Archive | January, 2013

24/7/1 night only

23 Jan

It’s been brought to my attention that I said this blog wouldn’t only be pieces about parenting, but, uh, so far this blog is only pieces about parenting. That’s appropriate insofar as parenting is my day job–scratch that, it’s a 24/7/365 kind of job–and trying to do it in halfway decent style is my overwhelming preoccupation. But all work and no play except Monopoly and scootering around the block makes me a dull mom, not to mention feel like a crazy person, so I do seek other outlets.

It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve given myself permission to self-identify, at least in the privacy of my own mind (and now the relative privacy of a blog with a micro-readership), as an artist. But creative work has always been an important part of my life. I acted in my first play, the musical The Velveteen Rabbit, at the age of 8 (I was the Fourth Building Block, a pivotal role), and wrote my first (very) short story around then; if memory serves it was about a four leaf clover fairy named Sprite. When I got to college, I felt I should designate one hobby as my main interest, so I majored in English. But then I spent all my leisure time performing in an a cappella group and a student theater group. Professionally I edited textbooks and wrote web copy, but craved performing. When we got settled in Virginia and I was finished nursing our second child, I auditioned for a community theater musical and have been so thrilled and relieved to get back to acting, but have also wished for a writing career that was more creative than copy writing, and more personally meaningful.

All this to say, for some reason it had never occurred to me to try to write a play, thereby combining my two passions, until I was offered the opportunity to write for a local theater festival called 24/7, in which 7 new plays are written, directed, and performed in a 24 hour period. The constraints accompanying this writing assignment included being given a theme, a key word, and the number/gender of actors I was to write for, plus the small detail of a 10-hour time limit in which to get the work done. (And because the work was to be done overnight, I knew that actually meant a shorter time limit; I couldn’t pull all-nighters in college, and I wasn’t about to try as a middle-aged mom with childcare responsibilities the following day.) I was nervous about my chances of success, but also grateful to have so many parameters–the terror of the totally blank page has defeated me countless times.

The theme for this year’s event was, “The elephant in the room,” and my randomly-generated key word was “tiny.” I picked a slip of paper out of a hat that instructed me to write for 1 woman, 2 men, and 1 male and 1 female cameo, cameo parts being characters who have a pivotal role in the plot but 5 lines or fewer, (as the actors who play the cameos are in multiple plays.) And then I was sent out into the night. I came home so I could be close to the wine in my fridge and coffee in my pantry. The theme and my key word inspired me to posit, “What if there actually WAS a tiny elephant in the room?” The resulting very silly noir-ish spy drama revolved around a child’s elephant-shaped coin bank, (my daughter just happens to have one of these), and a triple-crossing secretary and her several lovers, and ended with 4 out of 5 of my characters shot dead. Which is just a good return on the audience’s investment, I’m sure you’d agree. My husband helped me puzzle out some of the plot intricacies of who was zooming who and cheating who and shooting who, and by the time I got a structure I liked and started filling in dialogue, it was already midnight. I pushed through and managed a short nap before giving the play a final once-over at 5:45, and turning it in a mere 18 minutes after deadline at 6:18 am. (The return email from the festival producer–“Too late,” thankfully just a little joke–almost made me wet my pants.)

I returned to the theater that morning to watch the random selection of a director for my play, with whom I met briefly, and the 5 actors who were to bring it to life in 2 shows that evening. And then I went home to wait (and grab another nap.) I had a really good feeling based on the director and actor picks; I knew most of their work, and felt confident they would have fun with the material and make good decisions.

Two funny things happened before I got to see my show at 7 pm. First, I got a text from the stage manager of the festival that said, “The worst has happened.” My heart pounding, I wondered what she could mean–The electricity blew in the building? Someone had been hurt? Her follow-up text, a picture of my daughter’s elephant coin bank after it had obviously been smashed to bits and painstakingly glued back together, made me sigh with relief. I had warned my 8 year old when I borrowed her toy that it might get broken, and we were both very touched at how hard the staff tried to repair it. It won’t be the last time my kids suffer for my art.

Second, when I arrived at the theater at 6:45, my director rushed up to me and said, “I hope you won’t mind. We made some… Changes to the play.” He assured me they were not structural, just enhancements, and I tried to act casual like my trust in him was absolute–but I was apprehensive.

