STEPPING BACK AND LETTING GO

STEPPING BACK AND LETTING GO

Two-person plays, especially ones involving an older and a younger person, can be built around a conflict that’s rather predictable. In Collected Stories, I believe Donald Margulies successfully avoids that possibility. For one thing, he presents the relationship between Ruth, a well-known fiction writer, and her graduate student, Lisa, over the course of six years – long enough for substantive and unforeseen changes in anyone’s life. And he gives these women particular depth by suggesting layers of motives for their actions.

But in any context, the mentor/mentee relationship is a complicated one – as I’ve discovered in forty years of teaching writing (nonfiction and journalism, mostly). The gushing fan phase (like Lisa in the opening scene) may occur, but it’s not terribly useful – as Ruth knows, writing is simply hard work. The focus needs to shift to the work itself as soon as possible.

The student or apprentice may be idealizing the mentor; and the mentor, in turn, may be enjoying the admiration. But idols necessarily have feet of clay, and the sooner the student understands that – and stops romanticizing the role of writer – the sooner he or she can really address the work ahead.

If the work were the only thing in play, how much easier it would be for the teacher – coaching, mentoring, guiding, listening, witnessing; or for the student – persevering, experimenting, failing occasionally, gradually changing and growing. But their relationship, like anyone’s, is shaped by personality and ego; they’re distinct individuals, and their histories, needs, and life stages are different. So they have to continually negotiate any conflicting imperatives, whether spoken or unspoken.

As in parenting, a lot of teaching is stepping back and letting go. This makes for a particularly complicated dance in those cases when the student/teacher relationship evolves to becoming colleagues or even friends. This is Ruth and Lisa’s dance, and Margulies shows us how both partners stumble. My hope for this production of Collected Stories is that we are able to illustrate why.

In 1998, I was fortunate to see the second New York production of this play with the remarkable Uta Hagen in the role of Ruth. The Lortel theatre space, like the play, was intimate, and my experience was deepened by watching the show with a friend, a magazine journalist – and former student. Our friendship was already a decade old at that time, and we were both moved, as if watching ourselves onstage, some truth about us ¬– yet not us, since unlike Ruth and Lisa, we’d never broken each other’s trust. I think we both felt grateful.

Photo: (left to right) Helen T. Clark and Barbara Adams in rehearsal for Collected Stories.

Posted August 11 2013 by Barbara Adams

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