Thursday, April 6, 2017

Tea and Conversation: A Visit with Evalyn Baron


The summer I turned 11 my dad took me to New York for the first time.  Friends later told me that the trip to New York had been a goal he set, knowing he didn’t have long to live. He bought a package that included a stay at the Waldorf-Astoria, a tour of New York and tickets to a Broadway show.  It would be my first Broadway show, a musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn called Big River.  We sat in box seats where with each song I fell more and more in love with the theatre. When we returned home I read the Playbill until I had memorized the bios of every actor.

Six years later I would be living in New York at a women’s residency in 13th Street called the Markle Evangeline Residence for Women.  You were given two meals a day with your rent and clean linens once a week.  There we no men allowed past the first floor.  This gave comfort to my mother who allowed me to leave home just before my 17th birthday.  Owned by the Salvation Army, all of our phone calls went through their switchboard.  Calls were answered, “Salvation Army Markle Evangeline Residence for Women,” and to anyone unfamiliar with the place it sounded as if I was living in a women’s shelter.  It was home to law students, dancers from the Joffrey ballet, aspiring actresses, retired teachers, and four Russian prostitutes who usually arrived home just in time for breakfast.  It was in my little room that I wrote my first play.

When it was finished I submitted it to a local theatre company which included it in their festival of new work.  We rehearsed at the Dick Shea Studios on the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue.  The place was legendary: disembodied mannequins and toilets hung from the ceiling.  Like the first plays of many young writers, it was largely autobiographical.  The theater company that was producing the reading had assembled an impressive cast, including Evalyn Baron whose name I immediately recognized.  I ran home and pulled out my old Playbill and there she was; one of the actors from my first Broadway show would be performing my first play.

As we sat in the space listening to the play being read, watching as the actors found moments in the play and built relationships, Evalyn raised her hand.  “I don’t know what the conflict is in the play,” she said, bringing the rehearsal to a stop.  “If we don’t know what the conflict is, then we can’t know how to solve the problem.”


Looking back it seems so basic, but at the time I had never really thought about a story in terms of conflict and resolution.   It was one of my first lessons in writing.

In addition to Big River, Evalyn is a Broadway theatre veteran with a Tony nomination for Quilters, and appearances in shows like Les Miserables.  A gifted teacher, she has helped shepherd countless students into careers in the theatre as well.  A champion of young artists, Evalyn always has something encouraging to say.  She went on to direct a reading of my next play.  When she took some time away from New York she brought me down to the Barter Theatre for their new play festival.  Years later when I wrote the first draft of Gee’sBend, we sat in her living room on the Upper West Side while she read the entire play out loud to me.

Evalyn is a kind of Earth mother: gentle, warm and welcoming with an infectious laugh.  Ten years have passed since we last saw one another.  She left New York for San Francisco where she now spends her time writing.  While I’m in town opening a newplay, we make plans. 

The door opens and her arms stretch out to welcome me.  Even though Evalyn has never been a mother, she has a mother’s hug: the kind that envelops you and makes you feel certain you are safe and loved.  The home she shares with her husband is warm and inviting.  There is a grand piano, and books line the shelves.  Leaning against the wall in the hallway are posters of the shows she’s done over the years, little trophies that chronicle her life. 

Over tea in her front parlor our visit turns into a confessional as we catch up.  I unload on her the questions I’ve been trying to answer about my career and my future.  I tell her about my marriage that failed and how I struggle to be a good writer and a good mother.  She asks what she can do to help and I know that her offer is heartfelt. And unintentionally, our conversation connects back to that lesson she taught me all those years ago.  “If we don’t know what the conflict is, then we can’t know how to solve the problem.”  
Two days later she and her husband are in the audience for my opening, filling in for the family who aren't there.  Now she is watching my work on the stage.  At the end of the show she takes my hand and gives me an affirming smile.  An encounter that began almost 30 years ago, with a kid who got swept up in the magic of the theatre, has come full circle.  
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3 comments:

  1. I love this! Evalyn is my cousin and someone whom I have admired my whole life. So much fun to read this about her and see that others feel the same!

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    1. Thanks for reading! She's a pretty spectacular human being.

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