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Debbie Wiess

June 2017

By Mary Warnement and Debbie Wiess

Debbie Wiess and her buddy Proust
Debbie Wiess, photo courtesy of Mary Warnement

 

Dramatis Personae:

DEBBIE WIESS, the Interviewee—Boston Athenæum member since 2010; former marketing professional who became a full-time writer with her move to Boston in 2000 with husband Jim; multilingual international traveler and general bon vivant; writer of a wide variety of plays, screenplays and poetry in English and French; director and producer of projects and events; published author with work presented throughout the US and overseas; 2007 attendee of the Great Plains Theatre Conference (Omaha, NE); 2010 guest artist at the Kennedy Center Playwrights’ Intensive (Washington, DC); lover of art and culture volunteering at several local institutions; bibliophile belonging to no fewer than seven book groups (four at the Athenæum) in both English and French; member of the Thirsty Scholars James Joyce discussion group and the Athenæum’s Proust discussion groups

MARY WARNEMENT, the Interviewer—Boston Athenæum Reference Librarian

ARNOLD SERAPILIO, Editor—Boston Athenæum Circulation Assistant

Assorted Boston Athenæum members, staff and other characters

 

INTERVIEW WITH A PLAYWRIGHT

 

ACT I

Scene 1

Scene: Boston Athenæum, afternoon mid-May 2017. A pair of red leather doors studded with brass and featuring windows gilded with the numbers 10½ open, revealing a woman (DEBBIE WIESS) entering the marble-lined entryway. She stores her tote and jacket in one of the self-serve lockers. In her pocketbook is one of her current reads, a livre de poche in French. Of course she reads in French; her jaunty style screams Francophone and Francophile. She shows her membership card to the security officer and steps around to the Circulation Desk where ARNOLD, the Circulation Assistant, is diligently working.

ARNOLD

(Looking up to greet Debbie) Hello, can I help—?

 

An impatient TASMANIAN DEVIL, a new member eager to take out his first book, enters from the Bow Room and whirls in front of her to check out a copy of Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country.

 

ARNOLD

(to Tasmanian Devil) Hey, let’s everyone wait their turn…

 

DEBBIE

It’s all right, he seems to be in a hurry.

 

The transaction is quickly completed and the marsupial stows his book in an attractive Boston Athenæum bag as he dashes out. Before Arnold can then assist Debbie, a MAN IN A BOW TIE enters from the gallery and calls over to him.

 

MAN IN BOW TIE

How do I get to the second floor?

 

ARNOLD

I’m sorry, sir, but this woman has been waiting…

 

DEBBIE

De rien. On second thought, I think I’ll pick up the book on hold on my way out. I’m going up to the second floor. (to Arnold) I can show him the way. (to the Man in Bow Tie, then pointing the way as they step into the Bow Room). Just follow me. You can take the elevator to two or go up the stairs. I always take the stairs. It’s good exercise. And the elevator can be a wait.

 

They see the elevator is on the fifth and highest floor. The Man in Bow Tie decides he will wait and presses the button to call the elevator. They watch the arrow tick slowly back to 4G, then 4—the Man in Bow Tie begins to tap his foot, impatient—

 

DEBBIE

It’s just a couple short flights up to the second floor...

 

The Man in Bow Tie says nothing, but fumes as he waits for the elevator. Debbie checks her smartphone and sees she has a few minutes before her appointment upstairs. As she is walking over to the New Book Shelves to browse for a few minutes, a mouse bursts out of his hiding place and scurries towards the Circulation Desk almost getting stepped on by Debbie. 

 

MOUSE

(wheeling around) Hey, watch where you’re stepping!

 

DEBBIE

You should watch where you’re going! If you’re not more careful you might become the subject of a poem. Like the mouse who came visiting us in our apartment uninvited. I wanted to capture and release him, but then...

 

MOUSE

But then, what...? 

 

DEBBIE

Well...(hesitates to recount the gory details) You can read all about it in the poem I wrote, The Little Gray Mouse. I was so upset about the incident I wrote the poem. Often my strong emotional reaction to something gets translated into creative energy. Funny, but I first wrote it in French, then translated it into English to be able to share with my Anglophone friends and family. That happens a lot, I get an idea, and it may come to me in French so I write it in that language. It was my first poem published in a Bagel Bards Anthology, in 2013. I’ve had a poem in the anthology every year since.

 

MOUSE

Congratulations! Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I don’t become fodder for one of your poems.

 

DEBBIE

Totally understandable.  

 

MOUSE

Well, it’s been nice chatting, now I must run. My job is to sit atop the Earl of Camperdown’s clock behind the Circulation Desk and I’m late.

