Home » Margaret Baldwin: The Power of Dialogue at TEDxAtlanta (Full Transcript)

Margaret Baldwin: The Power of Dialogue at TEDxAtlanta (Full Transcript)

Margaret Baldwin – TRANSCRIPT

I am Margaret Baldwin. Ooh that’s loud! Got it? I am Margaret Baldwin and I am a playwright and I’m thrilled to be here today. I’m going to talk to you a little bit about what it means to write a play. So I’m going to tell you a story to do that.

The story is, it’s about June 2006, and Lisa Adler the Co-Artistic/Producing Director of Horizon Theatre in Atlanta, she calls me up and says, “So Margaret, what do you want to write next?” I spelt that wrong on purpose. [What do you want to wright?] Because plays are not written – they are wrought, the way ships are wrought and boats are wrought and iron is wrought. And you’re not a solo creator in the process. There are many, many people who have a hand in the making of your play. There are directors, producers, there are actors, designers, there are stage managers, and most importantly there’s you, the audience. Because a play is not complete until it’s given to an audience. I can’t hand you my script and say, “Here’s my play.” It doesn’t exist. The play exists somewhere in between us in a shared space and that’s part of what makes playwriting unique.

So, Lisa says, “What do you want to write next?” And this is a real gift as a playwright, to be given a choice to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve got something to write,” and people to support it. And I wanted to write about my family, my mother’s family from Selma, Alabama. My mom’s that cute blonde in front. And… I wanted to write in particular a story about my grandmother and a woman, an African-American woman named Matilda Martin, who worked for my grandmother as a housekeeper for over 25 years and who later became a nurse and nursed my grandmother through her death. And their relationship was very important to me as I grew up going to Selma on holidays and Christmas. I thought Santa Claus lived in Selma and this relationship was something that I thought: “If I can capture this, this will make me a real writer.”

There’s one story in particular that really stood out to me about their relationship and it goes like this: It is March, 1965 and it’s the day of the big march on Montgomery led by Martin Luther King Junior. And Matilda comes to work that day and my grandmother says, “Matilda, do you want to go downtown? Do you know what’s going on downtown today?”

And Matilda said, “Yes ma’am.”

And my grandmother said, “Well, do you want to go watch it?”

And she said “Yes.”

And so the two of them got in my grandmother’s Lincoln Continental the kind with the suicide doors, and my grandmother sat in the front seat and Matilda sat in the back seat because at that time those two women could not sit in the same seat together. And they drove down to Lauderdale street and parked the car and they watched the march go by. And this story said to me something about their relationship, something about the layers and the complexities of what it was like for those two women to exist during that time.

So, it’s about 30 years later and I think I am finally ready to tell that story. I get some actors together, I write about 20 pages, we have a reading at the Horizon, very informal, maybe seven people in the audience and it became clear that one voice was missing from that reading, and that I hadn’t really tapped into the voice of the Matilda character – who I started calling Geneva because it sounds the same almost, but is different enough that it’s not actual.

So I go back to Selma and I talk to Matilda who is still living and is still alive and well in Selma. We sit down in my aunt and uncle’s living room, on the sofa, and I tell her the story the same way I just told you. And I said, “So I want to hear your side of the story. I’d like to hear what it was like for you.”

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And she looks at me and she says, “Well… It didn’t happen.” And in that moment this play that I’d always wanted to write the story that had made me want to become a writer, the story that had said to me who my family was and that we were some of the “good” white people and who I was as a person growing up in a complicated South, the story… was a lie. It wasn’t a mean lie, it wasn’t a bad lie. I think maybe there could have been an ounce of truth in it, there were marches that went on every day for ten weeks, during that period of the marches in Selma. So it could have been maybe granny Ruth was taking her home one day and they stopped and watched a while. But somehow over the years that story had become fiction.

So I was depressed. And I was headed back to Atlanta with my husband and I told him this, and he said, “Well, maybe that’s your story, maybe that’s the play you need to write.” And that’s when my real work began. And so I started doing research, and I started to ask questions. One of the great things about a playwright is you can know absolutely nothing about a subject but then you have to write about it, so you have to learn, right?

So I started to ask questions, I asked Matilda questions, I started to ask my aunt and uncle questions and my aunt just sort of offhandedly said, “Oh, let me show you my file.” And she brought out a file that was this thick, of all of her correspondence from that time period. And one thing that absolutely floored me was this letter that she wrote. It said, “Dear Anybody…” and it was four pages, single-space typed on that onion-skin paper that said this is what it’s like to live in Selma today.

Now, if you are a playwright, this is a goldmine, this is an absolute goldmine. Because it’s not the book’s story, it’s the story of everyday life, and it’s the story of people struggling and dealing with the reality of what it’s like to live through a historical moment. Because in that moment they’re just living, right? And they have their lives to deal with and that’s the kind of thing that you want to find.

So I started asking more questions and through that, I got to more correspondence, and, in particular, correspondence that she had with a minister who was a good friend of hers, who had actually come and taken part in the marches. And he hadn’t called her. And he wrote her this, and she wrote back and she was pissed. She was so angry at him because he hadn’t called her when he was there. And she said, “By not calling me you have put me on the side of the wrong and you have put yourself on the side of the right.” And I thought, “Wow! I’ve got a conflict here.” This is a conflict that I could create and somehow bring that historical moment into a household and make it present.

