21, 2017

The Legacy We Leave Behind: lunch with Cherry Jones

My first job in New York was working as a Broadway usherette.  I wore a scarf and a name tag, and I reminded people that flash photography wasn’t allowed.  It was an ideal job for a theatre kid.  I subbed around to different theatres, filling in where I was needed, seeing shows in the process.  I wrote my first play by flashlight while sitting in darkness in the back of the house; Broadway became my master class.

When I was a freshman in college I was assigned to the Cort Theatre.  The show that was playing was a revival of The Heiress, the 1947 stage adaptation of the Henry James novel, Washington Square. Begrudgingly I went, convinced that it would be dated and dull.  But soon after the show began a woman appeared at the top of the stairs and seemingly floated, effortlessly, to the bottom.  The actress was Cherry Jones.  I was captivated.

Her work in The Heiress earned her a Tony Award.  It was a well-deserved affirmation for an actor who was also a Tony-nominee for Our Country’s Good and had worked consistently in regional and off-Broadway theatres for more than 15 years. Cherry went on to win another Tony Award for Doubt and an Emmy for her portrayal of the President on “24”.  Along the way there have been movies as well, but she always returns to the theatre. 

Born and raised in Paris, TN, she still has a hint of an accent.  She too was inspired by a moment in the theatre: She often tells the story of seeing Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten when she was 16.  It proved to be a transformative experience. Encouraged by her parents, she went on to study theatre at Carnegie Mellon before moving to New York. 

Sometimes there are people who live in our periphery, just on the outside, but are seemingly always present in some way.  They are people we cross paths with in the moments when we need them most.  For 20 years, Cherry flowed in and out of my life - at moments when I was somehow questioning my own work - always asking about my writing and offering encouragement along the way.  There was an embarrassing fangirl moment at New York Theatre Workshop and an afternoon hanging out in her trailer on set.  Then ten years passed and we ended up on top of a mountain in Tennessee together where we talked about theatre, how we missed our mothers, and growing up in the South.  We kept in touch and soon this person who I had always admired began to feel like a friend.   

We meet for lunch in the theatre district while I’m on break from rehearsal.  At a cozy table tucked away in the corner, she tells me about her recent London run of The Glass Menagerie, a remount of the same production she starred in on Broadway.  Gracious and unassuming, Cherry is easy to talk to.  She asks about my daughter and my work saying, “Elyzabeth, I always want to know your trajectory.”  The sound of her Southern accent feels familiar and comforting, and I soon hear my own accent rising to meet hers. 

Theatre is meant to be a transformative experience: for the characters, for the audience, and at times, for the actors who bring the stories to life. Cherry has made a career out of telling other people’s stories, but in the process she has written her own story; it’s the story of a person who has spent a lifetime doing what she loves. 

It’s been a remarkable journey so far.  Her legacy will not come in the form of trophies and awards, though there have been many earned over the years, but rather by the people she’s inspired. Now the roles have shifted, and there is a new generation of young women who will grow up and tell the story of the time they saw Cherry Jones on stage and how it inspired them to be artists. 

-Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Finding Life on Death Row: a visit with death row chaplain Dennis O'Keefe

My mother always said that money was a good thing to donate, but sometimes your time was more valuable.  She tirelessly counseled those in need through 12 Step service work.  Following her example, I have volunteered and mentored since high school.  But when I became a parent, I found that even time was something I couldn’t spare.  As I look toward the next 40 years, I want to find that time again, because now my daughter is old enough to learn from my example.  I want to walk the walk.


Dennis O’Keefe planned on becoming a priest.  Originally a member of the Paulist Father’s Community, he was ordained a deacon in 1967.  He was scheduled to takes his vows in 1968 but postponed his ordination.  Searching for direction, he arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1972 where he worked with an African-American parish in the Plateau community.  Then he met Cathy shortly after his arrival and decided to leave the Paulists to marry.  While Dennis never became a priest, he has spent his life in the service of others.

Devoted to their faith, Dennis and Cathy raised five children while continuing their mutual commitment to serving the community.  For years, Dennis lead government funded outreach programs that targeted under-served and under-represented communities along the Gulf Coast.  As a family, they volunteered at with L’arche, a residential community for adults with developmental disabilities.  In 1996 he became their regional coordinator.  With years of experience doing outreach, Dennis felt comfortable advocating for at-risk communities.  The job became all-consuming, and eventually he decided to only work part time, largely serving in a pastoral role. 


But perhaps his most important work has been with death row inmates at Alabama’s Holman Prison.  He was introduced to the ministry through the Kairos community, which sponsors ecumenical, faith-based weekends at the prison twice a year.  The program presents the gospel in a living way – Jesus is right here and we believe it, we find Jesus in you, and you are loved unconditionally by God. 

