Woog's World / Marching to a brand new drummer
Published 7:15 am, Thursday, August 18, 2011
It was Eric Burns' "aha!" moment.
The veteran journalist had written 10 books -- nine of them non-fiction. In his 10 years as a Fox News media critic, he'd written more pages than he could count.
But when he sat in the Staples High School auditorium, watching his son Toby perform with Staples Players, he thought: "I should try to write one of those myself."
So he did.
"Mid-Strut" is the compelling result.
At a reading two years ago at the Dramatists Guild, Richard Thomas played the male lead.
In 2010 it won the Eudora Welty Emerging Playwrights Competition, prevailing over 200 entries and earning Burns a trip to Jackson, Mississippi.
This winter will mark its "world premiere" at the Pittsburg Playhouse ---- a highly regarded regional theater with a track record for sending plays to New York.
Not bad for a first-ever play from a writer in his mid-60s.
"Mid-Strut" explores the life of Jack Allison, a charming and prosperous man in his 50s with less than a year to live. He decides the best use of his time is to request sex with Wendy, a former majorette whom he has not seen for over three decades. She's married -- but her husband has just had an affair.
It's a relationship play -- involving Wendy's daughter and boyfriend too -- but the play is both funny and haunting.
"I wanted to do something different," Burns says in explaining his late-career move from news and non-fiction to sex and the stage.
"I wanted to tell lies for a change," he continues. "I wanted to make stuff up. Nothing that happens on stage in `Mid-Strut' -- not a single thing -- ever happened in real life. I love that. I am no longer trustworthy!"
He pauses for effect.
"Or am I?" he asks rhetorically. "Is the play really a bunch of made-up stuff? Not at all. To paraphrase somebody or other, `Journalists use the truth to tell lies. Playwrights use lies to tell the truth.'"
In that sense, he says, his play is "the truest thing I ever wrote."
Burns certainly has written truth before. His books on the social history of alcohol and tobacco won "Best of the Best" honors from the American Library Association. His biggest commercial success -- Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism -- ended up "inches from The New York Times best-seller list" after his appearance on the Daily Show.
Burns was named one of the best TV writers ever by the Washington Journalism Review. That list of media heavyweights included Edward R. Murrow, Charles Kuralt, Harry Reasoner, David Brinkley and John Chancellor.
Burns has always been "enamored by the idea of writing words that I could speak." So before his non-fiction career -- not long after graduating from Westminster College, and before landing a real job -- he tried to write a play.
"I was eager and confident, but I couldn't pull it off," he recalls. "I had barely started when I gave up."
He was not discouraged -- he believed the only difference between himself and George Bernard Shaw was that the Irishman could think of things to write about, and Burns couldn't -- but looking back 40 years after, Burns realizes that was one of "the many ways in which youth deludes itself."
He headed to TV news to gather the experiences he thought he needed and did not return to playwriting. "I never showed Shaw what I could do. I never even thought about it," Burns says.
But decades later as he watched his son on the Staples stage, seeing the same show several times, he recalled his long-ago desire to write plays.
The idea for "Mid-Strut" had germinated since Burns' early 20s. He was entranced by majorettes at a high school basketball game, and thought long and hard about the "craggy, older men" ogling them.
"My alter ego in the play explains in detail the effect the short-skirted, high-stepping majorettes had -- not only on him, but on all of society," Burns says. "More than three decades later, I created Jack, who explains why they are important beyond virtually anyone's knowing."
Burns did not take a course in playwriting. He was a bit surprised when a son's friend reacted to a reading of "Mid-Strut" by saying something like, "it's against the rules to have more than one character speaking to the audience."
"Oh," Burns recalls thinking. "He was right, I suppose. But I ignored him, to my eventual benefit. What I did was against the rules.
"But I didn't care about rules. I had seen enough plays to write one of my own. Simple, and complicated, as that."