Category Archives: Guest posts

SUPERHEROES: WHO THEY ARE AND HOW THEY CAME TO BE – Part 2 – The Silver Age and The Bronze Age

Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Just as Action Comics #1 is considered to be the first superhero comic and the beginning of the Golden Age, most historians agree that the first comic of the Silver Age was Showcase #4, published by DC in 1956.

Showcase #4 featured the return of the Flash—or at least the name and basic concept of the Flash. Where the original Flash was Jay Garrick, a college student who was given his super speed abilities from “inhaling vapors from hard water,” this Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist who gained super speed when he was hit with chemicals that had been struck by lightning. Where Jay’s stories, like most superhero comics of the Golden Age, tended toward crime fiction mixed with comedy and a little supernatural thrown in, the adventures of Barry Allen had a particularly science-fiction bent. The new Barry Allen Flash was said, in the stories, to be inspired by the adventures of Jay Garrick, whose comics he’d read as a child. This idea, initially meant to be a quaint nod to Barry’s namesake and predecessor and nothing more, would have major implications both within the stories and in the real-life history of superhero comics and fiction.

This version of The Flash was a big success, and DC started reimagining some of their other 1940s superheroes. Green Lantern was no longer Alan Scott, the man with a magic ring, but Hal Jordan, a fearless test pilot conscripted into an intergalactic peacekeeping force. The Atom was no longer Al Pratt, diminutive tough guy, but Ray Palmer, a scientist who had mastered shrinking.

This led to the creation of the Justice League of America in 1961. There had been superhero teams before—Timely had had Captain America leading the Invaders all around Europe in World War II, and DC’s Justice Society of America had formed in 1940 as well—but the JLA was different. The Invaders had had a specific mission—they were at war with the Axis. The Justice Society had focused less on team-ups—although they did that too—and more on being a group of likeminded individuals sharing their exploits together. The Justice League was a team.

The original Justice League consisted of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. Putting these characters in one story together was problematic, though: Superman and Wonder Woman had been members of the Justice Society, along with the original Flash and Green Lantern, Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. The earliest Barry Allen stories had established that, in world of the Justice League, Jay Garrick was fictional, a comic book character who had delighted Barry Allen as a child. How could Superman and company have met and worked with both Barry Allen and Jay Garrick? And if they had somehow worked with the fictional Jay Garrick in the 1940s, presumably as adults in their mid-20s or early 30s, why were they still in their prime twenty years later when they should have been in their 50s or 60s? In order to reconcile these contradictions, the DC Multiverse was born.

It was decided that the adventures of the Justice League and the rest of the Silver Age heroes of DC Comics lived on Earth 1, the “main” universe of DC Comics, while the Golden Age heroes had had their adventures in a parallel universe operating on a slightly different vibrational frequency known as Earth 2. Therefore, the versions of Superman and Wonder Woman who were members of the Justice League with Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were the “main” versions, while the slightly older Superman and Wonder Woman who had been members of the Justice Society with Alan Scott and Jay Garrick were the Earth 2 versions. Occasionally the events of Earth 2 would be subconsciously relayed to Earth 1, which is why Jay Garrick’s adventures could turn up in comics that had inspired a young Barry Allen.

This led to stories of travel between the universes, whenever a “Crisis” would necessitate collaboration between the Justice League and the Justice Society. Soon, there were more than two Earths in the DC Multiverse. There was Earth 3, and evil counterparts of the Justice League like Ultraman and Superwoman and Owlman wreaked havoc as the Crime Syndicate of America. There was Earth S, where the Captain Marvel characters, who DC had acquired when they purchased Fawcett comics, lived on. Earth 4 and Earth X were the homes of characters from other publishers DC had acquired, Charlton Comics and Quality Comics, respectively. The Multiverse was an exciting new story engine for DC Comics, but also a potentially maddening one as it introduced different almost-identical versions of characters and created a convoluted continuity.

While Justice League of America was becoming popular, the former Timely Comics, which had become Atlas Comics in the 1950s and was now called Marvel Comics, had been out of the superhero game for years, instead publishing humor comics like Dippy Duck and Patsy Walker, and sci-fi/fantasy comics like Journey into Mystery, Amazing Adventures, and Tales to Astonish. Martin Goodman, still publisher, saw the success of Justice League of America and asked his editor, Stan Lee, to come up with something similar. Lee worked with Jack Kirby to create the The Fantastic Four, which started publication in late 1961.

The Fantastic Four were another revelation: They had no secret identities, they had no costumes at first, one of their number was a grotesque monster. They bickered and argued and acted like people and had real problems. They were realistic.

The success of the Fantastic Four led Lee, Kirby, and another artist, Steve Ditko, to begin building the Marvel Comics Superhero universe by creating more flawed and “realistic” superheroes. Daredevil, The X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor. Like DC’s Justice League, Marvel assembled the Avengers, a team of heroes mostly created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and within those pages revived their Golden Age success, Captain America. Like DC’s Silver Age heroes, Marvel’s heroes were based in science and the atomic age. Where Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and The Flash and the rest of the Justice League were godlike figures of authority, however, Marvel’s heroes were counterculture underdogs. Spider-Man might do the right thing and fight crime, but both Peter Parker’s Aunt May and his boss J. Jonah Jameson thought Spidey was a menace. The Thing wore a trench coat and a fedora when he went out for fear of being mocked and jeered at by the Yancy Street Gang, and only felt comfortable dating a blind woman. The X-Men were victims of prejudice, hated and feared by the people they were sworn to protect. Further, where Superman and Batman and The Flash were guardians of fictional cities of Metropolis and Gotham and Keystone, the Marvel heroes lived in New York City—The FF on the corner of 42nd Street and Madison Avenue, Spider-Man in Forest Hills, Queens.

Where the Golden Age superhero costumes were derivative of 1930s sportswear, the Silver Age costumes were derivative of . . . Golden Age superhero costumes. This led to costumes looking like an abstraction of the Superman template, with tights and trunks and chest emblems, but without the basis in real clothing to ground it. Steve Ditko’s design for Spider-Man and Gil Kane’s design for Green Lantern are the purest distillation of the Silver Age superhero costumes—streamlined, sleek, and boldly graphic.

While Action Comics #1 and Showcase #4 are the clear catalysts of the Golden and Silver Ages respectively, there isn’t a single flashpoint that started the Bronze Age. It happened instead over the course of a year, specifically 1970.

In April 1970 the Green Lantern title was changed to Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The addition of a second main character led to a major tonal shift, as writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams used GL/GA to explore more serious social and political themes like racism and poverty.

