mara turns the voices in her head into crucial characters of her plays

Posted on Wednesday, November 7, 2012

“We met later in life, long after we had both mostly given up on finding anyone and when much of the dating pool just screamed, ‘Red flag, red flag.’  I’d done all the right things – and a bunch of wrong things – and still found myself single, so there you were…“   

Mara reads Jeannette, a character in her play Life Support.   I first hear a live reading of a selection of Life Support, a bold, honest and highly emotional eight-character play about suicide at my first writing retreat in Tulum, Mexico.  This is not Mara’s first character, this is not Mara’s first play, and this is not her first writing retreat.  Set one hundred meters back from the Caribbean Sea, Mara and I are nestled beneath cozy cabanas, the perfect setting for sparking relaxation and creativity.  The retreat, led by Jade and Stephen Webber was a place for Mara to write words to the voices in her head.  She says,


My characters start speaking to me. I will hear dialogue in my head, which to some people may make me sound crazy.  But they really do.  They just start talking to me.

Sitting in the stillness of our candle-lit reflection room, I am blown away by the strength and authenticity of the character Mara reads one of the first nights of the retreat.  I wonder if this is a memoir or a retelling of a personal event.  The topic is tough to hear, tough to digest, but important and essential.  The group sits shocked by the powerful words read and felt.  I wonder how long this took Mara to write.  Fueled to now finalize her character’s stories, Mara tells me, “For several months they spoke to me before writing a single word.“  Taking long walks between work hours, Mara patiently allowed these voices to guide her creativity.  In time, she knows the subdued layers will strip away, forming the development of a definite persona.


 I think a lot more about my work than I do write it.  I might go for a walk and try to be in tune with my characters and not force it, but organically know where I am in my script.  It’s a fine line between being organic and being a procrastinator.  If it’s strong enough, it will stay with me.


These characters seem to be holding Mara’s hand with such strength.  Their personalities are clear, their voices, loud.  While names come later, little nuances of each character “come in a time and a place.  That lets me know who they are and where they’ve been.  Especially monologues.”  Life Support, which has quickly become my favorite play, takes me into many lives and struggles.  A favorite of Mara’s too, she explains,  “It was wrenching to write. There are monologues in Life Support that still make me sob.”  Now, hearing her read with such power and personality, as if Mara herself was Jeannette, my heart is pounding.  I wonder, how will this end?  I learn of characters all struggling with an act of suicide.  My heart breaks for Rick, Darrin, Julie and others, each story, coming to life and bringing me closer to tears and closer to the shocking reality of suicide.


This play clearly addresses deep issues in life: death and the desire to end a life, recovery and trauma of those who have survived the departed.  As are real-life relationships, Mara’s plays interlace the many delicate conflicts and complex issues between men, women and all human connection.  Mara tells me of a play she’s completed entitled Three Women Talking about a Man, which, she mentions mischievously, “is about three women talking about a man.”  Hearing three distinct female voices, she tunes in on their stories, unfolding each experience in a relationship.  One woman in the play, a knitter says, “as I listen to these mostly older women talk so openly about their lives, their loves and fears and dreams – their health scares and career triumphs – bad perms, adultering husbands and cancer treatments all getting equal time and energy against the constant click, click, click of the needles.”  Mara’s artistic world is immense, sometimes dark, sometimes bright.  But Mara’s plays don’t solely address hardships in life.  Skilled in various forms of writing, she tells me of her exploration with farce; a type of comedy aimed at creating unlikely, often times overly extravagant and improbable situations.  Stories take us into an imaginary world, but also, allow us to come back out teaching our real world something new.  Lately, she has enjoyed lighthearted works concluding with a message containing a deeper meaning.


In the busyness of her days, Mara, like many of us, continually points toward balance and a realistic lifestyle, finding time for friends, family, work and creative writing.  One of the most influential places for Mara to write is at retreat.  “The atmosphere you get on a retreat – the freedom to be able to immerse yourself in your work and to be surrounded by such dynamic, creative, loving, caring people who are there to support you in what you do – you don’t get that anywhere else.“  Retreat, however, can be a vulnerable experience.  Paired with strangers, one must trust to dive into reckless creativity.  Mara, an audacious risk-taker, encourages me.


 I think as artists, we take risks every time we start to create.  Whether you pick up a pen, or you step out on stage or you pick up a paintbrush.  Because as someone in the creative field, you lead with your heart and that leaves you wide open emotionally.  You can’t do it, though, unless you’re willing to put yourself out there.


Mara’s heart is wide open in her work.  With each page I read, I see her on the altar; with each monologue read, I hear her shouting – she offers herself boldly and bravely.  In this scary place, tapping into the deepest part of her being, Mara tells me the opportunity that comes from this susceptibility.  She recounts, “The first time I went on a writing retreat, I had no idea what to expect.  I was really nervous and I thought, in all of this ‘free’ time, what if I can’t write?  What if I don’t get anything out of this?  And I came back from that first retreat transformed.”


