I grew up in a small town that was nestled down in the rolling green hills and lush woods of Eastern Iowa. It was the kind of town where you knew just about everyone, as well as a good deal about what was going on in their lives behind their closed doors. A rich source of dramatic material, I later discovered.
In his spare time, my father directed the local community theater, and when I wasn't playing baseball or building snow forts or practicing the piano, I would attend rehearsals with him. I was too shy to perform, until age 13 when I was given a marionette and cardboard stage for my birthday. I wrote a script for the marionette, and with a piano accompanist in tow, soon went about giving performances at schools, hospitals, clubs, even the State Insane Asylum, as this fearful old dark stone building with its tall, thin smokestacks was called then.
It was during the Great Depression, and I remember one cold, drafty school in particular. As I started performing, I noticed a little girl in the back row huddled down at her desk. Her straw-colored hair was uncombed, her thin cotton dress too light for the wintry day, and her shoes were oversized rubbers stufed with newspapers. But mostly I noticed how sad she looked.
I knew I wanted to—no, had to, make her laugh. And as the performance went on and my marionette danced and cavorted and made his planned blunders, the little girl was soon in the aisle, jumping up and down, laughing and clapping her hands. We'd made her laugh! I never forgot how magical that moment was.
We moved to Los Angeles when I was in high school. World War II was on, and remembering the magic of laughter, I wrote a comedy sketch and signed up to perform with a touring USO troupe.
Over the years, I've tried to incorporate a little of this magic into all of my plays. Even when my husband and I were working on Song of Survival, a factual story about women in a WWII prison camp and the beautiful music they created in the midst of the horrors of war, I knew there must be some way to bring humor into the story. Adding the character of Dawn, a tough-talking, former cockney music hall performer, gave us the vehicle we needed to allow the audience a chance to laugh.
We all need some laughter in our lives, so when I write, I try never to forget that sad little girl with the uncombed hair who finally laughed.