Later that year, Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics and ended his partnership with Stan Lee. Kirby went to DC and took over as both writer and artist of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and began his Fourth World saga. This epic chronicled the cosmic war between the benevolent New Gods of New Genesis and the dark forces of Apokolips, as the mad god Darkseid sought to subjugate the universe with the Anti-Life Equation. This was a new mythology, full of characters and concepts both awesome and ridiculous, and Kirby went wild building psychedelic cosmic vistas and majestic and terrible creatures.

Also that year, the editor of the Superman titles at DC, Mort Weisinger, retired. His replacement, Julius Schwartz, worked with writer Denny O’Neil and artist Curt Swan to scale back Superman’s powers and make him more vulnerable and therefore more relatable.

Instead of the pulpy, lurid crime fiction of the Golden Age and the candy-colored harmless fun of the Silver Age, the Bronze Age saw the stories in superhero comics becoming more and more adult. Both major publishers began making steps toward diversity, with characters like Storm, Blade, Cyborg, Vixen, John Stewart, and so on. Characters might actually die in the stories, sometimes not even villains—in 1973, Spider-Man’s true love, Gwen Stacy, was killed by The Green Goblin, and future stories would involve Peter Parker contemplating whether and how much he was to blame. The stories became more serialized, focusing on the interpersonal relationships between the characters just as much as the high-concept sci-fi and the fantastical and colorful powers and personas.

In 1971, Stan Lee was asked by the US Government to write an anti-drug comic, and so he wrote an epic storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man about the dangers of addiction. Since depiction of drug use was outright forbidden by the Comics Code Authority, but the government had specifically requested the story, this led to a relaxing of the Comics Code (drugs were now allowed to be depicted, but had to be very clearly shown in a negative light).

This led to a famous story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow called “Snowbirds Don’t Fly,” in which Green Arrow discovers that his sidekick, Speedy, is addicted to heroin. As the storylines got more and more serious, the art style became weightier and more detailed.

The X-Men had not originally been very popular, and by 1970 there was no more new X-Men material being published at all. In 1975, Marvel published Giant-Size X-Men #1, with a brand new team searching for the original X-Men. This multicultural team would include a few new characters, like Storm and Nightcrawler, a few old X-Men characters, and a one-off villain from an issue of The Incredible Hulk the year prior called The Wolverine. The new X-Men comics were much more character-oriented than Marvel’s previous offerings.

The All-New, All-Different X-Men became hugely successful, and DC took notice, revamping its Teen Titans franchise into The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez with a similarly character-based approach.

As Superhero characters and concepts become more and more complex throughout the Bronze Age, and as the kids who grew up on Silver Age characters were beginning to reach adulthood, superhero comics were about to go through another major shift—and while some of the best comics ever written would come out in the 1980s and 1990s, so would some of the worst.

Join us next time, True Believers, as we explore the period of comics so terrifying we could only call it . . . THE DARK AGE.

Until Then . . . Make Mine Lifeline.

SUPERHEROES: WHO THEY ARE AND HOW THEY CAME TO BE – Part 1 – The Golden Age

Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.

SoonIWillBeInvincible_01_web

Dr. Impossible and Fatale and the other heroes and villains of Soon I Will Be Invincible are original creations of author Austin Grossman, but they are also a distillation of the themes and tropes and ideas of the Superhero. Superheroes, of course, are most closely associated with comic books, and so if we’re going to understand the literary traditions that led to our heroes, we have to go back to the beginning, the Secret Origin of the comic book superhero.

That means going back to 1938, to the beginning of the Golden Age of Comics, and the creation of Superman.

The American comic book preexisted the superhero, but just barely, and with so little distinction that in the cultural mind the medium has always seemed indistinguishable from its first stroke of brilliance. There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound. All the tropes, all the clichés and conventions, all the possibilities, all the longings and wishes and neuroses that have driven and fed and burdened the superhero comic during the past seventy years were implied by and contained within that little red rocket ship hurtling toward Earth. That moment—Krypton exploding, Action Comics No. 1—is generally seen to be Minute Zero of the superhero idea.

Michael Chabon, “Secret Skin,”
The New Yorker, March 2008

We could go back further—the first comic book (The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck) was published in 1842, and pulp heroes like Buck Rogers and The Shadow and Dick Tracy and Doc Savage and The Green Hornet had all been around for years by the time Action Comics No. 1 was published and were all certainly influences on Siegel and Shuster’s ideas—but Superman is the first Superhero as we understand them today and is the most influential of them all so we start there.

Two Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created Superman in 1938.

Siegel and Shuster had collaborated on a few other comic book stories, and were interested in a new kind of hero. Their Clark Kent was an athletic, physical figure, and so Shuster used the uniforms of other athletes of the time, particularly circus strongmen. Those uniforms generally included skin-tight unitards to show muscle definition, high-waisted trunks on the outside of the tights, and a large belt to divide the torso, and high boots. Shuster used these elements as the basis for Superman’s costume. He added a cape to make flight easier to draw, and a large S on the chest to tie the design together. These elements—the tights, the boots, the trunks, the belt, the cape, the chest-emblem—would become a template for the design of other superheroes that followed.

Early Superman was not the paternal authority figure that we think of today. Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was scrappy and violent, less interested in the law than in justice. This Superman was just as likely to beat up a corrupt politician as he was to collar a bank robber. That first Superman story in Action Comics #1 featured our hero breaking into the governor’s mansion and wreaking havoc until the governor agreed to pardon an innocent person facing the electric chair. Early Superman wasn’t all-powerful, either. He couldn’t fly, but instead could “leap an eighth of a mile,” nor was he invulnerable. He was strong and fast, but that was about it.

National Allied Publications bought their first Superman story and printed in in the first issue of Action Comics. Action was an anthology, and the other stories in the issue included “Chuck Dawson,” “Zatara Master Magician,” “Sticky-Mitt Stimson,” and other similarly titled pulp tales. The first issue of Action Comics was a hit, and Superman was a sensation.

National Allied Publications was one of many publishers making comics at the time, all of them little more than fanzines. Of these many contemporaneous rivals, four were particularly important: Detective Comics Inc., All-American Publications, Timely Comics, and Fawcett Comics.

Detective Comics, Inc. published Detective Comics, an anthology comic mostly printing hard-boiled detective stories including Slam Bradley, another creation of Siegel and Shuster that predated Superman. With the success of the Superman feature, the publishers asked artist Bob Kane to capitalize on the success of their rival. Kane and writer Bill Finger would publish their take on the costumed superhero in May of 1939, when the first Batman story was released in Detective Comics #27.

Later that year, National Allied Publications and Detective Comics Inc, merged to become National Publications.

