by Stephanie Leary
Relief. That’s what I felt at approximately 8:50 a.m. on Monday, February 29th. I felt a huge sense of relief. I had just clicked the send button that shot my first five-page critical paper out into the cyber world towards the inbox of my advisor, Deborah Brevoort, thus completing my second packet as a G1. I had done the impossible because on Saturday, February 27th at 5:56 a.m., after rereading my paper for the umpteenth time, I decided to scrap the whole thing and start over. The first three pages were a breeze but the last two were a birth and I labored for the next couple of days. So, at 8:51 a.m. on Monday, February 29th, I gave myself a well-deserved pat on the back. Then at 3:18 p.m., I gave myself a well-deserved smack on the head. Deborah emailed me back because my packet was missing a very important element—a group annotation on Jane Anderson’s play Looking for Normal, which she had assigned during my first residency. I had forgotten to do the assignment. I was mortified—but not surprised.
Since returning to Rochester, New York this past January I have often experienced overwhelming feelings of longing, loss and homesickness. While in Vermont, the empowering embrace of the Goddard community went largely underappreciated by me and my release back into the wild has been much like a joey being prematurely ejected from its mother’s nurturing pouch. I have spent many more hours a week rewinding memories than I have reading plays and writing annotations. And my creative work—well, let’s just say that I did not feel that I was giving it the old college try.
After beating myself up for about an hour for having forgotten to do the group annotation, I chalked it up to a rookie mistake and searched for a silver lining. Maybe my misstep would lead to the balance and inspiration I needed to find my footing as an aspiring playwright.
When Looking for Normal was suggested during one of the group meetings, Jane Anderson’s name did not ring any bells but after doing a little research, I realized I had been a fan for many years. In addition to writing the screenplays for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom and Olive Kitteridge she also wrote the 1961 segment for If These Walls Could Talk 2. Deborah had kindly attached a pdf of the play to her email, so I got to work.
Looking for Normal is about Roy, a Middle-American, middle-aged husband and father of two who, having spent years believing he was born in the wrong body, decides to have gender reassignment surgery. Roy has already made up his mind at the beginning so the rest of the play supplies back story and focuses on the affect Roy’s decision has on his friends and family.
During Roy’s transformation, his wife and daughter are experiencing transformations of their own. Irma, his wife of twenty-five years, is going through menopause. His tomboyish daughter, 13-year-old Patty Ann, is not only going through puberty but is also attempting to hide its effects under masculine behavior and clothing. There is a comical scene that takes place in the kitchen while they are deciding on what to have for breakfast. Each character is in varying stages of womanhood, so their burgeoning hormones add a lot of layers to what would ordinarily be a garden-variety conversation. My annotation focused on how Anderson intertwines the mundane with extraordinary circumstances.
As the only G1, I was anxious to hear what the more seasoned members of the group thought about the play. Could I learn from them? Did they notice things I hadn’t? After reading their annotations, the answer to both questions was a resounding yes.
Derrick Bergeron’s annotation focuses on how Roy never speaks for himself. His history and feelings are revealed through the other characters. In addition to his wife and daughter, Roy’s son, parents and grandmother give voice to the things that remain silent in Roy.
In Patricia Connelly’s annotation, she likens the monologues to operatic arias which reveal each character’s struggle to understand Roy’s decision. She also points out that the question of what is considered normal is the underlying issue in each monologue.
Wayne Jackson’s annotation also centers on the monologues but he sees them as personal and private testaments, to which the audience is put in the positions of witness and confidant. He also mentions how Irma’s monologue at the end is like a love song.
When Roy was a child, his father caught him in one of his sisters’ dresses and forced him to spend the night in the barn—alone and naked. In her annotation, Lindsay Palmer discusses how his father represents the repression of Roy’s true gender.
Darlene Prickett wrote about a scene that is much like a family therapy session. Irma, Patty Ann and the son, Wayne, go through boxes of Roy’s old clothes to decide what should be thrown out. Patty Ann takes a liking to a sports jacket but is told no by both of her parents when she asked if she can have it. Darlene’s annotation points out how Patty Ann is not allowed to express herself and dress in a way that feels natural to her even though she and her father are sharing many of the same emotions and experiences.
None of these topics had crossed my mind while reading the play and I realized how easy it was for me, as the reader, to zoom in on the scenes I could relate to and understand. In addition to the kitchen scene, which I wrote about in my annotation, I was also struck by how secular Roy’s pastor, Reverend Muncie, is, especially while acting as Roy’s confessor. I grew up in a very religious household—my mother dragged me and my sister to church two, sometimes three, times a week. If one of the flock in my church chose to undergo gender reassignment surgery, he or she would have been subjected to a fire and brimstone type sermon/shaming right before being shown the door.
During the next phase of the group annotation, which involves each person asking Jane Anderson questions about her play, I brought up how different Reverend Muncie is from most men of the cloth. Ms. Anderson said she felt the judgmental preacher man character had become too commonplace and she did not want to venture down the road of being a leftist playwright taking delight in some good ol’ right-wing religion bashing. She said that’s one of the reasons the play is set in the Midwest rather than the South or Texas. She went on to say that Reverend Muncie’s job is not to judge but to help his parishioners work through their issues with as much decency and kindness as he can muster. While reading the play, I saw Reverend Muncie as an unrealistic character but Ms. Anderson’s explanation helped me see how he not only adds an unexpected perspective but also balances out some of the other characters’ reaction to Roy’s situation.
The group spent the next three days emailing Ms. Anderson their comments and questions and with each response, I found myself becoming more and more inspired. Because of my own struggles with writing my play, I was relieved to find out that constructing Looking for Normal had not been an easy task for her. She said it began as a comedy sketch but, after some maturity and many drafts, it turned into something much deeper. After acknowledging that we all probably had pieces of writing that we cast aside, she advised us not to completely discard them because the reason we wrote them will reveal itself eventually.
Her words gave me hope that I will one day find balance—as a student as well as in my writing. I neglected to value all that Goddard had to offer this past January and the play I’m working on may not currently be all that it can be, but with some maturity and many drafts, I can resole my missteps and correct my mistakes—turning myself and my craft into something much deeper.
Stephanie Leary is an aspiring playwright and MFA student at Goddard College. She lives in Rochester, New York and in her spare time, which she has very little of, she focuses on her second greatest love–photography. In addition to completing her degree, her goals are to take road trips to Pittsburgh, PA and Minneapolis, MN to pay homage to August Wilson and Prince.