As it turns out, trust in him and the actors was more than justified. All the flourishes they added–sound cues, mannerisms that fleshed out the characters, blocking changes from what I suggested in the script, not to mention the superb costumes and set elements added by the crew–made the play 100% more effective and fun than it had been on the page. It was a total thrill to sit in the audience and watch the actors relish their roles. I listened to their well-earned gales of laughter and rounds of applause with a lot of satisfaction. My one question going into the experience–well, apart from “Can I write a play overnight?”–was whether I would feel sad not to be on stage. But I felt proud of myself for being able to contribute to an enjoyable night at the theater in a whole new way. The experience made me eager to test and stretch myself creatively in other forms. Maybe I’ll go back to that novel I was working on, or try some short stories, or pick the guitar back up, or…

Or just write a blog post about the whole shebang. Hey, a busy mom has to do what she can.

If you’re interested, you can read the play I wrote for 24/7 here.

The Revenge of Mr. It

23 Jan

This is the play I wrote for the 24/7 Theater Festival, sponsored by Whole Theater and performed at Live Arts in Charlottesville, VA on January 19, 2013.

Snippets of my play were read by the cast, and cast members were interviewed, on this news piece about 24/7 on the local NBC29 affiliate.

The Revenge of Mr. It
by Miller Murray Susen

Cast of Characters:

Cleaning Woman (female cameo)

Secretary Lady

Spy Man 1

Spy Man 2

The General (male cameo)

(Lights up on a large, official-looking desk and chair with 2 chairs for visitors. There should be 2 doors to the room with the desk, one SL, one SR. On the desk are papers, office supplies, framed pictures, and a child’s elephant-shaped coin bank [I have one of these to lend the production.])

(Cleaning Woman [female cameo] enters SL with broom, and pushes it along the floor of the office. She pauses at the desk, looks around briefly, and leans her broom against it. She picks up the elephant bank and turns it over. There is nothing on the bottom. She shakes it; no sound. )

Cleaning Woman:

Nothing yet. Damn.

(She puts the coin bank down, picks up her broom, and exits the way she came.)

(Secretary Lady enters briskly SR and delivers some papers to the desk. She looks around and surreptitiously pulls a small scroll from her hairdo. She turns the coin bank over and affixes it to the bottom. She looks around again. There is a knock on the office door, SL. She moves to open the door. Spy Man 1 stands outside in a business suit, with overcoat and briefcase. Secretary Lady pulls him inside.)

Secretary Lady:

Darling! Do you have the money?

(Spy Man 1 hands her the briefcase, then takes off his coat and drapes it over the top.)

Spy Man 1:

Yes, my sweet. And now, the password?

Secretary Lady:

My love, I don’t know the password, but it’s here. Mr. It has instructed me to tell you, “It’s the elephant in the room.” Now, come in and sit down. You’re a journalist interviewing The General about his retirement. Remember, he cannot know you’ve obtained the password… Or he won’t let you leave. Good luck, my love.

(They kiss passionately. Spy Man 1 sits in one of the desk chairs. Secretary Lady exits briefly to deposit his coat and briefcase offstage SR. There is another knock, and Secretary Lady bustles through the room to answer the door, winking at Spy Man 1, then steps outside and shuts the door behind her. Spy Man 2 stands outside the office door dressed in a suit and coat, carrying a briefcase.)

Secretary Lady:

Did you bring the money, my love?

(Spy Man 2 hands her the briefcase, then takes off his coat and drapes it over the top. He snakes an arm around her waist and pulls her close.)

Spy Man 2:

I’ve made my deposit, and now I want my prize. I need the password. And I need you.

Secretary Lady:

Darling, patience! I don’t know the password, you’ll have to get that for yourself. Mr. It has told me to say, “It’s the elephant in the room.” Now, you’re to be a journalist interviewing The General about his retirement. He cannot suspect that you’ve obtained the password, darling, or you won’t get out alive. Do whatever needs doing.

(They kiss passionately, and she leads him into the office and points him toward the other desk chair. Spy Man 1 and Spy Man 2 look at each other suspiciously. Spy Man 1 sticks out his hand.)

Spy Man 1 (with thick Southern accent):

Hi there! I’m Junior Johnson of the New Orleans Picayune. And who might you be?

Spy Man 2 (with thick New York accent):

I’m Max Largeman of the New York Post. You here to interview The General? (Looks at Secretary Lady and growls.) ‘Cuz I thought this was an exclusive.

Secretary Lady:

The General is a very busy man. We’ve had to double-book some of his appointments. But I’m sure you’ll get what you came for. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

(She exits SR. In her absence, both Spies leap into action and start casing the room while eyeing each other. They are flustered enough by each others’ presence to miss the small, unobtrusive elephant bank on the desk. They move continuously during their exchange.)

Spy Man 1:

So, down South for a big interview! Are you enjoying your stay in our nation’s beautiful capital city?