Max Gaines (remember that name) founded All-American Publications. Among All-American’s comics were All-Flash Quarterly (featuring The Flash), Sensation Comics (featuring Wonder Woman), Green Lantern, and Mutt and Jeff, among others. Other characters All-American published included The Atom, Mister Terrific, Sargon the Sorcerer, The Gay Ghost, Hawkman, Doctor Mid-Nite, Wildcat and many others.

In 1944, National Publications absorbed All-American Publications. By this time National Publications was already generally referred to as DC Comics, but they wouldn’t officially take that name until 1977.

Martin Goodman formed Timely Comics in 1939. Timely published the first issue of their anthology series, Marvel Comics, published in October 1939, featuring The Human Torch, Namor, The Sub-Mariner, and Ka-Zar the Great, among others. In 1940, writer Joe Simon and artist Jacob Kurtzberg published their first issue of Captain America Comics through Timely. Kurtzberg, of course, is better known by his pen name, Jack Kirby. Joe Simon became the editor of Timely Comics, and Captain America, Namor, and The Human Torch were hugely successful characters. In 1941, Joe Simon moved on and Stanley Lieber, Goodman’s office assistant and his wife’s cousin, took over as editor. Lieber had already been writing comics by this point, also using a pen name: Stan Lee.

Fawcett Comics is best known for publishing the Captain Marvel character starting in Whiz Comics in 1940. Captain Marvel was highly derivative of Superman—in fact, the directive from Fawcett’s editors had been “Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- or 12-year-old boy rather than a man.” Bill Parker and CC Beck created the character of young Billy Batson who says the magic word “Shazam!” and becomes Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel quickly became the single most popular superhero in publication, outselling Superman, Batman, The Flash and Captain America by a wide margin. Naturally, National Publications sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, arguing that Captain Marvel’s look and abilities were a direct copy of their Superman character. While the court agreed that Captain Marvel was indeed basically stolen from Superman, National ultimately lost their case because they had failed to adequately copyright their character. This legal battle would continue until 1951, and wouldn’t be the last time that the name Captain Marvel led to warfare in the courts between comics publishers.

Superheroes were popular all through WWII, although not as popular as funny animal comics, particularly those starring Disney characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. Many superhero comics used the War as story inspiration, exhorting readers to buy war bonds and casting Axis powers as villains for the patriotic heroes. Once the war ended, however, their popularity waned significantly, as other genres like Westerns and Horror and Romance comics became more fashionable.

As the 1950s began in the USA and the oldest Baby Boomers started reaching adolescence, the idea of a “youth culture” in the United States began to take hold. High school attendance was at an all-time high, and the “teenager” emerged for the first time as a consumer demographic. With the advent of the teenager came the immediate fear of this monolithic group that was too young to be responsible and too old to be purely innocent, and suddenly the country was gripped in a panic over Juvenile Delinquency. In 1952, Frederick Wertham, a psychiatrist in Baltimore, MD, published his anti-comic-book treatise, Seduction of the Innocent. In his book and in the public eye, Wertham railed against Superhero comics, claiming that they were subversive and dangerous to children because of their perverse content. Wertham asserted that Batman and Robin were gay, Wonder Woman was a lesbian, Superman was a fascist, and so on.

Another major target for Wertham was EC Comics, founded by William Gaines, the son of Maxwell Gaines (remember him?). EC published horror comics such as Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror, as well as a humor anthology comic called MAD. The EC Horror comics were gory and sensationalistic and made a great target.

Gaines testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. It did not go well. The backlash to Gaines’ testimony and EC’s horror line caused the Comics Magazine Association of America to form the Comics Code Authority, a way for comics publishers to self-regulate. Comics were submitted to the Comics Code Authority for approval, and those that were not approved were effectively censored as distributors would not carry comics without the Comics Code Authority seal.

The stringent regulations of the Comics Code led to many changes in superhero comics. For example, the code dictated, “Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.” Since Superhero comics were specifically about crime and the fighting thereof, this effectively neutered some of the more violent villains and led to the development of the outlandishly ridiculous supervillain plot. The Code also mandated that the law must always be portrayed as being upright and just, which meant that superheroes like Batman and Superman, who had previously operated outside the law, became instead garishly colored police deputies and paternalistic boy scouts. The creation of the Comics Code Authority led to the end of EC Comics; the only title to remain in publication was MAD, which changed format and became a magazine rather than a comic book.

By 1954, while other genres like Westerns and Crime and Horror and Romance were still popular, the superhero was almost gone from the newsstands. Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Batman, Detective Comics, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman and World’s Finest were the only Superhero comics still in publication.

Things looked bleak for Superheroes as the Golden Age ended in the 1950s, but every good Death of a Superhero features a Triumphant Return. Next time we’ll talk about the Silver and Bronze Ages of Superheroes.

Until then, True Believers, Make Mine Lifeline!

An interview with Christina Calvit

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre’s adaptor, Christina Calvit, is a Lifeline ensemble member and has written numerous award-winning scripts, including the previous version of Jane Eyre. She revamped the script for this new production, and answered some questions for us about her work.

Q: When did you first read Jane Eyre? What got you involved in this adaptation that first time around?

A: I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager. When we did the show back in 1991, it was purely because Meryl Friedman (the director at that time) and I loved the story. In this current production, there are other things that interested us as well… but back then we just thought it was a great book that deserved to be on stage.

Q: I’m curious about how you begin an adaptation. With books of fair length like this one, hundreds of pages, there are so many words, scenes, characters: in the face of making a 100-page script, many may seem like distractions. How do you find the story you really want to tell from a book? What was particularly clear – or challenging – about Jane Eyre?

A: There is usually something thematic that catches at me…for Jane Eyre it was a persistence of childhood trauma. Then I look at the book through that prism and see what pops out. And I normally don’t deconstruct a book in my work, so I look at the way the story is told and try to include what’s necessary to that. And I look at the dialogue to try and find the very best. The hard thing with Jane Eyre is that there are so many, many great scenes. So much great back and forth, especially between Rochester and Jane. It’s hard to choose.

Q: In this show, Jane’s past before arriving at Thornfield is told to us in a rather uncommon way. What brought you to this approach for the people of Jane’s past?

A: The first third of the book is all about Jane’s youth. It’s interesting that Bronte devotes so much space to it. You could make it happen in real time (and some of the movie and TV adaptations do), but I wanted to heighten those experiences and make them more important symbolically. So the show opens with a nightmare mash up of people from Jane’s past: Aunt Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, the headmaster of Lowood school, and Helen, her best friend at Lowood. They are the inner voices that have shaped her idea of her own self-worth and guide her choices, for good or bad. And they follow her for much of the play.

Q: What are you most excited about for this particular production? Do you have words for fans of the book who might be wondering what they will find in our show?