I think about my first retreat.  I remember one night clearly.  We are scattered on the sand, white flecks offering prayers to the moon.  While we stand together, hand in hand, these twelve writers, strangers just three days ago, now hopeful in our lives for the year.  We come from all over the world, we write differently and we will return different people.  But in this moment, we are one, creators of the creator.  Mara, who joined me that evening says, “I’ve never been on a retreat where anyone else did the type of work that I do.  But all writers, all artists, share a similar spark.”  We must all find that spark within ourselves and find others that share a similar spark.


Whether that spark leads us to plays, poems or painting, we must not put ourselves in a restrictive box.  We must not tell ourselves we have one voice.  Let us be like Mara and welcome the many voices in our head.  Do not block them out; do not limit oneself to one story or one style of writing.  “I don’t think I have a one set style,” says Mara.  “I remember I had once sent a drama professor a couple of my scripts to read and he said to me, ‘I wouldn’t have believed these were both written by the same person.’  One was a fluffy British farce, and one was a deeply evocative play.”


In addition to her plays, Mara is an actress on the stage, has performed commercials, and is an author of a book about creating fun, meaningful and memorable meetings in the workplace.  While working at a business education and coaching company, she understood the demand from workers that struggled in various industries as an opportunity for another expression of her writing.  She tells me, “I thought that there was a need especially with all the cutbacks in so many companies.  People feel the pinch.  They feel that they are being asked to do more.  That means that workplaces can get really tense and people forget to have fun.  They forget to enjoy their co-worker.  They feel like…


 ‘Ed in accounting isn’t very friendly to me, he must hate me,’ when it turns out that no he’s just feeling overworked too.  Sometimes you just need to take a step back, enjoy each others’ company, and make sure that we thank each other for the work that we do.


I am thankful for Mara’s work and eager to read more of her plays and hopefully see one live.  I ask Mara, if money weren’t an issue, what would be your ideal job?  True to character, she tells me that it would be an extension of her current time spent acting and play writing.  What a blessing to be living the life she wants.  She is paving the way.  I wonder how can others follow her lead?  Mara offers two pieces of advice for others.  “One is to do it; to just do it and keep at it.   The other is to stay true to your heart and to be open to what other people have to say about your work, but at the end of the day, believe in your own vision and believe in your own truth, whether or not people agree with how you’re interpreting things.”


After having experienced Mara’s reading of Life Support, I interpret this piece, not only as talent, not only as entertainment, but as an obligation to share this with the world.  I believe this extremely emotional play (in addition to her other works) is one that must be shown in San Francisco, if not all over the country.  I ask Mara, understanding the power behind the words she’s written, what her reasoning was for writing a play about suicide?  She goes back to the characters.  “I started hearing these characters and once I started hearing these characters, I know I have to write.”  I commend Mara for her voice and the voices that come to her.  I commend her for the courage to listen to them.  I commend her for fueling the voices into a creative outlet and a powerful message for the world.  Moved by Mara, I ask her the one thing she’s learned in life that she would like to teach others.  She sits quietly and then comments, in the most defiant and assured voice that doesn’t come from any character in a play, “to practice kindness and compassion to ourselves and to others.”



The complete excerpt of Jeanette’s story from Life Support, who recollects her husband, Allen:


We met later in life, long after we had both mostly given up on finding anyone and when much of the dating pool just screamed, “Red flag, red flag.” I’d done all the right things – and a bunch of wrong things – and still found myself single, so there you were. I was pretty much OK with that, except of course for the times that I wasn’t and I could feel the loneliness choking me, until sometimes I literally couldn’t breathe and had to remind myself to take a breath, take a breath, until a sob started the restarted the process of in and out again.

My friends told me that I was so independent that I was probably better off by myself. I wanted to scream at them that I had no choice. You have to be independent when you live alone or else the trash doesn’t get emptied, the dishwasher doesn’t get fixed and the bills don’t get paid. It wasn’t a choice, a lifestyle I had selected from a vast menu of luscious options, it simply was. It was what it was.

And then I met Allen at the grocery store. It was like a Glamour magazine article come to life. What I think they used to refer to as a “meet cute”; you know, it just happened.

We were standing in line, the Express Lane which wasn’t; one of those where glacial would have been an improvement. We started talking. All safe territory – the current status of the line, why it takes so long to make out a check, the weather, Kant and quantum physics, you know, the usual small talk. Other people were getting really angry, while we just kept chatting and chatting, forgetting to move up a space as required, much to the frustration of the ever-growing crowd.

He had a great laugh, and we laughed a lot, waiting that day in the not-so-express lane. He was in front of me in line and waited to walk me to my car. He asked me if we could go for coffee.

