Lessing Award Acceptance Speech: Geoff Proehl
Thank you Brian for your eloquent words and, in London, Cindy, for your many kindnesses.1
I am tremendously honored to receive the Lessing Award.
To be named here with individuals I have read about and admired for years – Anne Cattaneo, Arthur Ballet, Michael Lupu, Mark Bly, DD Kugler, Morgan Jenness – is profoundly intimidating. I expect at any moment to look down and see that I am in my underwear and must fight the desire to tell you how unworthy I am of this recognition, but what I have decided to do instead is take this award, hide it in my room tonight, and rush back to Tacoma tomorrow before the Board changes its mind.
I must also fight the desire to begin a long, long list of names of those who have made this honor possible. Every time I try to do so, a little voice says, but what about . . . so instead I want to acknowledge, however inadequately, that I am the astoundingly privileged recipient of a lifetime of love and care, much of it from people in this room and as I name these communities of generosity I would invite you to think not only of those who have made my journey possible but also yours: Family, Teachers, Mentors, Colleagues, Students, and Collaborators. The only names I will drop here tonight are Josh, Kristen, and Morlie. Anyone who knows me understands how risk averse and neurotic I am, how little I like change: were it not for Morlie, I would not be here, and neither of course, would Kristen and Josh.
The rest of my remarks will be brief: from this point, 1051 words, at three seconds a word, about 6 minutes.
“Encounters with Strangers: A Scene and Two Pivots”
Scene: There is a kind of scene I love in plays in which strangers meet in the night.
One example will have to suffice. On a bus travelling south out of Houston an old woman and a young, two strangers, speak with one another in a tiny pool of light, surrounded by darkness and, except for the hum of tires on the road, silence. The old woman knows she will die soon and wants, before she leaves, to find again, if only for a few moments, a beauty that has left her: suffering she accepts, beauty she demands. The young woman has just said good-bye to someone she loves and must deal with the fear that he may not return. They listen to one another and they talk. They offer each to each a kind of listening, as do dramaturgs all the time, that evokes language, that enables intimacy, that makes stories possible.
LMDA is that bus, that pool of light. It exists in order to make encounters with strangers possible. At its inception, this was probably not the case. Dramaturg friends got together for lunch to support one another in the lonely work they were doing. They ate and drank and talked, as we have done here tonight, but soon, David Copelin and his friends did this remarkable thing: they opened up that conversation so that others could join it; they created a place for strangers to meet. They said, we are having lunch, come and join us. We want to know you, not because of who you are, but because of what you do, what you know, and, most of all, what you love.
PIVOT #1: What those dramaturgs and literary managers wanted to know and what they loved owes its existence to three other spaces where strangers also meet – the theatre, the rehearsal hall, and the classroom. What these spaces have in common are the immense pleasures they have to offer those who enter them, often experienced as an opening of what we sometimes call the heart and what we sometimes call the mind, not in spite of our ignorance, messiness, and mortality, but in the midst of it, places where for a few moments we are Masha and Vanya, Olivia and Viola, Prior and Louis, Claressa Greene and Elaine Madonna Bergeron, places that nourish those transient images of beauty and significance that are our most necessary2 fiction. (If those last two names – Claressa and Elaine – are not familiar, see me later and I can introduce you to their creator and her marvelous dramaturg.)
These spaces – classroom, rehearsal hall, theatre, and, this thing we call Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (part guild, part learned society, part lonely hearts club) – are relentlessly at risk: the richness of their pleasures, easily supplanted by quicker fixes and commercial gain, easily belittled by those whose power they threaten. We should never take them for granted. And those who in any way contribute to their existence, especially in these terrible times, are deserving of our thanks.
PIVOT #2: The first conferences I attended were summer church camps at Jennings Lodge on the Willamette River, about 10 miles from here. I went there throughout my high school years. I hated them, not because of my pastor and church community, but because hell-fire and brimstone preachers did their best each night to scare people into heaven, and I, obsessive compulsive adolescent that I was, could never quite make peace with God and so, time and again, would feel compelled to walk down the aisle in order to rededicate myself to a Jesus who was more like a lover who could never get enough than a risen savior.
A fictional version of this scene shows up in a piece of writing I worked on with Kugler last summer at Liz’s lake.3 In it, “Ogden,” a young man about to graduate from high school, sits, nearly alone, in the camp meeting’s open-air bleachers on an August night. His friends have gone off to get french fries; the piano player has finished the hymn played as folks filed out; the last of those who responded to the alter call are drying their tears. A stranger enters the pew behind the young man and sits, near but not close:
Ogden looked in the stranger’s direction, they exchanged brief greetings. His thoughts returned to the hymn and the night. He’d almost gone forward, almost made the walk to the front to pray and give his life to Jesus one more time. But he hadn’t, and that was why he was still sitting in the Billy Sunday Tabernacle on Friday night in the summer before his first year of college, wondering what he should do.
The stranger leaned forward, resting his arms on the back of the pew Ogden was sitting in, and then they talked.
Years later, Ogden could not say with certainty whether or not the conversation happened or he dreamt it, because it had been so unlike any encounter he had ever had. It was, he later thought, what it might be like to sit with an angel, even though the stranger was more probably a seminary student, who saw in the
young man who lingered in God’s bleachers while his friends ate french fries, a former image of himself.
The man was soft-spoken, thoughtful, radiant. In other times, other places, the encounter would have been the first moments of a seduction, and perhaps, in some way it was. The stranger did not share Ogden’s anxiety, did not think going forward was necessary or even particularly significant. Instead, he wanted to know how Ogden was doing, who he was, and most of all, he wanted him to be well, to be at peace.
When the man left, Ogden’s life changed, not in any big or immediate way – he would still do for God most of the jobs he’d been doing for years – but he had felt this little shift.
It is for these little shifts of what we sometimes call a soul that we gather in classrooms, in rehearsal halls, in theatres, and at least once a year as Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. Long may we do so.4
- Geoff Proehl
1 Brian Quirt, Board Chair of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, 2015- present; Cynthia SoRelle, Board Chair, 2009-2015.
2 C. Rosalind Bell, playwright; Grace Livingston, dramaturg.
3 Tofte Lake Center at Norm's Fish Camp, Liz Engelman, director.
4 Thanks to DD Kugler, who dramaturged these remarks.