A: I like the nontraditional casting and staging—exploding the book a bit out of its period. It’s an epic story that people come back to again and again, so it obviously speaks to us beyond the 1840’s. The cast is amazing and the design is like nothing we’ve ever done at Lifeline before. It’s a different kind of Jane Eyre. I’m hoping people will enjoy what they’ve always loved about the story and also see it in a new and deeper way.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’m off to shoot a commercial in Austin for Vitamix! Everyone should have one!

Thanks, Christina!

Autobiography

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

“Speak I must,” says Jane.

Who is listening to this story? Jane Eyre is subtitled An Autobiography, with Bronte’s pen name of Currer Bell credited as the editor. Jane frequently refers to the reader directly, in the manner of one expecting or assuming kinship:

“I will tell you, Reader, what they are.”
“Reader, here an illustration.”
and once,
“(oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!)”

Now we have two things: an awareness that this book is presented as an autobiography, having for its fictional frame a (mostly) realistic life; and a sense that its narrator seeks a voice in kind with our hearing, purposefully helping and entreating a real audience.

Linda Peterson describes Victorian and pre-Victorian placement of women outside the field of self-analysis and discovery by compiling a list of religious admonitions, concerns about a woman’s mental and spiritual weakness which may be so significant as to make it impossible for her to safely continue a thorough analysis of anything, especially a Biblical text, without guidance:

“Victorian women did not have the authority to speak the language of biblical types. By Pauline injunction, they had been admonished to ‘learn in silence with all subjection.’ ‘I suffer not a woman to teach,’ St. Paul had written, ‘nor to usurp authority over the man’ (I Tim. 2.11—12). By ecclesiastical decree, they were denied ordination in the Church of England during the whole of the nineteenth century, prohibited from interpreting the Scriptures to a congregation in most Dissenting sects, and banned from Methodist pulpits by the Convention of 1803. John Wesley’s comments to Sarah Crosby, a woman who felt the call to preach, are instructive: ‘Even in public you may properly enough intermix short exhortations with prayer; but keep as far from what is called preaching as you can; therefore never rake a text; never speak in continued discourse without some break, about four or five minutes.’” (Peterson 131-2)

Peterson goes on to define Jane Eyre as a subversion of the further belief that female writing could be both factual and analytical or self-aware. Brontë used the novel as a perhaps satirical means of delineating “between when a woman may apply types and when she may not, between what aspects of a woman’s life are accessible to typological interpretation and what aspects are beyond (or beneath) interpretation” (133).

Harriet Martineau, novelist and philosopher who wrote about feminine roles and sociological frames, and who wrote her own Autobiography to be published after her death in 1877, met Charlotte Brontë later in the latter’s life. Friends of Martineau who knew her life history, upon reading Jane Eyre, told Martineau they suspected she must have consulted in the writing, so close was Martineau’s accounted early life to that of the fictional Jane (and, perhaps by another degree, to Brontë). The events which Jane encountered early in her youth and adolescence might explain Jane’s later choices according to Peterson’s view of Martineau, since she “chooses to trace in the Autobiography the forces that contribute to the growth of a mind—and these forces, while including the internal, consist in greater proportion of the observable and external” (150). The autobiography, for Martineau and perhaps for Brontë, serves as a way of laying out the events of a life and considering them as instruments or guides in a continued development, the causes leading to the mind and situation of the narrator, the autobiographer – the person at the heart of the story who now has the voice to tell it.

“But in the world outside the novel, Brontë assumes no such enlightenment. Jane Eyre’s autobiography makes its way into the world through the offices of a man, Currer Bell, who appears on the title page as the editor and who, according to Victorian convention, selects and arranges what a woman has to say about her life.” (135)

Is this why Jane tells her story so earnestly to a “reader”? Is it a “chick flick” of a book – or play – intended for female audiences to commiserate and nod along with, or take encouragement from? But Jane’s struggle to find listeners bridges gender divides, and falls along lines of authority of all sorts: age, institutional roles, religious and familial tradition. For our part now, knowing the Jane speaks directly to us as readers and, in Lifeline’s production, perhaps to us as viewers, there is an implicit need for a listener who will add another dimension to this conversation. That understanding of a need may place a heavier burden on us as observers, since we appreciate that extra relationship. Watching Jane’s life and the outcome of her repeated attempts to find a listener or kindred spirit, what do we see? According to Carla Kaplan, writing about the complications of reading Jane Eyre as a feminist conversation:

“…A ‘true conversation,’ in which neither partner dominates, controls, coerces, or instrumentalizes the other, in which the partners ‘do not talk at cross purposes,’ is an object of Jane’s narrative desire to the very extent that it is not a feature of her everyday lived experience.”

So, it seems, the fictional world of Jane is not letting her voice resound. Are we to fill that void by giving her an outlet, an audience which will receive her story and use it? Kaplan goes on to ask, “does assuming that the text ‘desires me’ re-perform the essentialism against which this novel strains by assuming that because we can identify with Jane we must be the listener/lover she desires?” Later, we will ask this question of some of our Lifeline collaborators, to see what about Jane’s story impels them to help her tell it. And what about Jane’s story, Brontë’s story, we hope our own audiences will find to consider about us and themselves, and perhaps about the world we inhabit.

Further reading and quoted:

Kaplan, Carla. “Girl Talk: Jane Eyre and the Romance of Women’s Narration.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 30(1). Autumn 1996. pp. 5-31

Peterson, Linda H. “Chapter 5. Martineau’s Autobiography: The Feminine Debate Over Self-Interpretation.” from Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Education in Jane’s time

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

“Isn’t she original?”

Jane Eyre. A short portrait of her faculties. She draws in charcoal, colors, and sketches. She debates over philosophy, religion, repentance, duty, and doubt with quite a few characters in the path of her novel. She tells her own story.

If we take her as a product of her period, how unique was Jane Eyre in the education and opportunity she received?

Today let’s talk about Jane’s education. At Lifeline, we have chosen to explore the childhood and early formative experiences – and characters – in Jane’s life as a presence in a way which I won’t tell for you here. You’ll recognize them when you see them. But as a fictional autobiography, JE gives us a large part of a young woman’s life to depict, and much of the earliest parts describe her education. Let us look at one of those early portions of Jane’s life though the lens of history. What was education like for Victorian girls, especially poor orphans?

