WALLACE

Richard Scharine, Actor
Sunday, February 21, 2010

The role of Wallace Stegner in WALLACE is for me a place where many roads meet. For several years I have been semi-retired from the University of Utah Theatre Department, where my primary area of scholarship since the early 80s was contemporary social theatre, particularly African-American theatre and American political theatre. Ten years ago the late Edward Lewis and I co-founded People Productions, Utah’s only African-American themed theatre, and did a couple of productions a year in found spaces up until Edward’s death last August. Ten years ago was also the last time I worked with Jerry Rapier and Plan-B Theatre, playing Frank Sweeney in Jerry’s production of Brian Friel’s MOLLY SWEENEY.

When Edward died, it was clear that People Productions was a crossroads too. I went the rounds, asking for advice, and Jerry was the first to respond. The result was the Edward Lewis Black Theatre Festival, which groued three previously planned local productions with African-American protagonists (Grand Theatre’s HAVING OUR SAY…, Plan-B’s WALLACE, and PYGmalion Theatre’s LADY DAY AT THE EMERSON BAR & GRILL) around the readings by People Productions of three Black plays previously unseen in Salt Lake City, plus a reading of NEGLECT by Utah Contemporary Theatre. As Edward would have wished, the People Productions readings are being shepherded by young black artists making their directorial debuts, and one of these three (yet to be determined) will receive a full production this summer.

Although I have now lived in Utah for more than thirty years and studied Stegner’s JOE HILL in preparation for directing THE MAN WHO NEVER DIED at the Communication Workers of America Union Hall on the 75th anniversary of Hill’s execution, my knowledge of the author and the man was sketchy. I’d been impressed with Plan-B”s mission to produce not only plays with political themes in which I was heavily invested, but did so using local subjects. I also needed a challenge to re-charge my creative batteries.

However, after I read an early version of Debora Threedy’s script WHERE I COME FROM (which comprises the Stegner portion of WALLACE), the connection to Stegner became more personal. Although the circumstances from which he came were more difficult and his accomplishments infinitely greater, I recognized a pattern in Wallace Stegner’s life to which I could relate. We shared a rural background of outhouses, field labor, and one-room schoolhouses. A 52-mile bus ride to high school as a kid a year younger than any of his classmates implanted in me the outsider mentality which is so much a part of Stegner’s semi-autobiographical fiction. Stegner had a drive to belong, while stubbornly demanding to be accepted on his own terms. He strove to separate himself from his past, only to find that the only way he could create a future was by using the material his past gave him. He beame a reluctant activist, devoting years of his creative effort to save the West which had given him his identity. And irony of ironies, after a lifetime of disciplined effort, he found himself simultaneously pilloried by Eastern intellectuals who could never have withstood the challenges he overcame, and a younger generation of writers who regarded him as an example of the rigid Establishment to be defied.

When I auditioned for WALLACE last July with three memorized pages from the play, I included in my presentation three family pictures – my father standing between two gigantic plow horses, their bits held firmly in his hands, my mother lifting me up in the air in front of the farmhouse, and me as a 12-year-old with a cousin and a friend before we left for the county seat and the rural grade school graduation. This was the father who urged me to go to college, even though he himself had dropped out of the sixth grade and none of the children of his brothers and sisters or my mother’s sisters had ever gone past high school. It was three years into that college that I finally discovered the theatre, and met the woman who inexplicably loved me enough to accompany me on the seven moves we made during our first eleven years together, who taught me to lower my head and plod forward in spite of my own fears and inadequacies, who showed me I could trust my judgment because I could always trust hers, who mothered my children, and who stood with me long enough for me to learn to stand on my own.

I don’t know if Wallace Stegner would have approved of my playing him, but he sure would have recognized where I was coming from.

Richard Scharine portrays Wallace Stegner in the world premiere of WALLACE March 4-14 in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner. WALLACE is part of the Edward Lewis Black Theatre Festival.

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