I wanted to but I couldn’t forget about the frozen broccoli and Lean Cuisines. I felt a little sad, wondering in the moment if choosing between 1% milk and coffee was a decision I shouldn’t have made. I never could figure out how to ask for a card or a number, so the elevator confessions and library conversations and dry cleaner flirtations remained just that.

He interrupted the soliloquy in my head by asking if we could “hook up” the next day. I hesitated, thinking that people our age just didn’t “hook up.” He took a moment and then gave that full-bodied laugh and said, “I meant for coffee.”

We agreed to meet under C-7, what we would come to think of as our parking row.

Coffee became dinner, and yes, we “hooked up,” and six months later, “got hitched” in what we both agreed was a tasteful ceremony. Life slipped into a routine, as if we’d been practicing for these moments for decades. We both understood that we had lives before and tried not to argue over pizza toppings or who was the most talented Beatle, which we all know is Paul.

It sounds terribly contrived and goofy, but he had all these pet names for me.

He’d say, “Pass the potatoes, Pumpkin”; or “Whatcha cooking, Cookie”; or “Where are my blue socks, Sugar?”

My friends would roll their eyes, all the while saying that their Herb or Kenny or Steve never talked to them like that.

Then one day he said, “Pass the Fritos, fat ass.”

I was stunned and asked him what he had said.

And he repeated it. “Pass the Fritos, fat ass.”

I remember thinking, “Well, I guess the honeymoon is definitely over.”

I thought maybe it was just a bad day, he was overtired, his blood sugar was low.

But this continued, a pattern of behavior, you might call it.

We started fighting, always over small things, like why I selected one brand of toothpaste over another or whether to leave apples inside the refrigerator or on the counter.

We stopped fighting after a while; it just took too much energy. There were days that we stopped talking, too. Others, when we’d be almost back to normal, I guess you’d call it. Almost, but with an occasional unsettled crackle between us. I didn’t understand what was happening.

I suggest couples counseling, but he didn’t want to go, didn’t seem to even recognize what he was doing. I considered going by myself, but I ended up thinking that maybe it was me. I’d vent to my friends and they’d share what their Herb or Kenny or Steve had done, and then I thought maybe my view of marriage had been all wrong.

He started to call in sick to work and just stayed in these checkered pajamas. Always the red checks, never the blue or green.

I felt as though I was walking on eggshells. I’d never really understood that expression. If someone was that difficult, I’d simply avoid them as much as possible until the mood wore off. I couldn’t just avoid the man I was bound to by a ring of gold and a signature on a piece of paper.

So I tried to make him happy – cooked his favorite foods, watched the TV shows he wanted, and tried to be patient and understanding and good and kind.

I stopped at the grocery store one day on my way home from church. I’d called to see if he wanted anything. He’d said, “No, I’m sorry.”

I thought that was odd at the time, but didn’t question it in my hurry to pick up the few items I needed. I’d thought I’d cook a roast for dinner with those little red potatoes.

I parked in the driveway and grabbed the bags. I called out to him when I came in. He always at least answered with a grunt, but I didn’t hear anything. I put the few perishables in the fridge and went upstairs to the bedroom.

I checked all the rooms and then, then went outside. Didn’t see him on the patio, in the yard. We have a weird detached garage that we hardly ever use. A sound slowly registered in my head. A car running, a car running from an area that was near the garage. Why would Allen be in the garage? I remember thinking that. I ran to the garage, a horrible taste rising in my throat, tears already streaming down my face.

I tried to convince myself in those seconds that he had just run down the street, maybe to buy some mulch for the yard. But he always, always, left me a note on the kitchen table. And there had been none. Even when we weren’t speaking to each other, there would be a note, so I wouldn’t worry. There was no note, and I knew, instinctively knew that something was terribly, drastically wrong.

I got to the garage, struggling with the door as I always did. He, he was in the front seat, passenger side, just kind of leaning against the door, and I hesitated, trying to decide what to do. Turn off the car? Call for help? Get him out?

I went to him; the door was unlocked, and he simply fell against me. Literally dead weight.

I tried to pull him out of the car, got him out of the garage, and attempted to give him mouth-to-mouth, to trade my breath for his oxygen-starved lungs.

I ran back to the car, leaving him half-in and half-out of the garage. I pressed the emergency call button in the car, the one with the small red cross that you ignore when the car salesman is explaining how it works.

“There’s nothing you could have done,” the paramedics told me.

“There’s nothing you could have done,” the doctor in the emergency room told me.

Nothing I could have done. Nothing I could have done? I didn’t believe them. Don’t believe them.

I knew there must have been something, must have been something I could have said or tried or offered.

The worst part is that I can hardly remember the times he called me, Pumpkin.”

I just hear him saying “Fat Ass,” over and over and over again.

An excerpt of Life Support by playwright, Mara Dresner


feature image provided by Mario Zampedroni

There comes a time when one realizes the cage was unlocked all along. Learn More

Copyright © 2012-2016 Rowdy Prisoners. All Rights Reserved.