Public education as we describe it in the United States (since the English term means something quite different) did not come about until well after the 1847 publication of Jane Eyre. Even the idea that all people should be educated took time to gain traction. Meanwhile, education for the poor was best found in parish schools and institutions providing tuition grants (“subscriptions”) by richer donors around the areas. Young orphans or poorer children with protectors motivated to educate them could perhaps depend on these subscriptions if a school with such a program were nearby, and these institutions might be more willing to accept poor pupils in order to expand their ranks – since after all, students could be asked to perform chores at the school. Charlotte herself attended the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan’s Bridge, in Lancashire starting in 1824, with a tuition starting at 14 pounds (compared to the 15 pounds for Jane Eyre’s Lowood Institution). From the Clergy Daughter’s educational report from 1842, quoted in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte:

“The system of education comprehends history, geography, the use of the globes, grammar, writing, and arithmetic, all kinds of needlework, and the nicer kinds of household work – such as getting up fine linen, ironing, &c. If accomplishments are required, an additional charge of 3L. a year is made for music or drawing, each.”

Charlotte and Jane’s educations may have been the exception in the field of female study. Anne Clough, visitor to girls’ schools in the mid-1800s, observed: “A few dry facts are taught, but the life and spirit are too often left out and there is a monotony in girls’ education which is very dulling to the intellect”. Analytical work may be pursued little if at all, and even historical facts and mathematics would make up the vast minority of time compared to calisthenics, sewing, and maybe music and language drilling. Indeed, spiritual and biological general views had for a while held that women lacked the ability to combine a strong memory for facts with a logical faculty for reasoning their causes, chronology, and implications – a slowly fading sense which made emergence of female authors of autobiography or analytical fiction stand out, something we will explore more. According to Clough, Girls’ schools intentionally “accentuating the differences between the sexes” and were valued for improving social graces and displayable qualities, the all-important “accomplishments.” And all the time, conditions of the school, high physical demands and less consistent sanitary conditions, could present further obstacles for students’ deep education.

Cowan’s Bridge was known for poorly managed kitchens, and not all Bronte sisters survived the school before their father removed them from it. Certainly Charlotte admitted to allowing parallels in school life of the novel, as in many other aspects, between her own world and Jane’s. Bronte even tentatively recanted some of her harsher portrayals of Lowood’s conditions – for health of emotion and of body both – because of the condemningly easy connection to her childhood school. From Gaskell again:

“Miss Bronte more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood … if she had though the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan’s Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it”

Yet Bronte depicted these realities as well as the learning that Jane did get away with. Perhaps she was lucky in her chance to learn French and drawing, reading the works that she did, at a charity school.

An interview with Elise Kauzlaric

At the heart of every show you see at Lifeline Theatre is the work of our dedicated artistic ensemble. These 27 Chicago artists are continuously proposing new titles for production, hosting script readings, providing feedback on projects in development, commissioning music, meeting with designers, attending rehearsals, and slating projects for future seasons of award-winning shows. 

To continue our work throughout the 2013-14 season, we’ve launched our Page To Stage Campaign to raise $25,000 by February 28th. As part of this campaign, Alex Kyger, Lifeline’s Development Director, interviewed two of our ensemble members. Today, Alex presents an interview with Elise Kauzlaric.

 elise_ql

Q: How did you first get involved with Lifeline?

A: I first auditioned for Bunnicula in 1999, and I ended up understudying two roles and I had a ton of opportunities to perform. And then two ensemble members that had been involved in Bunnicula, Shole and Sandy, cast me in another KidSeries show the next year, My Father’s Dragon.

Q: How did you end up becoming an ensemble member?

A: I acted in several more shows after My Father’s Dragon, with Queen Lucia, Strong Poison, and The Silver Chair. And I was also asked to direct a KidSeries show, Frances’ first Emperor’s Groovy New Clothes. And then I started coaching dialects for shows as well. So I had worn a few different hats after a few years and I had the chance to work with nearly everyone in the ensemble at that point. And I was asked to join the ensemble 2005.

Before being asked, I had already considered it an artistic home for many years. I had worked here more than any other theatre and felt really connected to it. And since joining, I’ve had a chance to wear even more hats. I started to direct more and I wrote my first adaptation after joining the ensemble.

Q: What has surprised you most about working with Lifeline?

A: I don’t think it’s surprising, but something that’s really notable is the fact that there’s such support from everyone in the organization for you to try and do new things. I had directed one KidSeries show and didn’t have a ton of experience when I began directing Mariette in Ecstasy. Christina, who adapted it, had such faith in me and she supported me throughout the process. And I think that’s something very special about Lifeline is that everybody is here to support you and really encourage you to try different things.

Q: What was the first show you adapted?

A: At the first ensemble meeting I attended as a member of the company, I brought up The Velveteen Rabbit. We were looking for KidSeries titles, and I thought “surely this book has come up,” because to me it was a well-known title and I had read it a lot growing up. And it turned out that the title was in the public domain so it was easy to get started on it. It was a natural project for me to do and a really comfortable one for me to do as my first adaptation.

Q: How does the ensemble support you when you’re taking on a production capacity for the first time?

A: Well, I think the biggest form of support comes from the group saying “Yes, you should do this adaptation” or “yes, you should direct.” Honestly, that’s the biggest step. And because our rehearsal process is set up to allow for support along the way, you consistently hear feedback from your peers from the first rehearsal to the opening performance. And ensemble members do that for you because they care about the show and they care about your own personal development as well.

Q: How do you think other ensemble members would describe you?

A: Artistically, I would hope that they would say that I have a lot of passion for the projects that I’m involved with. That the stakes are always high for me because my heart is always in it what I’m doing. I want the final product to be excellent, so I work hard.

Q: What do you wish other people knew about Lifeline?

A: I hope our audience members know how much care and attention we put into the choices we make. When adapting a show we have to decide what will be moving, exciting, and entertaining for our audience. And in that process, the small things are very important. I think people would be amazed at some of the things that we debate, it could be something that just goes by them and they don’t even notice. But that’s because we are really passionate about properly telling the story.

Q: How do you think you’ve grown as an artist since joining the Lifeline ensemble?

A: As an ensemble member, working with Lifeline has allowed me to continually grow as an artist in an intentional way. I have the chance to say for example, “I think this project will allow me to direct, which I’ve never done before.” It’s allowed me to be mindful about my growth.

And then, because I’m part of an ensemble, my ideas are often challenged and it forces me to articulate why I’m making specific choices. I can’t make arbitrary decisions. Because even if I don’t take a person’s suggestion, I will have to articulate and justify my choice.

Q: Do you have a favorite Lifeline memory that you would be willing to share?

A: I think that we all remember watching one of the early rehearsals for The Island of Dr. Moreau as a really special moment. It was before the set had been built and it was in a bare room with no technical elements and no costumes. The show was tight, the actors were committed, and it was stunning. And I remember thinking that THIS is what we want to share with our audiences: simply great storytelling.

