Mentor Street runs both ways
Dale Wasserman was my friend and mentor. Although he died in 2008 at age 94, he still influences my writing. He gladly read everything I wrote, and gave me concise constructive critiques, never more than a page. He believed it was important to break rules, take risks and defy convention. His own characters took this advise – Cervantes (Don Quixote) in Man of Las Mancha and Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The only thing he said a play should never be is “boring.”
Even in his nineties he thought it was critical to challenge one’s thinking in the never-ending pursuit of truth. For more than seven years, every Wednesday at three in the afternoon we’d sit in his studio and talk. One day he was going on about the non-existence of God. I told him I totally disagreed, and he quickly shot back, “I want to talk about that.” And we did for another three hours. He claimed that if God does exist, it’s only in one’s head. I agreed, because I think everything is “only in one’s head.” After all, one’s perception is one’s reality.
Another Wednesday afternoon we’re discussing the possibly of turning Dale’s epic memoir into a stage play. His memoir was an engaging chronology of his struggles and successes from runaway-teen to rail-riding hobo to globe-trotting writer for television, stage and screen. Although interesting if you were interested in Dale, it didn’t embrace a universal theme or offer an arresting revelation. Mostly it was Dale underscoring his life-long quest for freedom while avoiding commitment of any kind. Once again I challenged him by saying, “of course you’re committed. “In what way?” he asked. “You’re committed to your writing.” He seemed bowled over, and I was surprised he was so unaware.
Several weeks later Dale told me he had edited his memoir and asked me to read it. In it he wrote, “… way to0 late in my life really, I had a sudden revelation, an epiphany of sorts… I have learned it’s not freedom which gives meaning to life, but its opposite: it is the loads one chooses to lift and carry. The weight of a talent, of a love, or a moral duty… In short, I have pondered long and hard and I have come up with a thundering truth: the only meaning your life may have is the meaning you choose to give it.”
Dale died shortly after and his wife Martha told me Dale had asked her to ask me to adapt his memoir into a play which I was honored to do. I tried to adhere as closely as possible to Dale’s words and spirit, but did add some bluegrass work songs and railroad songs of the period, and some action to avoid being “boring.” It’s now “a memory play with music” called Burning in the Night, and you can read it at Indie Theater Now. So far it’s had four productions with three casts and audiences and critics seem to love it.
Dale Wasserman was my friend and mentor, and I like to think I was his, too.
– Richard Warren, playwright