The program, which has a presence worldwide, begins on Friday morning and ends on Sunday. Prisoners look forward to their visits, not just for the fellowship, but also for the home cooked meals prepared by volunteers.  Once an inmate has gone through the program they can then attend monthly meetings led by Kairos members.

The chaplain assigned to the prison invited Dennis to be a volunteer chaplain offering pastoral care to the inmates.  Since he had already been ordained a deacon, he was quickly approved by the state. His new role earned him access to the prisoners; he is able to visit any day of the week and is accessible to any prisoner who wants to talk.

Confined to 5x7 cells, the inmates look forward to the opportunity for human contact.  Death row inmates can’t work to buy things in the commissary, so they rely on friends and family to put money in their account. The prison isn’t air-conditioned, making the environment stifling in the Alabama heat. They are allowed an hour outside each day. 


Eventually Dennis established relationships with some of the men on death row. He has now witnessed two executions.  For the three days prior to their execution inmates are offered special benefits.  Friends, family, clergy, and lawyers are a steady presence for most of the men.  Stories are told, tears are shed, and there is prayer as they hold out hope for a stay of execution.  

On their last day they are provided their last meal and led to a holding cell where they are processed and placed on gurney.  There are last words and a final prayer.  Then you wait.

Dennis and I meet one morning at Starbucks.  Having grown up with Dennis’ children, I had pieced together parts of his journey.  So we sit together, just the two of us, and over coffee he tells me his story.  He starts with his desire to become a priest, but when he talks about his work at the prison, his passion for his work becomes clear. “There is a peace I feel when I go in there.  You find them in a different way,” he says.

“Many men find a connection to God in prison, not out of fear or their own mortality, but because they are essentially living a monastic life,” he explains.  

Left in solitude, many of the men find it to be an opportunity for thoughtful reflection. He continues, “You see the changes happening in people; God works to create that change.  They begin to realize that God is in you, and you are in God, and you can make amazing changes in your life.”  

The work of Kairos has had a positive impact on the spiritual life of the prisoners.  Now the 16 men on death row host their own service each week with supervision.  They preach, usually in an evangelical style. I listen, admiring his commitment to the cause and his ability to see the good in these men. “Could you transpose that to the outside world?  Would they be able to love and accept these same guys?” he asks. “I don’t know.    

Each week they take turns sharing their testimonies with one another.  “They share their own stories,” Dennis tells me with a smile. “That’s what the gospel is, a sharing of stories.”

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

How One Person’s Friendship and Facebook Feed Changed the Way I Look at the World

Sometimes people walk into your life and immediately feel like old friends.  Playwright Paula Vogel calls them fellow travelers.  Theatre brought Hana Sharif into my life, and after working on a project long distance we found ourselves face to face in a hotel room in Montgomery, Alabama where we sat on the couch and talked for what seemed like hours. 

Raised in Houston by politically active parents, Hana grew up loving books and escaping into the adventures and worlds of others.  “It created a great sense of curiosity about the choices we make and what motivates people,” she explains.  From a young age, Hana was writing and performing her own plays, but it was an experience in high school, directing a play during Black History Month, that proved life changing.  Hana was hooked.  She attended Spelman College, studying English and Theatre, then went on to receive her MFA in directing from the University of Houston.  Since graduating, her work has been seen across the country.  

Hana believes that theatre has the ability to be transformative and uses it as a platform for social change.  She seeks out opportunities to create work that both serves as a reflection of who we are and envisions who we have the potential to become.  She isn’t afraid of asking tough questions – not of the artists she works with or of the world around her.  And she always leans in.  She listens.  She engages in thoughtful dialogue.

As the Associate Artistic Director at Baltimore Center Stage, Hana has directed a wide variety of plays that address the human condition.  Two years ago, in response to the rise in racially motivated shootings, the theatre set out to initiate and engage audiences in conversations about race, class, and violence in America.  The result was My America, Too, a series of ten short plays written by commissioned playwrights from various backgrounds.  The plays sought to explore the issue of racial violence, each from a different perspective.  Six of the plays were then filmed on location around the country, with each location having some relevance to the story being told:  the looted CVS in Baltimore, the church in Charleston, the exact location where Trayvon Martin was killed.  Filmed gorilla style without permits, the cast and crew risked arrest as they brought these stories to life.  The finished shorts were then posted on YouTube, making the stories accessible to a wider audience.  I was honored when Hana asked me to participate; the assignment forced me to ask some tough questions of myself and those around me. 

As theatre artists, we make a career out of seeing the world through the lens of the characters we bring to life on stage.  But our friendship has gone beyond the worlds we create in the theatre.  Hana has given me a peek at the world through her lens.  And oddly, it came in the form of her Facebook feed. 