And I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with other ensemble members. Even though we have a lot of debates, we also laugh hysterically together – it’s definitely a family. And these are people that I never would have met without this theatre. The relationships I’ve made here are really important to me. I’ve developed a lot of wonderful friendships.

An interview with Gabriela Coronel

Did you know that Lifeline Theatre provides free theatre education to over 500 students in 6 Rogers Park elementary schools every year? To continue offering this program  throughout the 2013-14 season, we’ve launched our Back To School Campaign to raise $7,000 by December 1st.  As part of this campaign, Alex Kyger (Lifeline’s Development Director) interviewed some of the folks involved in this behind-the-scenes work that Lifeline does. Today, Alex presents an interview with a local teacher, Gabriela Coronel.

 

About Gabriela Coronel
Gabriela is a 2nd grade teacher at New Field Elementary School. She has been teaching for three years now and Lifeline residencies have been in her classroom every year she has taught in Chicago’s Public Schools. She says there are a lot of arts partners that work with the school system, but if she had to pick one that makes the biggest difference in her classroom, it would be Lifeline.

Q: How did you get introduced to Lifeline’s residencies?

A: I’ve been involved with Lifeline for 3 years now at New Field School. Everything they do helps the children. It improves their presence in the classroom and it helps them academically. A lot of the kids right now are very shy and quiet at the very beginning of the school year. And then through Lifeline and learning to project their voices with the games they do, they become more confident. It’s helped them with a lot of the presentations they do for Hispanic Heritage and Christmas; and we do a country study each year with presentations. And even just vocally, they become much more confident in themselves.

Q: What has surprised you most about having Lifeline in your classroom?

A: I’ve been surprised that it’s become a way to tie into all the different kind of modalities that the kids have. What I’ve noticed is that the child that is quietest or is performing the lowest academically, when Lifeline comes in they really get a moment to shine. They really express their talent. The kids that have low self esteem, the kids that have academic problems, they actually shine the most with Lifeline.

Q: What is most rewarding about having the residencies?

A: We have a lot of things that we need to be teaching the students. With Lifeline, it’s a fun way for the kids to be learning academic things. I know I give the teaching artists a lot of words because I have a bilingual class this year and the acting out of words, being able to visually see the words, really helps the students with their vocabulary and presentations. And even their comprehension skills, because a lot of the things we do with Lifeline are tied to stories and breaking them up and creating scenes. It’s related to fluency. The students are practicing their reading, they’re practicing writing. It’s like everything we do in the classroom, but in a fun way with Lifeline.

Q: How do you think the teaching artists or other teachers would describe you?

A: I actually think they would say I’m a lot like them. I’m very cooperative in the sense that every time Lifeline comes in (and this is another aspect about Lifeline I like) I also get to be part of it. Because kids watch me, and if they see that I don’t participate, they won’t participate. If it’s okay to for me to act silly, then they feel more confident. And very open, I’ve always liked acting so I’ve just been open to how it can help my students.

Q: What do you wish people knew about Lifeline?

A: I think when people hear Lifeline they just think of acting. And it’s much more than acting. For teachers especially, we like that Lifeline’s residencies have vocabulary involved, comprehension involved, and cooperative learning involved. Even self reflection, where the kids are getting that time to think about what they were good at and think about what they’re going to do better. All those aspects. A lot of people hear “theatre” and they think the kids are just playing and it’s much more than that with Lifeline.

Q: What would you say Lifeline does best in the classroom?

A: Tying their curriculum into what we’re doing in the classroom. At New Field School, each class does a country study. Last year, we had South Korea – so we adapted a folk tale from South Korea as part of our country study. The fact that we were able to tie the program into what the kids are learning is really wonderful.

An interview with Julie Ganey

Did you know that Lifeline Theatre provides free theatre education to over 500 students in 6 Rogers Park elementary schools every year? To continue offering this program  throughout the 2013-14 season, we’ve launched our Back To School Campaign to raise $7,000 by December 1st.  As part of this campaign, Alex Kyger (Lifeline’s Development Director) interviewed some of the folks involved in this behind-the-scenes work that Lifeline does. Today, Alex presents an interview with one of our teaching artists, Julie Ganey.

 

julie

About Julie Ganey
Julie has worked as an actress, teacher, and writer in Chicago for over 20 years, and has been an educator with Lifeline since 2008. Through Wavelength, an award-winning comedy ensemble that performs for educators nationwide, she has created and led workshops for teachers all over the country on communication skills, bridging conflict, and improvisation. Her bullying prevention program, Stand Up On the Schoolyard, has been presented to students and educators within the Chicago Public School system and across the country. Julie has served as Outreach Director at Next Theatre, where she has led community members in the creation of civic-based theatre projects that explore social issues, and she is currently a program creator and instructor for American Girl Place.

Q: How long have you been a teaching artist?

A: I’ve been a teaching artist for about 18 years at a lot of different places. I’ve been teaching with Lifeline since five years ago and it quickly became what I think of as my home base for teaching. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I live in Rogers Park and I have done a lot of community work in Rogers Park. I was so thrilled to get into the neighborhood schools.

I went to the Theatre School of DePaul and studied acting and performance; I still perform quite often. But to tell you the truth, when I graduated from college, the commercial world was not a great fit for me. I also knew that as an actress, I didn’t want to look back at the end of my career and realize I had only performed. I’m so grateful that I’ve stumbled into teaching and being a teaching artist because I feel like it really is a meaningful connection that I’ve made with the kids I’ve worked with. It makes a difference for them.

I come from a family of teachers, so I’m not surprised that I found being a teaching artist fulfilling. And for me there’s a big difference between being an acting teacher and being a teaching artist. I’ve never had an enormous interest in teaching actors how to act. But I do love the idea of interfacing with the community and introducing the idea to people that theatre skills are something that you can improve on and that can improve your life. They’re skills that can improve your learning and improve how well you read.

Q: Can you tell me about a specific class or memory that has stuck with you?

A: Last fall, another teaching artist and I were teaching two second grade classes at the same school. From the beginning, one was ready to do a full-fledged show. They were all in. You only had to show them how to do something once and they were on it. But the other group had a lot of struggles in and out of the classroom. It was the sort of classroom you go into where you worry about a couple of the kids. However, the improvement we saw over our time together in the most basic things – from being able to speak up to being able to stop and listen to someone else – was enormous. When we left that class, they had all sorts of new skills and different ways of working with each other. Collaboration is a higher-order thinking skill. It takes practice and support; and that’s why we introduce the concept of ensemble the first day of the residency. You never know the kind of impact what you’re doing is going to have.

Q: What has surprised you most about working in Lifeline’s residencies?