The Greeks were masters at something called “dialectic,” and they were really good, especially in their plays, at putting up opposing viewpoints, one on stage against another. But instead of it being an intellectual debate, because you are putting it in the bodies of actors, somehow it becomes human. And that’s part of what we can do in drama that we can’t necessarily do in a lecture, or in a book, or even sometimes in film, because in drama we have to wrestle with it. We, the audience, have to somehow come away with our own point of view. And the Greeks believed that this was an important part of society, that through going to the theatre people could actually become better citizens, which is sort of stunning to me now because when we think of arts funding we think of the way that the arts are considered as a secondary thing. In this time it was considered civic training, right?

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Civic training: how do you deal with opposing viewpoints? How do you deal with the questions of life that you can’t answer? Aristotle, – he’s the younger one in this picture, talking to Plato, his mentor – he said the best way to do this is through a plot, and that we can learn through action, and we can learn through characters, and these characters become the agents of the action, and they become change agents. We can see the world through them and we can care about them. So with all of this in mind I start to plot. I start to plot and think of the character, a catalyst who can come into this world that is a sort of status quo, and shake it up, and through that I start to have this character of Clayton, the brother.

I also have to have a situation, some sort of reason for all of these folks to get together on this day, when they shouldn’t all be together. And I found one in another family story: an ugly plant. It’s a plant called a night-blooming cereus and it blooms one night a year, and for the rest of the year it’s ugly as sin. But somehow, in the middle of the night, this miraculous bloom will happen and by the morning it’s gone. And I just loved the idea of this, and my great-grandmother had one, and she would have blooming parties on that screened porch of the house you saw earlier, and they would get drunk as skunks and watch the bloom happen, and it was a lot of fun.

So I decided to merge the historical moment of the march with the personal family ritual of the blooming party, and to have the grandmother call in the maid to have to work that night, on what would be the most important night of her life. And you can see the tensions start to brew. There are things that are getting messy here, and then into that we introduce a catalyst, and that’s the Clayton character. He comes in and he forces everyone to have to deal with their stuff. And at the same point he gives me, as a playwright, an excuse for us to be able to start to hear the point of view of Geneva, the maid character, who, in that context, wouldn’t have a voice. But also he is a dangerous character because he is kind of like us. He has the perspective that we liberal folks of the 21st century could say, “You know, he was right, he was out marching; they were at a stupid plant party, he’s the good guy, right?”

But Aristotle said you can’t make your hero perfect, he’s got to be a little bit good and a little bit bad, and I needed to have Clayton especially have to deal with his own stuff. And how does he do that? Through dialogue, through battles and through action. And my job as a playwright is to put him into a situation where then he is forced to choose. (Two men arguing) – …come back and face me. – You disgust me!

Geneva: Reverend! Clayton… …please. You don’t wanna go down that road.

Clayton: I don’t have a choice.

G: You always have a choice. I know, I’ve been there.

C: How can you stay here? How can you stay here and serve them?

G: Well you can leave, you can get on that airplane. I have to show up here for work tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that.

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C: You can do more than this, you are a gifted, intelligent woman, you could go to school, you could get another job. You can do so many things instead of standing by…. –

G: Standing by? –

C: …making cheese straws. There are many friends of mine dying in the streets for you. Don’t that mean something? G: You know I’m gonna tell you something. My son will be starting Selma University in the fall. He is the first child in our family to go to college. Who you think gonna put my son through college, Reverend? –

C: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to… –

G: Right now she wants to be a doctor and she gonna do it too, Dr. Riley say if she stay right with school she got a good chance of making something of herself. How you think she gonna get there, Reverend? You tell me. And who’s been feedin’ all them marchers, who been sleeping on the floor so you and them white ministers can have a bed to sleep on? Who will be washing the sheets and going to meetings, cooking all night after standing on them feet all day long?

C: I know what you’re doing is harder than anything I can imagine I’m from here, remember? I know what it’s like. The fact that my family can call you to work at some ridiculous party on the most important night of your life is wrong.

G: And you think I don’t know what wrong is?

C: You heard daddy in there. He is nothing but a tired old bigot. That’s all he’ll ever be.

G: There is white folks in Selma that is just plain mean, I ain’t saying otherwise. Your daddy, he ain’t no saint… (Clayton laughs) but he ain’t got that kind of meanness. I’ve seen both, I know the difference.

C: But we can’t just sit here, we can’t just sit here and let him… –

G: And let him what? –

C: Let him walk all over you!

G: Nobody is walking over me!

C: But you were there, you were at those meetings.

G: Every night for ten weeks. –

C: You heard Dr. King. –

G: Oh, I heard him.

C: He said you have to be strong… –

G: I know what he said! –

C: …and stand up…

G: He also said that you can’t do this work with anger in your heart. Harrison Long and Marguerite Hanna from the original cast of the world premiere of Night Blooms. Thank you, guys! So something just happened… …hopefully. Something happened for you. Maybe it did, maybe you got bored, maybe you looked at your cell phone. Maybe you were riveted, maybe your life was changed. The point is that in theatre, that we can only make something together and that this shared experience, this moment, is a way of making community. Τhat, through this, by dealing with this, in this moment, we can somehow change. And that’s amazing, that is a transformation, and that’s something that we call “communitas.” I’ve learnt so much from working on this play, I feel like I’m a new person coming out of it, but since you’re supposed to have takeaways at these things I’m going to give you some takeaways, right?

So how do you write a play? Anybody can do it, I know they can, I teach this. I teach people, hundreds of them every year, how to write a play. The first thing: assume nothing. Second: notice everything, even the things you don’t want to know. Make a frame of time and space and action. Find your audience: this could be an audience of one. Invite them in. Theatre is a very hospitable art, and I think we could use a bit more of that in our lives today. And finally, make something… happen. Thank you.

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