Monday, January 21, 2008

Tina Howe

I am so excited that Tina Howe will have a new play premiering next year. I’ve interviewed her several times, did my second master's thesis on her and her work and taught her plays one summer at Brooklyn College. It’s been a long time since she’s had a new work on stage here in New York, not since “Pride’s Crossing” in the late 90s. Last season we were lucky to have “Birth and Afterbirth,” a very old play that I had read but never seen because it had never been staged in New York. Now a whole new play. It’s about time!

I have so much respect for Tina as a writer and a person. She is down-to-earth and accessible, and her plays are SO funny, and moving at the same time. I’m really looking forward to “Chasing Manet,” which will star Jane Alexander, a friend of Tina’s since their college days. Primary Stages describes the play this way: "A rebellious painter from a distinguished family in Boston and an ebullient Jewish woman with a huge, adoring family form an unlikely bond. Inside the confining walls of Mount Airy Nursing Home, the two plot an escape to Paris aboard the QE2. But can they possibly pull it off amidst the chaos of their surroundings? The tension and comedy grow as they struggle to take wing for the last time."

That’s interesting considering Tina and Jane spent a year together in Paris after they graduated from college. It was there Tina fell in love with the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, which would go on to influence much of her work.

The way I happened to teach her plays came from some advice from another professor at Brooklyn College. I was going to be teaching the dreaded required course in research paper writing. I was told to mold the course around something that interested me and so I chose theatre, with the emphasis being on Tina Howe’s plays. The students had never heard of Tina and some had never even read or seen a play. Tina, as you might know, is a WASP who writes about that world; the students were mostly immigrants and minorities. Not only were plays foreign to them, so was the subject matter of the ones they would be reading all summer.

It turned out, though, to be a perfect fit. A common theme in Tina’s plays is failure to communicate, with characters talking at cross purposes and growing increasingly frustrated at not being listened to. My students could understand that. They “got it” right away. We used Coastal Disturbances, the anthology that included that play as well as “Museum,” “The Art of Dining” and “Painting Churches.” I never had any trouble getting them to volunteer to read out loud in class, taking the parts of characters whose lives on the surface were so different from theirs. I loved listening to them, the Russian, Dominican, Polish and other assorted accents melding together into a wonderful -- transformational -- experience of theatre. I arranged for them to see an off, off-Broadway production of “Museum,” so some had their first experience of live theatre. Tina lent me her copy of the PBS recording of “Painting Churches,” the play that put her on my radar screen when I saw it at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE in the mid-80s, and we watched that together over two classes.

To put Tina’s plays in context, I also had them read the Arts & Leisure section of the NYT each week (and taught them how to look for the Ninas in the Hirschfeld drawings). When they read an article about Beckett one week and learned that he was an absurdist, they said: “Like Tina.” I told that to Tina and she laughed. Beckett was her inspiration, but to them he was like Tina. She had become their point of reference for all theatre.

It had been a long, hot summer in an unair conditioned classroom on the top floor under the roof -- extra hot -- and they actually did have to write a research paper, and I had to teach that dry stuff, but they were so involved in the subject matter they didn’t mind. They made intelligent comments and comparisons of Tina’s plays. I told them they were now Tina Howe scholars, that not many people knew as much about her as they did. They seemed really proud about being scholars of something.

On the last day of class they told me how much they loved the course and how much they had been dreading it beforehand. I confessed I felt the same way. It turned out to be a good summer, and the most enjoyable teaching experience I ever had. All because of that little bit of advice, to choose something I liked.

I definitely do like Tina Howe plays, and I look forward to this new one.

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