A: That so much of what we do is new information to teachers. I’m surprised that they say, “I never thought of using that exercise with vocabulary.” So I’ve been surprised at the impact that our program has on what teachers think they can do in the classroom. And I have been surprised and pleased at the cumulative affect it has on the students. I have worked with several second graders that had worked with me in Kindergarten as well. And what I’m seeing is the effect of working with these students and then coming back the next year and the year after that. It stays with them.

I was also surprised by the impact of the adaptation project, which is relatively new. I think it’s a great skill for students to understand what adaptation is. What we create is not a polished production, but we are taking a book and turning it into something that’s on its feet. And that requires a lot of decisions to be made. For example, “how should we convey that he’s a giant?” And I’ll say, “Yes, you could put him on a chair, but what else could you do?” Or they’ll say, “I really like this part of the story.” And I have to say, “I like that part, too, but is it necessary in telling this story?”

The project forces them to really mine information from a piece of literature. For example, I’ll say, “Let’s look at the character of Joe. Go back and look at everything Joe says and everything people say about Joe. Let’s come up with five adjectives to describe Joe.” And it can be hard for them. But once they got into it they started to see how everything that’s said in the text is a clue. And I felt they had never looked at literature that way before: taking fictional text and going through and pulling out the clues.

Q: When your friends or family find out you are a teaching artist, what do they say?

A: They say, “that sounds like so much fun.” And I say, “it is!” They often say, “well, I know it’s really hard being a teacher.” And I explain that it’s a lovely brand of teaching to be a teaching artist because you come in and you’re a guest artist for a period of time. People do ask, “don’t you have students that are too shy or don’t want to do it?” Yes, we have students who are shy and, yes, we have students who don’t want to do it at first. But it is the rare student who is not on board and engaged after a couple of classes.

julieclass

Q: What do you wish other people knew about Lifeline?

A: The number one thing that I’m always talking to people about is the very high quality of the youth programming here. Yes, the in-school residencies, but also the extremely high quality of the KidSeries productions that we do. I think they are the best productions that are done in the city; and at a price where you can afford to bring your family. The attention to detail in terms of the theatrical experience for a kid and the emotional experience and understanding what a kid is going to take away. There is attention to detail in areas that I don’t see from other theatres. I think Lifeline is a very special theatre for young people.

Q: Are there any specific adaptation projects that you would like to share?

A: This fifth grade class we had was struggling to pick the book they wanted to adapt. So, Jenifer and I came up with the idea of doing Rikki Tikki Tavi,  a Rudyard Kipling short story from The Jungle Book. The class did not want to do Rikki Tikki Tavi. So, I had to say, “Well, let’s read it. Can I read it to you?” And as I’m reading it I’m thinking to myself, “They’re not going to want to do this. They are going to think this is too childish for them.” But before I could finish reading it they were jumping up and down, yelling, “I want to be the Mongoose! I want to be the cobra!” And so we did an adaptation of it. The commitment that fifth grade class had to being snakes. I was amazed at how they took ownership of it and it really took a life of its own. I just couldn’t picture these kids being committed snakes, but they were. That experience surprised me. But I have things surprise me all the time in these residencies.

An interview with Matt Fletcher

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Matt Fletcher, Producing Artistic Director of Sideshow Theatre Company, makes his Lifeline debut as the Troubadour in The Killer Angels.

Q: You’ve got a pretty prominent role as the Troubadour. Are you actually in every scene? How’d you tackle line memorization?

A: I think I am in every scene. I never really thought about it but I think that’s true. I remember during cue-to-cue in tech rehearsals not having much downtime because I bookend practically every scene in one form or another and cue much of the action. It’s interesting, too, that you use the word “memorization.” I typically hesitate to use that word, I prefer “learning” my lines. Semantics, it’s true. But in scene work, it’s easy to learn lines because you’re in scene, it’s conversation, there’s logical progression in dialogue, and there’s no need to drill lines and “memorize,” if that makes sense. At least for me. It’s organic. With this play, though, since I’m often just spewing facts, dates, and locations, and “narrating,” (or “troubadouring”) I found myself “memorizing” lines. How did I do it? Magic. Okay, not really. Basically the same way I studied for history tests. Read something aloud about ten times, looked off the page, said it without looking at the script, and 9 times out of 10, it was memorized. That was my grandaddy’s trick.

Q: Speaking of your grandaddy–you’re from Virgina, yes? Was the history of the Civil War a big part of your childhood?

A: I am from Virginia, born and raised, where your entire fourth grade year is spent learning Virginia (Civil War) history. So Grandaddy was from my mom’s side. A United Methodist minister and a damn fine actor. But Grandpa was from my dad’s side (again, semantics, but that was how they were differentiated for my brothers and me). He lived on a big farm across from where we lived in Port Republic, Virginia. His house was actually used as a hospital by both the North and the South during the Battle of Port Republic (which was part of Stonewall Jackson’s campaign through the Shenandoah Valley). It was not uncommon that Grandpa’s farm equipment would get messed up by running over a cannonball. There was this huge drawer in a bureau in the dining room full of artillery shells and bullets.

My great great grandfather, Abner Kilpatrick Fletcher, Sr., enlisted in the 10th Virginia Volunteer Infantry in 1861 as a Sgt. [Note: The 10th Virginia was actively engaged in the fighting around Culp’s Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg.] He was wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, and carried a Yankee musket ball in his side until he died in 1917. He didn’t own any slaves, but like most Virginians, he had that Virginia pride thing that can’t really be understood these days, even by me. And I’m very proud of where I came from, but we live in a different time.

Q: That’s incredible. I take it that most of the historical material from the play was already familiar to you, then? I grew up in Seattle, so I only found out that there WAS a Civil War when I read The Killer Angels novel in June.

A: Yes, I guess a bit of the historical material was familiar to me, but the nitty gritty of this particular battle was pretty fun to learn about. It’s fascinating stuff. And really fun to do on stage.

Q: There are a couple moments in the play when you’re standing in rockstar lighting playing your guitar and singing. Two part question: 1. What are you thinking to yourself in these moments? (What I’m looking for here is “I am a rockstar, I am a rockstar”), and 2. How long have you played the guitar?

A: Hahaha!! In moments like those, I think about my idol, and I ask myself: “What would The Boss do?” Actually, my thoughts in those moments are usually: “Don’t look like an idiot, don’t look like an idiot.” I’m trying very hard to not be That Guy Who Keeps Playing Guitar. I’ve never really played in front of people before, with a few drunk exceptions. I’ve always liked playing, though. Guitars are simple machines, but they can make such an amazing impact. I love simple things that can evoke complex reactions–I think we do that well in this play. Not just with guitar, but simple gestures that literally mean life or death. My brother Mike (who is a great musician) taught me some chords about a dozen years ago, and I’ve been playing ever since. I should probably be a lot better, having played that long, but I’ve never played as consistently as I have over the last 2 months or so, and now I’ve got some rockin calluses on my fingers, so hopefully I’ll keep it up.