Spy Man 2:

Yeah, it’s great, whatever. So, tell me this, how’d the Picayune get access to this guy?

Spy Man 1:

Oh, I charmed my way in. It’s all about the people you know.

Spy Man 2 (smirking):

And what you do to them. I mean, for them. Sure. What’s your angle on the old guy?

Spy Man 1:

Well, Down South juicy gossip is what sells papers. Maybe now that he’s retiring he’ll give me some dirt.

Spy Man 2:

What the hell you think a general’s gonna tell YOU? I’d imagine he knows how to handle a podunk reporter by now.

Spy Man 1:

Perhaps so. But as long as we’re sharing and caring, what are you planning to ask? Going to try to get him to dish on…The African expedition, say?

Spy Man 2:

(Long pause.) African expedition, huh? Maybe you’re not such a podunk reporter. Wouldn’t you like to know what I know about that.

Spy Man 1:

(Stopping, turning to face Spy Man 2.) 

It might be that I would like to know what you know about that, but I would have thought I’d be more interested in what he knows about that. But who knows, really?

(They stare at each other, then look away. Silence as they both sit down, and unobtrusively check easy access to their weapons.)

(Secretary Lady enters escorting The General [male cameo] from SR to the SR door of the office. He is elderly and leans on her arm. As they walk, he reaches down with his free hand and gooses her. She squeals, and they pause to kiss passionately.)

Secretary Lady:

My goodness, age hasn’t slowed you down one bit, darling!

(They enter the office, and the Spies stand as she helps The General into his desk chair and makes him comfortable.)

The General:

Thank you, my dear. That girl is one fine filly!

(Spies look at Secretary Lady, notice each other looking at her, look at each other, and look away. They take their seats. Another subtle weapons check. Secretary Lady hastens off SR.)

The General:

What can I do for you, gentleman? Here to hear all my old war stories? I’m surprised to be getting so much attention, an old codger like me.

Spy Man 1:

You’re too modest, Sir. You’ve had a long and storied career.

Spy Man 2:

That’s right, Sir, your service will be remembered for generations to come. The way I hear it, you’ve had your share of adventures.

The General:

Adventures, whippersnapper? I’ve had a few.

Spy Man 1:

Well, to get right down to it, I’d like to know more about your time in Africa, Sir. Specifically about… The African expedition.

The General (chortling heartily, but ill at ease):

Gadzooks, is that old chestnut still making the rounds? Riches buried in the African grasslands? Signs of an alien civilization? Mumbojumbo about a map and a password?

Spy Man 2:

Yes, Sir. Now that you’re retiring, why don’t you give me the exclusive full story. For so many years now it’s been the elephant in the room.

The General:

Pshaw, the only elephant I see in this room is right here! (Holds up the coin bank as a cover for pulling out his gun.) My granddaughter made it for me! No treasure in here, though, I can tell you that!

(As The General lifts the elephant bank into the air and fumbles for his gun, the Spies see the scroll taped to the bottom at the same moment. Spy Man 1 flashes out of his chair, gun already in hand, and grabs the elephant bank.)

Spy Man 1 (abruptly dropping accent):

Not so fast, General, that elephant is treasure enough for me!

(He shoots The General, who slumps backward in his chair. Spy Man 1 then turns to fire at Spy Man 2, who is already on his feet, his own weapon at the ready. Spy Man 2 reaches with his free hand for the elephant.)

Spy Man 2 (also dropping accent):

The elephant leaves with me, chump.

(He shoots Spy Man 1, who falls to the ground. Secretary Lady has entered from SR at a run after the first shot. She carries the Spies’ briefcases.)

Spy Man 2:

And I’ll take the girl as well. You got the money, honey? Let’s go get rid of Mr. It and have us a little African vacation.

Secretary Lady:

Actually, darling, as it turns out, I am the mysterious Mr. It.

Spy Man 2:

YOU are?

Secretary Lady:

Yes, and Mr. It doesn’t like messes, so he hires a cleaning woman to do his dirty work.

(Cleaning Woman bursts through SL office door and shoots Spy Man 2, who falls to the ground. Cleaning Woman reaches forward and with her free hand takes the elephant coin bank from his lifeless hands. Secretary Lady runs toward her across the stage with the briefcases, high-stepping over various dead bodies.)

Secretary Lady:

Oh, my dearest one! Fantastic job! Now we have the money, we have the password, all the other players are dead, and we can get away clean! Let us wing our way to Africa, and discover riches beyond our imaginings!

(They kiss passionately.)