 

DEBBIE

You sound like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. He’s late for everything. We discussed that book in Literary Conversations a couple years ago. It was a lively discussion, as I recall.

 

MOUSE

What rabbit? Alice who? What’s literary conservations?

 

DEBBIE

Never mind.

 

MOUSE

Bye now!

 

The Mouse turns and races over to assume his position at the top of the clock. Debbie opens the door to the stairwell and starts to climb the stairs, appreciating the art she sees along the way. 

 

Scene 2

 

Scene: Mary Warnement’s office, a few minutes later. Debbie is seated in a guest chair opposite MARY. They have been chatting for a while. 

 

MARY

Thank you for taking time out of your day, Debbie, to chat with me.You’ve really done a lot of interesting things in your second career as a writer. (beat) I think I just got a great idea for framing the June feature about you in the Athenæum website.  I think we’ll write it as a play.

 

DEBBIE

Sounds good. Serendipity is generally the best. I find that is true as well with my writing. Something very random may happen and give me a wonderful new idea for a project. That was the case with the idea I had for my plays about Proust and Joyce. Two friends I met by chance at the Athenæum got me connected to a Joyce group that discusses Finnegans Wake and groups here that discuss Proust and his novel. I started to learn about both authors and read their work. When I heard about the night they met at a dinner party in 1922 at which they were two of the five special guests, which also included Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso (who are all also in the play), I was very intrigued and wrote my play Proust And Joyce At The Majestic about that night, later translating it into French. It has been put on in both languages in the US, Canada, and France. This first encounter of these two iconic writers was a far cry from what had been expected and quite disappointing so I then wrote a follow-up play last year, a one act about their second meeting in which the two finally are able to have the conversation they were meant to have. The play, which has the Joycean title Of Thyme And Rosemary for its discussions of Time and Memory had presentations in London and Paris last year, and this month it will be presented the opening night of the North American James Joyce Symposium in Toronto by the Here Come Everyone Players, a local troupe that specializes in dramatic pieces about Joyce and his work. Here is a draft of the program. (handing the program to Mary)

 

MARY

Thank you.  (looking over the program) Hmm, thyme sounds like time? The play is an imagined meeting, right?

 

DEBBIE

Yes, this second meeting is pure fiction. Still, a good deal of the dialogue comes from actual statements the two men made or from their creative writing and letters. I spent a lot of time researching the project, trying to get into the heads of the men. I found several wonderful books here at the Athenæum for my research, in fact. 

 

MARY

Is that how you discovered the Athenæum? For your research?

 

DEBBIE

I first came to the Athenæum to see the art exhibits in its gallery. I love art and culture, and enjoy taking in shows in museums and galleries. I would make a point to come regularly to see the art exhibits. This went on for several years, and then one day I took a docent tour of the building. That was a real revelation as I learned about the history of the Athenæum and its fabulous collections. Shortly after I was looking for an obscure title for a project I was exploring, and found it at the Athenæum, so I knew I had to join to have access to the collection. The Athenæum is a marvelous resource and I find many volumes here. All sorts of things, many in French! It is also wonderful to browse the new books, read the day’s newspapers, etc. The Athenæum is one of my go-to places along with the BPL and French Cultural Center. I have since come to appreciate all the wonderful and diverse programs of the Athenæum—lectures, book talks, concerts... and of course the discussion groups!

 

MARY

Do you also write at the Athenæum? Many writer members work here, particularly on the fifth floor.

 

DEBBIE

I usually write at home, in pajamas or other comfy clothes. The fifth floor is a lovely space and very inviting, with many alcoves to work in so I may yet set up camp and work there as I contemplate the perfect setting for instance for my play For Love Of An Easy Chair, a one-act play that takes place in a living room in which a man decides he is just fine staying in his favorite easy chair. His wife is of course none too pleased about this development, and she tries all manner of ways to extract him from his chair. There is also a doctor and a friend of the couple. It is a French style farce with a dash of théâtre de l’absurde. It was originally written in French in fact as Le Paresseux Presume in 2008, and was only translated a couple years ago into English to be a fun project to do with a couple of thespian friends here in Boston. Our work on the play culminated in its presentation in a special theatrical evening at the Somerset Club down the street. The play was most recently put on in southwestern France in French this spring.

 

MARY

Was your husband the inspiration for the man in the play?

 

DEBBIE

I am often asked that question. And although my husband does have a favorite easy chair at home, and he can often be found in it, there is absolutely no connection whatsoever with the play. In my work I often write about human nature and have social commentary. We all have our favorite places we like to spend time in. Like the writers who come to work on the Athenæum’s fifth floor, in their favorite corner. These become our havens where we feel safe, happy and restored. We tend to be creatures of habit and gravitate to what is familiar and comfortable. That is what the play is about. That, and what may or may not be considered normal by society.

