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Playwright reflects on Havre experience


April 30, 2019

Suzanne Beal

Suzanne Beal attended Saturday the last showing of her play "I Am (Not) My Mother" performed by the Montana Actors' Theatre, followed by a question-and-answer session for the audience to get an in-depth look at what went behind in the writing process.

"MAT did a beautiful job," she said in an interview. "I was very proud of the work they did."

Beal added segments to the piece specific to this part of Montana after interviewing people here.

"I think it worked very well and captured the spirit of the piece," she said about the MAT production, directed by Audrey Barger. "I just feel that it was a privilege to spend time here in Havre and spend time with the women and hear all of their stories. It's been a wonderful journey and I feel really lucky."

Beal said the play came about because was she saw a piece with her sister Ida Beal in New York City called "Love, Loss, and What I Wore," written by Delia Ephron, Ilene Beckerman and Nora Ephron. She thought it would be a fun piece to do in collaboration with another group she is committed to called Women's Giving Circle and the Maryland Ensemble Theatre. But it turned out "Love, Loss, and What I Wore" was such a popular piece on Broadway, the rights were not available.

One of the artistic directors for the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, located in Frederick, Maryland, talked about an idea to devise a piece themselves, Suzanne Beal said. She added that she was very interested mothers and daughters relationships, writing her dissertation on plays by American women playwrights featuring mothers and daughters and relationships between them.

Maryland Ensemble Theatre was also interested in creating a piece using a particular technique for gathering material called story circles.

Story circles is a method which was pioneered by John O'Neal, who started Junebug Productions, which is a community-based organization. Story circles are used for communities in crisis that might be might experience something difficult, powerful or important in community and is one way community can comes together.

She said she jumped on the opportunity to write the original piece, with 90 women participating in the story circles, each circle having eight woman in them. From the story circles, she then brought the material together to create some vignettes and monologue to built the piece. Beal said she also worked with a singer and songwriter to add music to the performance to make it more interesting.

She added that she also incorporated some of her sister Ida Beal's poetry, which her sister has written every year in since their mother's death.

After the original play was written they performed it with the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in 2012, the again in 2013, Suzanne Beal said. One of the places they performed the play was in Philadelphia's College of Notre Dame.

A few years ago, she said, she was visiting her sister Margaret Hencz in Havre, and met with Montana Actors' Theatre artistic director Jay Pyette and told him about her piece. Suzanne Beal said that they shared some ideas but didn't know if he would be interested in producing her play. But, two years later, he emailed her and told her they wanted to do the piece. He added in the email that MAT also wanted to do story circles in Havre to have the play be more relevant to Havre. She added that he also asked if the play could be made longer, into a two-act performance rather than a single act.

Beal said that she has been a director for a long time, directing for both the Maryland Ensemble Theatre and a theater company called Rep Stage, located in Howard Community College in Maryland, until 2017 when she retired.

"So now I just do bits and pieces," she said, adding that she is directing for Maryland Ensemble Theatre's production of "Pride and Prejudice," a play adaptation by Kate Hamill.

"I Am (Not) My Mother" is not the first play she has written, she said. She also wrote of a play called "The Point" and "Passion and Perseverance," a play about Nobel Prize-winning women.

Writing and directing are very different, she said.

"I love directing, I really see myself as a director," she said. "What I loved about doing the piece that is here, 'I Am (Not) My Mother," was doing the story circles. I loved doing the story circles, I just feel very privileged to be with women telling stories about their mothers."

She said it doesn't matter what kind of relationships the people in the story circles had with their mothers, it's an important relationship. It's a central relationship for woman and it's always an emotional experience, she added.

Beal said that in many ways the stories she heard from the story circles reflected stories she heard while on the east coast, but she found them unique about local women as well.

There is kind of strength to the Montana women that seemed quite special to her, Beal said. A sense of getting on with it, no matter what they were confronted with, they faced it and dealt with it.

For many people who ranch and farm, she said, men and women had to work side-by-side to make a life together, she said. She added that it comes through a lot in the stories she was told.

Beal said that it was also an honor to be welcomed into the communities where the story circles were held, Havre, Rocky Boy and North Harlem Colony.

"It was quite wonderful to be invited to see how they live," she said. "See their life and talk with them about their relationships with their mothers.

The play which resulted from the story circles represents diversity, she said.

Beal said she was interested in was the complexity and richness and pain and joy of the relationship most women have with their mothers.

"There's a lot of literature about mothers, whether it's the Hallmark mother or the monster mother," she said. "What I was interested in was the mother that's was in between that. The mother and daughter that's in between that and that is as complicated as a relationship as you are going to find."

She added that once people began sharing their stories, they realized they were not alone and stuff poured out. Beal said that her experience with the woman in the story circles was something sacred and something she valued.

"I Am (Not) My Mother" is not telling individual stories, she said. She added that she told everyone they might not recognize their story, whith her taking bits and pieces from everyone's stories to create the play.

"So, in that way, the stories are somewhat disguised," Beal said.

When writing the original play she was impacted by how much it meant for people to have their stories told, she said.

"I didn't really anticipate that," Beal said. "I didn't realize that would be the case and it made it that much more meaningful to me that this meant a lot to them, that they could hear their stories."

She said she would love to come back to Havre in the future to work with Montana Actors' Theatre again, but the decision would be Havre's choice.

She said she wanted the people of Havre go home with a rich experience. Collaborative art theater is something people do together and is a shared experience. A piece like "I Am (Not) My Mother" is really about the stories of the Havre community, having the community members share in a wonderful experience.

"I think I wanted people to have that," she said. "I wanted people to walk away with the sense that they had shared in something and participated in something that was meaningful."


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