By Lisa Dillman
Playwright Lisa Dillman is a member of the Goodman’s Playwrights Unit—a group of four local writers who have met monthly for the last year to workshop their new plays in progress. As the culmination of that program, her play American Wee-Pie will be featured in a staged reading this Monday, June 20 at 7pm in the Owen Theatre. Tickets are FREE, but rumor is that the reading is filling up fast, so reserve your seats here, or call the box office at 312.443.3800.
Playwrights are often asked to describe where a new work came from, its so-called seed idea. I’ve been asked this recently with regard to American Wee-Pie, the piece I am developing this season as part of the Goodman’s inaugural Playwrights Unit.
The answer is complicated. For me, there is almost never a single seed idea. Instead, a play begins to grow when several disparate ideas bump into each other and begin a conversation inside my head. Eventually, out of that linkage, a narrative starts to take shape.
With American Wee-Pie the bumping seed ideas went something like this:
Idea #1: In late 2009, as the economy was flailing, two of my friends were downsized out of their longtime careers. In telling me their stories, they both used the same expression; they said they needed to figure out their “second act.” It occurred to me that in this era of whole career categories disappearing never to return, a person’s “second act” might be almost anything. Poised in a kind of career intermission, one could view the second act as either terrifying or freeing. Or both.
Idea #2: Around that same time, I noticed that, despite the struggling economy, the number of high-end cupcake shops in Chicago seemed to be on the rise. The cupcake was thriving in hard times. I began to “research” this informally, sampling cupcakes all over the city. Though they varied a bit in style and presentation from place to place, all were pricey. In an online conversation with a friend, I mentioned my new interest in unaffordable small cakes, and she responded with some heated anti-cupcake rhetoric, assuring me that the cupcake bubble was unsustainable and about to burst.
Idea #3: The third part of the Wee-Pie seed equation was a moment that has actually been living in me for many years. Just before I left home to go away to college, I took an Amtrak trip from Chicago to Los Angeles to visit friends and relatives. I’d had some problematic teenage years leading up to this departure, and I was desperate to put the uglier bits of my past behind me and find out who I might yet become in the world up ahead. I got to Chicago very late and had to race to Union Station to make my train. I arrived with only minutes to spare; a loudspeaker was blaring that my train was in final boarding. I sprinted through the station and onto the platform. I noticed a balding middle-aged man in a rumpled gray suit running up ahead of me, head down, puffing. When he had nearly reached the boarding car he suddenly staggered to a stop and spun around toward me. His eyes brushed over mine as he went down to his knees and then fell straight over onto the concrete. A conductor rushed over and shooed people back. Paramedics came within minutes. The conductor shoved me onto my train, and I watched out the window as the EMTs tried—and failed—to revive the man in the gray suit. And then my train pulled out.
That man’s face—his eyes passing over mine for just an instant—has stayed with me. Bearing accidental witness to such an intimate part of a stranger’s life story—its end—seemed to carry with it a sort of cosmic responsibility. I have thought of that moment repeatedly, always at those times when something important in my life is either beginning or ending. Or both.
So. These three seeds converged in my mind and began a conversation that eventually evolved into American Wee-Pie—a comedy about a career second act, set in a cupcake bakery, and focused on a character who, haunted by two recent deaths, challenges himself to turn an ending into a beginning.