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The Mythology of Fort Wayne
The Civic Theatre Brings the Fiction of Michael Martone to the Stage at the 3rd Annual Playwright’s Festival
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For many young-and-improving artists in Fort Wayne, the desire to bust out of town as fast as humanly possible can be overwhelming. Your hometown, as everybody knows, can only be a stifling place, and the sooner you break free from its limitations, the quicker you will develop as an artist and as a person. Go to New York, for gosh sakes, or Chicago, or LA; some real city where the real things happen, where life is exciting and the people are larger-than-life and full of exotica and mystery and complexity. It's what Bill Blass did, the famous American designer and Fort Wayne native — the guy graduated from South Side High School one day and then got the hell out of town the very next, on a train to New York, never to return to the shameful place of his youth.
But on the other hand, maybe there's a bit more to your hometown than you initially thought. Maybe what needs to change isn't your location, it's your perception. Perhaps if you took a closer look, you might see that there are indeed, larger-than-life characters right here, in your backyard; there are people full of wonder and strangeness and excess and surprise. Perhaps there's a wealth of stories here, right here, things in your hometown you might not have noticed but are still undeniably here, just waiting for someone to dig up and expose to the world.
For Michael Martone, the renowned writer and Fort Wayne native, the city has always existed as a place full of it's own particular mythology. For more than 30 years the writer has been setting his stories in the city and state that he grew up in, and the landscape has remained a locale of singular peculiarity. And it's interesting to remember, he noted, that the most popular mythology book of the 20th century was written by a Fort Wayne native. "It's funny," he said, "that not far from the theatre, my mother was partially responsible for erecting the statue to Edith Hamilton, the great mythologizer from Fort Wayne, the writer of Greek myths, those myths that we all agree are so important and so terrific. And I grew up in Hamilton Park, and mom would always teach me mythology every year. So it's really the stories, and taking your own stories seriously, that I think is really important. I think we do have to, in Indiana, and the Midwest, confront that inferiority that is inculcated in us, and the way to do combat that is to take ourselves seriously. In our stories, in our lives."
Michael Martone will be returning, again, to his hometown, for the 3rd Annual Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival being held at the Civic Theatre in Fort Wayne June 1st through the 3rd. An original production based on his short stories, Alive and Dead in Indiana, will kick the festival off on Friday, June 1st, and the writer will be participating in a panel discussion and a writer's workshop during the course of the festival's three days. Doug Long, the playwright who adapted Martone's fiction for the stage, will also be on hand to discuss the nature of the collaboration that exists between author and playwright and the evolution of the completed play. The weekend will also feature a full production of the winning play from this year's contest — Ruth Tyndall Baker's Althea's Well — along with staged readings of the two runners-up works, Hands Across the Table by Theron RD Steinke, and Spring at the Willowbrook Inn by Douglas C. Evans and Jonathan Van Dyke.
For those unfamiliar with Martone's work, Alive and Dead in Indiana is a great introduction. The play is a series of short vignettes from Martone's published writings, including 3 stories from his 1984 short story collection (also titled Alive and Dead in Indiana), a few pieces from his Dan Quayle book (Pensees), a couple of rowdy selections from his faux travelogue (The Blue Guide to Indiana), and a number of striking excerpts from the curious Michael Martone book, a tome that is entirely made up of fictional "Contributor's Notes" created by that writer Michael Martone.
Many famous and infamous Hoosiers turn up during the course of the performance — James Dean, Alfred Kinsey, Colonel Harlan Sanders, Bill Blass, Dan Quayle, etc — along with four different "Michael Martones" and a number of other, somewhat bewildered family members. The play moves quickly, jumping from story to story, and those familiar with Fort Wayne landmarks and local history will recognize a great number of references. And you'll hear specific dialogue that only could have been written by somebody from this city: "On the weekends or in the summer, the people of Fort Wayne went to 'the' Lake. The lake they would go to would be one of a hundred named lakes — James, George, Clear, Long, Crooked, Wawasee — in Northeast Indiana they were all called 'the Lake.' Martone did not go to 'the Lake' those summers he worked at Harvester. He was hired to cover for the permanent employees who were on their annual two-week vacations at 'the Lake'."
I asked Martone if he was concerned about how something written for the page would translate to the stage — virtually all of Alive and Dead is culled directly from the stories, with only cosmetic changes — and he said that the workshop he saw in Chicago of the script moved remarkably well and played terrifically; many of the stories in Alive and Dead were basically monologues anyway, he said, but he credited Doug Long for seamlessly integrating the various moving parts of the script. "I do a lot of readings through the years, and the things that Doug selected out of all the material aren't usually the ones that I do when I do readings. But I was really amazed at how well it plays. I think putting those words on the page and combining it with action, even though it's minimal action, really translates well to the audience. And Doug has done a brilliant job of combining all the elements from the different books and making it unified." Martone hopes that in the future, other playhouses in the state might be interested in producing Alive and Dead in Indiana. Though a lot of the play features Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana, there are a number of moments in the play specific to other Indiana cities, like Bloomington and Indianapolis, Marion, Muncie.
For the workshop, Martone is planning on using the same device that he used in the construction of the book Michael Martone — the fake "Contributor's Notes" idea, where you build fictions about your own life in the guise of those innocuous, boring, writer's biographies that appear in magazines or anthologies. "I have discovered, and I've had friends who've reported, that the form of the 'Contributor's Note' has been very fruitful at producing work. And so I thought, what we can do is talk a little bit about that form, and how talking about yourself in the 3rd person sort of frees up any anxiety about who you are; it's a nice lever to get outside of yourself and look at yourself as an aesthetic object, instead of just 'being' yourself."
It's obvious that Martone wants the participants to enjoy the experience, and so he's planning on trying some ideas that will help reduce the stress of producing on the spot: "A good exercise is to get people to write something bad on purpose," Martone says. "One of the anxieties about writing is that you sit down to write, and you force yourself to think, 'Well, it doesn't count unless it's really good,' and then the critic in you takes over, and then nothing is ever good enough, and you stop writing. And so I like to tell students, 'Listen, you've come to school to get better, because you believe you're natural state is not any good. So all I'm asking you to do, then, is be yourself: don't be any good."
It's also obvious that Martone loves to teach, and it's a good bet that his students at the University of Alabama respond well to his exuberance. And you can tell he's looking forward to the Fort Wayne experiment. "What I hope the workshop will be, after the play, is a place where people are not afraid of doing cruddy work. Because it's in that generation of a lot of junk sequencing that you in fact, find what is interesting." Martone believes that the process of writing always encompasses a great deal of this, of throwing stuff out and seeing if any of it sticks to the wall. "If you go to readings from visiting authors, there's always a question and answer period, and one of the questions is always, 'What are you reading now?' And the implied question to the visiting author is, 'What good things are you reading right now?' Because the whole idea is, in order for me to be good, all I have to do is read good things and model myself after that. And I had a teacher, I saw him do this after a reading, when they asked him, What was he reading, he reached into his satchel and pulled out a cereal box. And then some letters. And then a newspaper. And he pulled out all this stuff and then said, 'Well, this is what I'm reading right now.'”
“And he said, 'Who knows? The fact that I read this cereal box may one day have an important place in something I'm working on.' And I think it's important to tell writers that we're not specialists, you know. As artists. We're kind of generalists, and we're turning everything into art. You just never know. The main thing is to keep writing, and keep producing."