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One deep breath: Writing, teaching ‘breath-based,’ playwright tells Bethel audience

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Margaret Edson, a teacher and playwright, advised her Bethel College listeners not to take notes as she spoke for about 40 minutes without consulting a written script.

Speaking in Bethel’s May 6 convocation, the Atlanta resident said, “Whatever is presented today is breath. You will receive it … and carry it inside your body. If it’s worth remembering, you will remember it.”

A reporter charged with writing about Edson’s interactions with the Bethel College community took notes anyway, as the best means of recreating the breath-based teaching Edson did at Bethel.

Edson had come to campus to see Annette Thornton, John McCabe-Juhnke, Joyce Cavarozzi and eight student actors breathe life into her Pulitzer prize-winning play Wit. She opened the door to future face-to-face interactions with the community when she said, “I hope it’s only the beginning of my relationship with Bethel College.”

Edson was 30 when she wrote Wit, 20 years ago, after doing graduate studies in English and history and a stint working on a cancer unit at a research hospital. In graduate school, her volunteer work as a tutor influenced her choice to work directly with students – as a kindergarten teacher until this school year, when she began teaching social studies to 105 sixth graders – instead of pursuing a career in academia.

“Teaching is breath-based,” she said. “We are made for speech.”

Reading and writing are to speech as maps are to the physical landmasses they represent, she said. Reading – decoding written words – is like the job of a musician playing a musical score. Edson likened her play script to a “recipe” to be performed.

Edson wrote parts of the script for Wit in parallel columns to indicate that two or more people were talking at the same time, as people do in real life. She struggled with how to represent long periods of silence, which she said should have occupied 20 pages.

“I’m handing over a skeleton,” Edson said of her script. “The text is a skeleton. The performance is the flesh.”

She continued, “I want you to think of Scripture that same way.”

Jesus spent a lot of time in silence, listening to others, she said, though much of that is not reported in the Bible. Christians, who participate in a text-based religion, need to “get up and put into action” – in other words, breathe life into – the written teachings of Jesus, Edson said.

“Take Scripture and turn it into something useful. Do not be overburdened with theory and doctrines [but instead] get into action. Take your learning and bring it to life. Turn it into something that is you.”

The three presentations of Wit at Bethel gave students and teachers, nurses, doctors and patients, researchers and other academics, writers and language aficionados, theologians and philosophers something to remember and use in each one’s own spiritual and professional life.

A group of Bethany College students who had read the play in an introductory college class came from Lindsborg to watch it at Bethel.

“I had a couple of favorite lines in the play,” said Nikki DeChant. “When I heard it [performed], it was so great. I never thought those few lines could get better.”

The Kansas State Nurses Association offered two continuing education credits to nurses who watched the play and participated in a discussion time with Edson. Around 30 nurses enrolled.

Both nursing students and practicing nurses were encouraged to note how the play portrayed health-care workers’ drive to extend life and how the character of Susie Monahan, RN, BSN, advocated for her patient’s right to make informed decisions and choose or reject experimental treatments.

Edson also talked to a group of Bethel’s third-year nursing students Saturday morning. Earlier, Phyllis Miller, director of nursing, had spoken to Wit director Megan Upton-Tyner’s Living in Performance class and several community people about using either the live performance or movie version of Wit in the classroom. Miller said that each time she watches Wit, “there’s more to see in it.”

Young people don’t often think about dying, so the play helps students look at it, Miller said, and Upton-Tyner added, “Storytelling helps prepare nurses.”

“This play makes me want to listen more to the residents and support them where they are and with end-of-life issues,” said Ida Huebert, RN, BSN, who works at a Newton nursing home. “Illness causes us to question our present identity and face our doubts, fears, pain and loss of former identity.”

The multi-layered Wit lets Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., tell how oncology research doctors read her “like a book,” seemingly more interested in how treatment of her stage four ovarian cancer could advance their research than in Vivian’s well-being as a person suffering both from her illness and the treatment meant to suppress it.

At Bethel, Annette Thornton played Vivian, reprising the role from a staged reading in 2010 that Edson saw and was impressed by. Thornton prepared by shaving her head and practicing her part for several months on her own. She joined the rest of the cast for a week in March, during her spring break from Central Michigan University, and then the final week of rehearsal.

Lacey Parker, Bethel senior from Lone Tree, Iowa, served as Thornton’s understudy in rehearsals for which Thornton could not be present. Parker will also fill the role for excerpts from the play performed locally in other than stage settings.

McCabe-Juhnke, Bethel professor of communication arts, played Dr. Harvey Kelekian, Vivian’s oncologist, and Cavarozzi, a retired professor at Wichita State University and veteran actress, played Vivian’s former professor and mentor E.M. Ashford.

Other student actors were Seth Dunn, junior from Fresno, Calif., as Kelekian’s assistant, Jason Posner, who was also Vivian’s former student; Renee Reimer, junior from Sioux Falls, S.D., as Vivian’s nurse, Susie Monahan; and Jacob Brubaker, freshman from Miami, Ariz., Cody Claassen, freshman from Whitewater, Naomi Graber, junior from Elkhart, Ind., Clint Harris, senior from Manhattan, Julia Miller, sophomore from Hesston, and Marike Stucky, freshman from Moundridge, in the roles of medical fellows, graduate students and medical technicians.

Nathaniel Yoder, senior from Kalona, Iowa, composed an original score for the drama, played during the performances by Rachel Voran, junior from Newton, on violin, Anna Cook, junior from Lawrence, and Andrew Voth, senior from Topeka, on cellos, and Yoder on percussion.

After the Friday performance, Edson said, “I thought this production was beautiful,” adding, “I’ve never seen music used so effectively.”

The lead character of Vivian, who never leaves the stage during the 90-minute performance, changes her demeanor and expressions as she approaches the “comma” between life and death. Vivian also becomes aware, Edson said, that her doctors are not guilty of any more brusqueness and arrogance than she herself was while teaching graduate studies on the 16th-century metaphysical poetry of John Donne.

Edson said she didn’t let Vivian “have her own way” throughout the whole play, since the playwright intended to redeem her character by the end of Wit.

“I had to hit her over the head to [get her to] take one deep breath,” Edson said. “Wit is about how hard some of us seem to work to keep ourselves from the grace of God.”


Wit or W;t?

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The title of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit is also often written with a semi-colon in place of the “i.”

“Wit” was the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for “having knowledge in your bones” – having your wits about you. Both “wisdom” and “witness” are derived from “wit,” but it has since changed to mean “something superficial and sarcastic,” said Edson.

Writing the title as W;t ties to the lead character, Vivian Bearing’s, devotion to the punctuation in John Donne’s poetry, of which she is a scholar. But when Vivian is dying, she no longer cares about the superficial and finally begins to see her own humanity. – Susan Miller Balzer

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