Lea Wait, here. Two (of my eight) grandchildren have been visiting for the past two weeks, and they’ve had lots of questions about … just about everything. As young teenagers, one of their questions was about summer jobs. When I was in high school, had I had one? How did you get a job?
And it got me thinking. When I was fourteen, someone (I honestly don’t remember who) took me to see a play at the Boothbay Playhouse, a summer equity company in Boothbay, Maine. I loved it — and, for, I think, the only time in my life, I wrote a fan letter to the leading actress, Harryetta Peterka. To my surprise (and, I think, perhaps my mother’s embarrassment,) Harryetta shared the note with the two producers at the theatre, and one of them, Jim Wilmot, called me, and asked me if I’d like to usher there. I wouldn’t get paid, would work one evening a week — and would get to see the show for free.
I immediately agreed, and when I discovered that another teenager who lived nearby (an older boy – with a license and a pickup truck) worked there parking cars, I asked Jim if I could usher all five nights the theatre was open each week. I had a ride. And so, for the rest of the summer, I ushered every night, and stood behind the last row in the balcony to listen to every word of every play.
The next summer, Jim made me head usher, which meant I still didn’t get paid, but I called potential ushers and scheduled them, worked every night, and, when intermissions get busy, I sold candy and sodas and coffee, too. The year after that I worked during the day at the Boothbay Register, the local weekly newspaper, but in the evening — yes — you could find me five nights of the week at the Playhouse. Ushering, and listening. And so it continued.
The year after my stint at the newspaper I worked full time (and was paid! $30 a week) during the day at the Playhouse’s ticket booth in Boothbay Harbor, and then got to the Playhouse in time to, of course, usher every night. After that summer I graduated from ushering. I worked at the Playhouse box office. But I stayed every night until every play was over. And working at the Playhouse itself I heard many more lines, many times. The hard-working New York repertory company was performing one play while they were rehearsing a second and learning the lines to a third. The company produced nine plays each summer, from Ibsen to Ionesco to Noel Coward to Neil Simon to Thornton Wilder. All day, every day, I heard dialogue. I learned many of the plays by heart, without trying. I learned which lines got laughs or gasps, and which didn’t. I didn’t realize it, but I was learning to write dialogue.
I wrote my first play when I was in high school. When I went to college, my years at the Playhouse (which continued summers) encouraged me to major in drama as well as English. I wrote plays for children’s theatre as part of my senior thesis. And then … I graduated and looked for a job.
After a number of interviews, as luck would have it, I was interviewed by a public relations manager at AT&T who had attended the Yale School of Drama. He asked me if I had any of my plays with me. A young graduate, just 21, of course I had writing samples. I handed him one of my plays — I think it was about a chipmunk and an owl. (Unlikely though that was.) He sat at his imposing mahogany desk and read several pages. He then handed my play back to me and said, “You can write dialogue.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you can write executive speeches,” he pronounced. (I hadn’t even realized anyone but the President of the United States had a speechwriter.) My first speech was for the President of the Western Electric Company – then the manufacturing and supply arm of the Bell System. I was the first management woman in the public relations department. I wrote speeches, videos, films. articles … and went on to directing, producing, writing and “staring” in a daily television program for AT&T employees.
In 1998, many jobs after that, I left AT&T, but I haven’t stopped writing. I still depend on dialogue to move my stories along.
And, yes .. it all started with a fan letter I wrote when I was fourteen, which led to a summer job, which changed what I majored in at college, which led to a corporate career. And I still smile whenever a reviewer praises my dialogue.
Yes, I can write dialogue. I’ve been doing it since high school.