Cleaning Woman:

Eh, I’m afraid you’re not clean enough for me.

(She shoots Secretary Lady, who falls to the ground, dead. Cleaning Woman pockets her gun, crams the elephant bank in her armpit, and picks up the briefcases, one in each hand.)

Cleaning Woman:

Seeing as I’m Mr. It now, I think I’ll just leave this mess for someone else.

(She exits SL.)

The End.

January Stock Pot

8 Jan

My husband travels a lot for his job, and he takes one particular trip every year in early December that lasts through a weekend. It’s a hard time of year for him to be gone so long (although he follows it up with a two week staycation during the childrens’ winter break from school that’s reliably cozy and fantastic, so we get our reward for persevering.) One of the practical concerns raised by the timing of the trip is when to put up our Christmas tree. If we put it up before he leaves it means getting a tree right after Thanksgiving, which is an intimidating amount of tree maintenance and clean-up seeing as we leave it up until New Year’s Day. But if we wait until he gets back it’s only a couple of weeks until Christmas, and that doesn’t seem like quite enough time to savor the anticipation with our beautiful tree to assist us. So in the end we always err on the side of putting it up early.

This year we got the tree up so early that it was several weeks before anything came in the mail to put under it. This state of affairs bothered the children. A tree with no presents! So naked! So uncelebratory! It spawned in them a deep, and deeply messy, desire to craft the emptiness away.

For five days straight they spent hours a day hand-making this and that, “wrapping” the results, and stacking the booty in shaky piles that spilled all over the front hall, got stepped on, inadvertently watered when we were trying to reach under the tree, kicked, crumpled, etc. There were little snippets of paper and puddles of half-dry glue and scraps of felt and embroidery thread everywhere all over the house, plus arguments about who spilled the beads and who peeked at whose present and who used the last shoe box, and basically the whole thing was driving me bonkers. At one point my son had made sixteen presents for me. And he is six, so I just knew all the presents were pieces of felt that had been scribbled on with marker and scotch-taped together. It was going to take us forever to open all these things! And what in the world would we DO with it all? Disappointment and hurt feelings and bickering seemed inevitable, and I got tired just thinking about it.

So I laid down the law–“It’s enough with the presents, guys. Too many presents. Such a sweet thought, but it’s too much.” My husband backed me 100%; we joked, maybe even in front of the kids, about their irritating largesse, and reminisced about famous childhood non-presents of other Christmases, like the time my brother gave every member of the family 3 wooden blocks wrapped in yellow legal paper and messily taped to themselves.

Christmas morning was pretty great this year. The kids are still fully invested in Santa, so their excitement was sparkling bright. They waited until 7 am to wake us, as requested, and I cuddled with them in our bed and read one of the Little House on the Prairie Christmas chapters, a beloved ritual from my own childhood, while my husband put the finishing touches on the downstairs and made coffee. They were very happy with their loot, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so looking at it all. Then we had breakfast and treats, and found we still had plenty of time before we were expected at my parent’s. The timing was perfect to tackle the many kid “presents.”

They took turns presenting us with their surprises, explaining the creation of each, anxiously scanning our faces for signs of our pleasure in receiving them. And it’s true, I did receive a lot of fancified felt. But I also got an armful of pipe cleaner bangles (each wrapped separately.)


My husband got 2 paintings of a waterfall, one from the perspective of each child. I got a wooden box that had been painstakingly decoupaged with scraps of origami paper. “It’s for your treasures,” my daughter said. “I didn’t rush, I took my time finishing it.” They worked together on a collage of hearts for both of us using all different papers. As they told us about making it, I realized my husband had tears in his eyes.

When we were debriefing that night we agreed that the best part of the whole day was the parade of handmade treasures from the kids. As my husband observed, their efforts embodied the “spirit of Christmas”–they gifted us with their time and consideration and loving thoughts, things the holiday is supposed to be about. It killed me that I had quelled their spirits and enthusiasm. Why didn’t I understand I should celebrate and support them? Why didn’t I get how loved and special I would feel to attend Christmas lunch with a stack of homemade baubles?

So here it is January once again, and the routine is up and running. The husband’s on a trip, the kids are at school all day, I have the quiet house to myself. I’m not really one for fresh starts and resolutions, because deep down I believe that wherever you go, there you are; new year, same old shit. But I’m telling my scroogey heart that 2013 is the year to expand three sizes. Look, listen, notice, feel the happinesses I am so lucky to have in my life. Appreciate them, nurture them. I’m not too worried about being able to dance like no one’s watching, but I want to be sure to watch when the people I love dance.