 

MARY

So how do ideas come to you?

 

DEBBIE

From my reading, from my day-to-day activities, from the news and current events, from conversations I have...from all sorts of things. Sometimes they come to me like flashes of inspiration. Like my play Le Salon/The Living Room, in the style of the theatre of the absurd in three acts. The original idea came to me as I was running along the Charles River, as a scene played out in my head in French. I wasn’t really writing in French then and thought it would be fun, so wrote out my idea which would be the first act in what became a four-character, three-act play about 25 minutes long. The play is set in a living room where all sorts of crazy and ridiculous things happen when two couples visit one afternoon.

 

MARY

Of course, a French Salon!

 

DEBBIE

The famous salons of 17th- and 18th-century Europe were great centers of cultural exchange. However, in my play, it is the opposite, nothing substantive happens.

 

MARY

Like Beckett!

 

DEBBIE

He also wrote in French and would translate his work into English himself. We both key off the banalities and oddities of life. My play was presented bilingually through the French Cultural Center and BU’s Fisk House on Commonwealth Ave in the Back Bay in 2006 in a special event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Beckett’s birth. It was put on in the Belle Epoque salon of Fisk House, in both languages with a finale pulling things together and with a nod to the surrealist Magritte.

 

MARY

Sounds like quite an event.

 

DEBBIE

It was a two-night event. The second night we had a scholar from Harvard, Professor Robert Scanlon, who is also involved in the Poet’s Theatre that has been invited to perform at the Athenæum, speak about Beckett. He knew Beckett and shared his memories about the author.

 

MARY

Which comes first, the play or venue?

 

DEBBIE

It depends. Sometimes a venue will inspire the development of pieces to be performed in it. Other times I am looking out for interesting places in which to put on my work. I have had my work put on in a wide variety of traditional theatres and non-traditional alternative spaces. I created two bar plays for an event in the Ruby Room of the Onyx Hotel in downtown Boston. The plays built upon each other and broke out spontaneously in the course of the evening. Probably one of the oddest venues I had to work with was a moving trolley. I was invited to curate one hour of the entertainment that would take place on one of the trolley shuttles for the Somerville Artists Open Studios in May 2012. For this event I wrote a new play and tailored another that would be performed as flash theatre on the trolley. I also read one of my poems, and had a three piece female band perform. It made for a very lively and exciting hour-long segment of entertainment. People would miss their stops; they didn’t want to get off the trolley. I really like the idea of creating experiences for people with my writing and presentations. With Proust And Joyce At The Majestic I adapted the play to recreate the celebrated night over the course of an elegant three course meal as dinner theatre. This was done in English at Hampshire House and in French at the French Cultural Center. 

 

MARY

So much information! But before I let you go, let’s take a few photos.

 

Scene 3

 

Scene: Mary and Debbie get up and leave the office, Mary leading the way to the second floor terrace

 

DEBBIE

You know, I’m constantly making new discoveries here at the Athenæum. I didn’t know about this terrace on the second floor.

 

It is a beautiful day, and the two women step outside into the heat. Mary takes several pictures of Debbie who poses by the railing.

 

MARY

I got several good shots, but maybe we should take a few inside.

 

DEBBIE

Good idea, it’s a bit warm.

 

The two go back inside and Debbie immediately goes over to one of the nearby red leather easy chairs

 

MARY

Looks like you may have found your own favorite easy chair at the Athenæum. (beat) It’s interesting you picked that spot to sit down in.

 

DEBBIE

Oh?

 

MARY

You’re right in front of a section of Proust books!

 

Debbie turns around and sees all the books behind her that are related to Proust.  She pulls out one, PZ3.P9476.  And Mary snaps a few photos.

 

MARY

(reviewing the photos in the digital camera and selecting one) I think I have my photo for the feature.

 

DEBBIE

(taking a look at the photo) You’re right, this one is quite à propos!

 

Just then the door to the drum creaks open slowly and the head of a WOMAN IN A BIG SUN HAT peaks out.

 

WOMAN IN SUN HAT

Excuse me, can you tell me if this is the second floor? I’ve been up and down in the drum, and I’m all turned around.

 

DEBBIE and MARY

Yes, this is it!                                                                                                               It’s the second floor.

 

 

The Woman in Sun Hat enters from the drum.

 

MARY

I work in reference, can I help you find something?

 

WOMAN IN SUN HAT

I need help finding a play by Debbie Wiess.

 

DEBBIE

I think this reference question is for me.

 

MARY

Thank you so much, Debbie! Break a leg in Toronto!

 

Debbie and the Woman in the Sun Hat enter the dark cool of the drum stacks, the door closing behind them.

 

CURTAIN