Q: I’m glad to hear our play has given you finger calluses. Nobody ever said theatre was easy, right? Any last words you’d like to share? Do you have a favorite word?

A: This has been and continues to be an awesome experience. I get to play guitar and play war onstage with big guns, climb things and run around like a soldier–it’s like I’m 12 again. Matt Miller captained the ship very well, allowing a ton of input and really letting us take ownership of this piece. We always had a lot of smart minds in the room and we had a lot of time to flesh this thing out. We had some awesome creative sessions where Matt literally said: “Guys, I have no idea what to do here. You guys over there play with coats, you guys over there play with guns, and you guys see what you can do with these blankets. Let’s see what you come up with.” And that was great. And Karen was so generous with her willingness to make this the best possible play it could be, cutting and adding things literally up to opening night. She wasn’t precious or selfish about anything, and I admire that a lot. It’s been a luxurious and pleasurable process, and I give Lifeline a ton of credit. Great crew to work with.

Favorite word? This is going to sound precious, but I think Virginia is my favorite word. It’s just a pretty sounding word. V is a lovely letter. And it’s home, and there’s no place like home.

An interview with Jeff Shaara

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Jeff Shaara is a historical novelist, having penned eight New York Times bestsellers. He is the son of Michael Shaara, and he wrote the prequel and sequel to his father’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, from which Lifeline’s production has been adapted by Karen Tarjan.

Q: First off, what’s the correct pronunciation of your last name?

A: Shaara rhymes with “Clara”, or, as in “share and SHAARA like”.

Q: Was American history a big part of your family, growing up?

A: History was not a part of my background, or my family. My father was a storyteller, first and foremost- when we visited Gettysburg, he knew a good story when he saw one. My own interest in the war came about as the kid who played with the toy soldiers. I read a little about Stonewall, maybe a few other things, but that was it.

Q: Your father was inspired to write “The Killer Angels” after a family vacation to Gettysburg. Were you on this vacation, and what do you remember about it?

A: The vacation to Gettysburg was in large part because of MY interest as the “Civil War kid”. We were there strictly as tourists, and I still have photographs of those days crawling all over cannons, which is what 12-year olds do. The obsession that hit my father to write that story was a surprise to him, certainly. I recall vividly making the long walk across the “Pickett’s Charge” field, and him telling me that story. I remember being on Little Round Top and hearing Chamberlain’s story–these were things he had read about prior to the visit, just to get some sense of what we were going to see. The power of that story completely changed him. But the trip was one part of a lengthy family vacation from Florida to relatives in New Jersey (we visited the 1964 World’s Fair in NY).

Q: Before you wrote the prequel and sequel to “The Killer Angels,” you had no experience as a writer. What was the transition from non-writer to bestselling author like?

A: The suggestion for me to tackle a prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels came from film director Ron Maxwell, who, speaking for Ted Turner, said that Turner was very excited by the success of the film “Gettysburg” and simply wanted to do more Civil War films. The idea was to take my father’s book and go in both directions, before and after, with many of the same characters. I would put the story together, based on the kinds of research my father had done–the actual voices of the characters. But- there was no fear on my part, because there were no expectations. We discussed that if whatever I came up with was lousy, it would go in the trash, and no one would ever know about it. It was ALWAYS about being a film, my story to be adapted to a screenplay by Maxwell. Since I was representing my father’s estate (as something of a business manager), I was dealing with Random House in NY, who now had this #1 bestseller in The Killer Angels, so in talking to them I mentioned I was writing the prequel. They suggested I send them the manuscript, which I did. Again, no expectations. The return call I got was “We don’t care if it’s a film- we like the book. We think you’re a writer. Here’s a contract.” THAT changed my life. When “Gods and Generals” came out, I was stunned that the book made its debut on the bestseller list, and throughout a 59 city book signing tour, I never could really be comfortable with the notion that G&G was MINE. It was my father’s book to write, and only by his early death was that opportunity even mine at all. It took me probably 4 books into my own career before I felt comfortable taking credit for being a writer.

Q: “Gods and Generals” is the prequel to “The Killer Angels.” What are a few of the most significant relationships or events that took place before the key players met at the Battle of Gettysburg?

A: One aspect of G&G is the “meeting” of the four principle characters when they come together on the same battlefield- Fredericksburg, in Dec. 1862. (Chamberlain, Hancock, Lee and Jackson). That was always intended, to show how each of the four, who are VERY different kinds of people, with four very different kinds of wives, how each evolves through the first two years of the war into the kinds of leaders they become. The tragedy of Stonewall Jackson’s death was by far the most difficult piece of writing I’ve had to do, because, to my surprise, I loved the man. Killing was extremely emotional for me. (I’ve had that same experience now with a few other primary characters in my other books). But the relationship between Lee and Jackson is huge to understanding the mistakes Lee makes later in the war, and the development of Hancock as a commander mirrors much of what happened throughout the Union command. Chamberlain is in many ways, my father. That made it very interesting (and fun) to explore that character.

Q: What’s a typical day for you currently? Do you have a ritual daily writing practice? What’s in the works for you now?

A: I’m a “10am to 4pm” writer. (My father was a midnight to 5am writer). It has to be very disciplined, and often, when the manuscript is underway (as my new one is right now) it’s a 7-days a week thing. I lose complete track of what day it is (I’ve actually gone to the bank, wondering why on earth they’re closed, only to realize it’s Sunday). I wouldn’t call it a “ritual”, no totems or good luck charms. But once I get going with a story, I liken it to a faucet turning on. Let it flow, don’t try to stop it, and when it DOES stop, there isn’t much you can do about it. On those occasional days when I’m just not in the mood, I’ll do something completely different- go fishing maybe. I never suffer through the process of just staring at the blank paper, the way my father did. If the words aren’t there, accept that, and come back later. I always start each day by re-reading what I wrote yesterday. I fix things, edit, make changes. It’s good to have that 24-hour separation. My new book is the 3rd of what will e a 4-book set. This one deals with Chattanooga, September thru November 1863. The primary characters include Sherman and Grant (again), plus Union General George Thomas- the Confederates are Braxton Bragg and Patrick Cleburne. The book is set to come out next May. The 4th book will deal with Sherman and Joe Johnston, from Atlanta through the end of the war in the Carolinas, a story most people (including Civil War buffs) just don’t know. I love that. After that, I’m planning on a book dealing with the War for Texas Independence- what most people think of as “The Alamo”. But that’s only a very small part of the story. Great characters.

Jeff-Shaara-2012