During the Staged Reading Series at Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette, at least one script written by a local playwright receives its world premiere. There are two scripts that will debut at Civic Theatre in the 2012-2013 Staged Reading Series. The first is A Wonderful Suicide by Diane Littleton Bahler, which will receive a staged reading Monday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the historic Monon Depot Theatre.
Diane was interviewed by Steve Martin, who wrote the other script that will receive its world premiere this season.
Question: How did your interest in James Moon, the subject of A Wonderful Suicide, begin?
Diane Littleton Bahler: I have Civic to thank for my interest in James Moon. I attended a Tour of Terror many years ago, and I heard the story about James Moon beheading himself at the Lahr Hotel. Because of my background in psychology, I was always very interested in who the man was. When I moved back from Virginia, I decided to do research on him. I thought it might make a nice short story. I didn't know if I would find much about the man at all, but I discovered quite a bit. I realized that this was more than just a story, it could have been a book. About a month before the scripts were selected, a friend sent me an email with information about the staged reading contest, and I thought, "This would be a perfect story for Civic." I didn't have a clue, though, how to write a play and I didn't have a play written, but I submitted a proposal. Gratefully, they accepted it.
Q: You said you learned a lot about James Moon. What are some details that you found interesting?
D.L.B.: One of the more interesting things is that he was a fighting Quaker. He was raised to believe in nonviolence and not to go to war, but he chose to fight in the Civil War. I think that shaped a lot of his later choices. Another thing I find interesting is that people hear about the homemade guillotine and they probably think, "This man must have been a raving lunatic" or "What kind of crazy bizzaro was he?" But the reality was that he was a normal person. People thought of him as a good man, a very kind man, someone who was good to his family and got along well with people. That was really surprising to me.
Q: What was the process of developing A Wonderful Suicide from the proposal to the play?
D.L.B.: It's been a huge learning curve. I literally did not know how to write a play. I ordered a book from the Internet, and I contacted old friends who are involved in theatre and asked, "Will you read this for me if I write this? Will you tell me what you think?" Then I joined the Civic Playwrights Group, and I have to thank them very much for their support, insight and comments. I did not write the play I submitted in the proposal. I started writing that play, but the consensus was that it sucked. So I started over, redeveloped the idea, sat down and wrote it in two weeks. Since then I have rewritten it three times, not completely – I had the basic structure and story by that time.
Q: How many months have you lived with A Wonderful Suicide?
D.L.B.: I started around September, which is about a month before the submission was due.
Q: What is the story of A Wonderful Suicide?
D.L.B.: My main dilemma in writing the play was that I had two objectives. I really wanted to tell a story that was true to Mr. Moon. He's a man who deserves to have his story told. It's an interesting story, but it's also sad and depressing. It's not very entertaining in a lot of ways. I also wanted to keep the campiness and fun of the ghost story so I didn't lose the ghoulish humor that has come down with the story. That was the dilemma: How do I do those two things? I decided on creating a split stage with two stories: One story is about other people's theories on why James Moon committed suicide. No one knows the answer, though, so I present different aspects of his life and let the audience draw their own conclusions. The other side is the fun part. I use two characters from history, although I played very liberally with their personalities. One is Caleb Scudder, who was the undertaker who attended Mr. Moon and put his device on display after he died. The other is Orth Stein, a character from Lafayette history who became notorious in his own right. He is 18 years old in my script. He did the original wood cuttings for the newspaper to show the machine. He later became a full-fledged reporter four years later and went into Scudder's attic with Scudder to look for the device. That is the story of two scoundrels, people who are a little out of the norm of society. They don't seem to have a lot in common, but they develop a friendship because of James Moon and his suicide.
Q: How has it felt working with Kevin Colby, your director, and the actors who are speaking your words?
D.L.B.: It's the most exciting part so far. I was really stressed out until we got to this point, and now I'm really having fun with it. Heather Bungard-Janney, who plays Mary Moon, had me in tears at her reading. It's like handing your baby to people you don't really know and saying, "Here, take care of it. Take care of my baby!" Kevin has been great, he's given great suggestions so I'm still tweaking the script here and there, which has been invaluable. Hearing the words come out of someone's mouth instead of just in your head is helping with the dialogue, making it flow better. It's really been fun, it's really been good.
Q: What do you will happen at the staged reading March 18?
D.L.B.: I would love for people to have a really good time, to come out and feel they had been entertained by the staged reading. I also hope they would learn something about Mr. Moon and Lafayette history. I'm an amateur historian and one of my main motivations was for people to know who this man was. He is such a big part of Lafayette history, he really is. Everyone knows the story about James Moon and the Lahr Hotel, but they don't know who he was. This will provide some information, it will plug some holes in that history.
Q: You also have a blog regarding the story of James Moon.
D.L.B.: Yes, it is http://bangingonthedrum.blogspot.com. I've used it for a lot of things, but if a post is about A Wonderful Suicide, I title it that way. There is a lot of historic background, some of it I've used to play with the story myself. There is a little bit of my own James Moon ghost story, which I may return to because I've had some interactions with Mr. Moon's ghost myself. I feel that he has chosen me to tell his story. I feel obliged to tell his story.
Q: What is the next step for A Wonderful Suicide?
D.L.B.: I would love for Civic Theatre to stage it as a full production, that would be awesome. I may submit it for some play contests, but I would have to do more work if it were staged somewhere else - there are some things that are idiosyncratic to Lafayette, but I think there is a universal story there. I'm not going to throw it in a drawer and forget about it. I may try to find other venues for it. I'm also going to return to the book and finish it. I have fallen in love with the characters of Stein and Scudder, so they will play a larger part in the book than I first imagined.
Q: What are some of your favorite plays?
D.L.B.: Inherit the Wind is one of my all-time favorites. You can't beat Shakespeare's plays either. I've been to The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked, and I enjoyed all those. This staged reading has reintroduced me to theatre.
Q: What have you learned about playwriting? What tips would you give to someone else?
D.L.B.: Well, I learned that I needed to lock the door, turn off the phone, tell everyone I was dead and sit at the computer for 10 hours straight until I got the draft done. I would suggest that people find someone to read the script out loud for you. I also would suggest reading other plays. It's something I wish I had done more of.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Staged Reading Series at Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette?
D.L.B.: It's fabulous. This is a huge opportunity. I'm very grateful for it because I've learned so much going through this process. Everything I've learned about writing this play will help me with anything else that I write. It's great to make connections, making new friends and finding people to help you with your work. They love and care about the theater, they know what they're talking about. I didn't think I would like writing plays, but now I'm hooked. This process has helped me with dialogue, it's helped me develop characters.
Q: Any final thoughts?
D.L.B.: I hope people will come to the staged reading and enjoy the story. People shouldn't be intimidated that it's about suicide. There are lots of stories about suicide that are depressing, but I'm a "happy ending" kind of person. How do you come up with a happy ending about a suicide? I'll let the audience decide whether it's happy, but they will not come away from this depressed. They'll think about some deeper issues and have a better appreciation of their life and Lafayette history. They're not going to go home and want to cut their wrists.
The staged reading of A Wonderful Suicide will be Monday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the historic Monon Depot Theatre at the corner of 5th Street and North Street in downtown Lafayette. It is a Pay What You Can event.
There will be a question-and-answer session immediately following between the audience, the cast, the director and the playwright.
The mission of Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette is to enhance the artistic and cultural environment of Greater Lafayette through theatrical productions and educational opportunities.