It began with our daughters, really.  As Facebook friends we followed one another through almost parallel pregnancies and have watched our girls grow up together. We are both raising fierce, independent young women.  We both actively engage in open, honest conversations about the past and the present in ways that are accurate but age appropriate. 

Hana’s Facebook feed became more than just a way to watch her daughter reach milestones.  As a Muslim and an African-American, Hana is a vocal advocate for under-represented voices; she shares stories that are unapologetically political, sometimes radical, and always insightful and articulate. Through these stories she has challenged me to check my own prejudices and assumptions as I’ve sought to dig a little deeper into the issues that we face. 

I’ve spent my adult life wearing the badge of white liberalism.  It’s become a blanket term that many hide behind without really taking the time for thoughtful reflection on what that means. And as I strive to hold myself accountable, I have realized that I’ve been wearing the badge but not always doing the work. 

Hana is one of the busiest people I know.  She juggles a full time job in the theatre, which extends past the traditional workweek to include evenings and weekends.  But somehow she manages to maintain a successful professional life, while also prioritizing family time.  She makes it work thanks in part to the support of Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who has created an inclusive environment for working parents at the theatre.   

Coordinating schedules has taken months.  We planned to get together with our girls in DC, but life gets in the way.  After scheduling and rescheduling we make do with Facetime.  In New York for casting, Hana talks to me while she waits for her daughter to have her hair done.

So much of why I write is to make sense of the world around meTo step away from what's familiarTo tell the untold story.  I thank her for her friendship and for the artistic opportunities she’s given to me.  But most importantly, I thank her for challenging me to be my best self – to ask the hard questions of others and myself.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Finding Direction: Part 1

It started with a meeting at a coffee shop on 9th Avenue.  

I had written my first play and while it had received a staged reading, it had never been fully produced.  Naïve to how the business worked, I handed my play to anyone I thought might read it.  This time it paid off, and I found myself face-to-face with Johanna Pinzler. 


Raised in New York, Johanna has been performing since she was a child. Johanna began as an actor, earning her BA in theatre from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  But she's always enjoyed directing.  Because of her limited experience, she found it difficult to find professional work as a director, so she did what any self-empowered woman would do:  she co-founded a theatre company and started creating her own opportunities.  Dedicated to producing new work, the Ergo Theatre Company not only gave me my first New York production, but they also gave me instant community.  My closest friendships all link back to that production in some way. 

It was truly a collaborative endeavor.  We took turns house managing, folding programs, and taking tickets.  We brought items from home to dress the set and some of the actors wore their own clothes.  There’s something quite humbling about knowing that so many people are investing their time and talent into telling your story. 

At the time, I was working at a litigation copy company that was going out of business.  One of the shift managers – who I feel fairly confident was running both drugs and hookers out of the shop – said I could make all the copies I wanted as long as we did it before the machines got repossessed.  So one afternoon, on the down low, Johanna and I frantically made color copies of our posters, which we then hung around town.


Johanna provided me with an opportunity to see my work fully realized on stage.  It was my first experience being part of the collaborative process as a writer.  I learned how to communicate with actors and a director, how to take notes, when to fight for my work, and the joy of seeing my work fully realized. 

Our professional relationship quickly became a friendship.  I would spend Thursday nights hanging out at Brandy’s, a piano bar on the Upper East Side, where she used to work.  We supported one another, seeing readings and productions.  We formed a tribe of other young theatre artists who became our support and sounding board.  For several years I celebrated Thanksgiving at her father’s apartment on the Upper West Side where we would talk about art, politics, and theatre.

When I decided to write and perform my own one-woman show, I turned to Johanna.  I was stepping out of my comfort zone and I knew I needed someone who would challenge me in all the right ways.  We spent three days locked in a church kitchen (where I performed the show) while I figured out how to tell my story.  And when I questioned whether or not I could do it, Johanna was there with affirmation. 

Sometimes we take a circuitous route to get to where we are meant to be.  Since earning her MFA in acting from Brooklyn College, Johanna has been primarily teaching and directing.  Her training as an actor gives her a unique perspective on her work as a director.  “One of my favorite things about teaching is helping burgeoning theatre artists work outside their comfort zone and learn something new purely by seeing what they thought they already knew from another perspective,” she explains. 


We meet during a quick trip to New York and sit at Gitane in Soho.  We are both kid-free and marvel at the simple pleasure of being able to talk without interruption.  With an ear-to-ear grin and an infectious laugh, Johanna is the kind of person who doesn’t just hug, but rather envelopes you in her arms.  We talk about piecing together lives in academia and how similar it is to the life of an artist.  Our conversation quickly turns to our daughters, both smart, funny, and spirited.  Since my daughter was born, Johanna has been there to offer advice without judgment.   

We often discuss how to balance our family life with our creative life. “I had a mother who loved her job and worked very hard, sometimes for very long hours, and I survived it.  More than that, I learned that having a job you love and being a good mother are not mutually exclusive,” she explains.

Parenting is hard in the best circumstances.  But being a working parent when your work takes you away for periods of time offers its own set of challenges.  “I often wonder if I am being selfish when I get swept up in another directing gig, but earlier this year the kids got to dress up for “career day” at school.  My daughter says she wants to be a director and a mom – and sometimes a veterinarian.  For career day she dressed up as me,” says Johanna.  “My heart exploded a few times that day.”

Hearing this is important.  As parents it’s easy to allow it to define who we are while losing our own individual identity.  Johanna's words affirm for me that if I’m thriving as an artist and an individual, my daughter will benefit.  Johanna adds, “I believe that being able to do the creative work that fulfills me makes me a better mother.  Do I feel guilty?  All the time.  Do I let it stop me?  I haven’t yet.”

To learn more about Johanna's work visit her website here

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Friday, July 7, 2017

DOING THE WORK: a visit with the Mountain Goat Market

Part Two of Leap of Faith week on 40 Lunches.  There have been moments in my life when I’ve taken a leap of faith and the rewards have been significant.  With every leap I’ve taken, I’ve found ground to stand on when I land.  As I get older, those moments have become fewer and more calculated.  I sat down for lunch with two young entrepreneurs whose willingness to take risks and do the work I find inspiring.

Often, I have fanaticized about opening a coffee shop, a bakery, a bookstore, or perhaps a hybrid of all three.  I’ve even gone so far as to look at properties and draw out floor plans.  But never have I had the courage to follow through.

But Eric and Spenser Duncan did.  Feeling unfulfilled by their jobs, they risked everything to open the Mountain Goat Market in Monteagle, Tennessee.

The couple met when Spenser was a senior in high school.  After getting a degree in English she went to work at the local middle school.  But she quickly realized she didn’t want to be a teacher.  Having spent high school and college working in restaurants Spenser knew she loved the fast pace. Named after the local Mountain Goat trail, the Mountain Goat Market was born. 

The building itself has lived many lives.  It originally housed a Grayhound station in the 1940’s before eventually becoming a gas station and market.  When Eric and Spenser purchased the property, the building was in disrepair.  Eric, a certified electrician, was able to do much of the work himself.  Spenser’s dad, who owns a tree removal business, brought in equipment to help clear out decades of junk that had accumulated.  Dumpster after dumpster was hauled away until they were left with just the bare bones.  Then the real transformation began.  Power washing revealed the original sign on what was once the exterior wall of the building.  They worked seven days a week renovating the property and after 6 months of hard labor, the Mountain Goat Market finally opened.

While they were renovating they were also experimenting with recipes. Others told her to stick with Southern home cooking, but Spenser had a clear vision for what she wanted the market to be.  When they first opened, Spenser’s grandmother was doing all of their baking.  Now they have someone who bakes for them full time, but they still use many of her grandmother’s recipes. 

They’ve now been open for 3 ½ years.  While much of their business comes from college students and people with weekend homes in the area, locals are grateful for a place to get good food in a family-friendly atmosphere.  They serve a wide variety of gourmet salads and sandwiches, and recently added brick oven pizzas made-to-order.

They also offer unique gift items.  Spenser selects everything herself, going to market in Atlanta to shop.  But she’s also committed to offering local artisans a showcase for their merchandise.  You can buy candles, soaps, and granola made in the area.  “At first it was hard to get people to place their items,” she tells me, “but now I have people asking all the time.”

She credits much of their success to their dedicated employees.  Five of their employees have been with them since the beginning and she leans on them when needed. She explains, “People ask us why we don’t bring in someone to manage the place, but I think our employees respect us because we are right here working with them side-by-side.”

A year and a half ago, Spenser and Eric welcomed their son, Linkoln.  Balancing their work and family life has been a challenge, but thanks to the support of friends and family, they make it work.  They are closed on Sunday and Monday to provide them with sacred family time.  They also trade off working nights so that one of them is always home with him in the evening. 

We sit at a back table on a rainy afternoon.  It’s a little past two o’clock, and even though the lunch rush has passed, it’s still busy.  Spenser steals away to talk while she eats a bowl of soup.  We talk about the challenges. As the business has grown they’ve taken on more employees, most of whom are students.  With no formal training in running a business, they've had to learn as they go. “The biggest challenge has been the responsibility,” she confides.  It's exhausting." We agree there is a certain amount of satisfaction that comes with seeing your dream become a reality.  At the end of the day, the rewards out way the challenges.

Check out the Mountain Goat Market on Facebook and Instagram.
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