Summer slips up on you in the Lowcountry. You have to know how to pace yourself. It’s too hot for doing too much. After a day’s writing, there’s nothing better than sitting on the porch and thinking of summers past. Summers when I would sit on the porch with Byrne Miller, both of us drinking wine and gathering up our skirts way past ladylike to keep cool.
How like a summer’s dream then that I stumbled on a souvenir of my life with Byrne. It came by way of a woman who, had she lived in Beaufort during Byrne’s era, surely would have been one of her many adopted daughters. Byrne would not only have approved of Lisa Rentz’ one-woman drive to publicize the arts in Northern Beaufort County – she would have capitalized on it. And she would have loved the fact that a decade after her death, Lisa left me this note in the mailbox of the house I bought from Byrne.
“Hi Teresa – thought you’d enjoy this. Found it in the pocket of a man’s blazer at a local thrift shop.”
It’s a ticket stub for a performance by the Oberlin Dance Collective – a company Byrne adored so much she convinced them to add Beaufort SC to their tour back in the year 2000. This is a San Francisco-based company that has performed for more than a million people in 32 states and 11 countries. http://www.odcdance.org/dancecompany.php
Their dancers and choreographers have collaborated with artists as varied as Robin Williams and Wayne Thiebaud. Beaufort must have been the smallest town they’d ever heard of, or danced for. They didn’t know the man in the audience wearing the blazer that wound up in a thrift store a decade later.
What they did know was that an amazing woman sitting in the front row set a chain of events in motion that led to that man putting on a blazer and paying $15 to see the one of the best modern dance companies in the world. Right here in a small southern town where summers are so hot you sit on porches with your skirt up and think about these whispers from the past.
I’m on a comedy-writing roll. Mostly because I love it, but also because all the screenwriting gurus say you need to pick one genre and stick to it. Or as a manager I met at a pitch fest told me “You have to be in a box before I can get you out of it.” – Christopher Pratt.
Still, I’m tempted to try horror next. Purely because of a shoot I just wrapped in Muscatatuck, Indiana. Don’t get all insulted, Hoosiers, this isn’t a statement about your state. It’s just that one of the premiere military training centers in the world also happens to rent out its facility to filmmakers. The Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, which used to be a state mental asylum, is literally a 1,000 acre Disneyland of Disasters. All the old, art-deco hospital buildings double now as “embassies” and other “assets” military types need to train to defend.
They call it a full-immersion contemporary urban training environment. Which means they’ve built things like parking garages that collapse on command, to practice difficult urban search and rescue techniques. There’s an oil refinery that can explode at the push of a button, a pre-flooded suburb, and 1,866 feet of tunnels dug under an old prison.
While we were there shooting a project for FEMA, so were the Israeli Defense Forces. That’s how cutting edge it is. But what fascinated me the most was the creepy factor. There’s a haunting, man-made reservoir on the border of the property, surrounded by deep woods and FEMA trailers. Yes, the post-Katrina kind rejected for mold issues and now deemed toxic. We four-wheeled through the woods on Kubota go-carts only to find a trailer graveyard, doors swinging open with scary creaks.
Then there’s the Mental Hospital Museum. We used it as headquarters for our shoot, trying to ignore the 1950s–era instruments hanging from its walls. Hard to do when your laptop is set up under a straight jacket, very Silence of the Lambs. Even better is the automatic spoon machine used to feed the patients in the jacket. I couldn’t resist this photo.
The director says when he was charged with curating the collection, it looked as if all the patients up and left in the middle of the night. (note – there is an unmarked cemetery right off base…hmmm) He says you could get the place up and running again in a couple of months – if there was ever a need to return to mid-Reagan-era mental healthcare. Which is, of course, when mental patients all over the country were booted out to fend for themselves. See, I wasn’t kidding about the horror part.
Only if it was a movie, you could happily munch popcorn while you scream. Even the logo works. “Defend the homeland. Win the peace. As real as it gets.”
While I’m waiting to hear back from producers who requested to read my R-rated comedy “Free Corona,” I keep tweaking the screenplay. All writing is re-writing — I know this — I’m just not as sure when it comes to jokes.
I’m pretty confident most of the scenes in “Free Corona” are funny. Either that or the 14 people who staged a table read at my house are easily bribed. Full disclosure: there were gin and tonics; this is the Deep South. And I did promise everyone a dip in the creek when we got through. But here’s why I think the laughs were earned honestly: one joke completely choked.
Bruce Doneff – a PR exec who does Shakespeare on the side, was gamely reading the parts of four horny old retirees. At one point near the end of the second act, they try to shame a hapless maintenance man into admitting that he’s knocked up the girl, Corona, they all drool over. The dialog went like this:
Herb: It wasn’t me, that’s all I know.
(He pretends to stroke a bulging stomach.)
Herb: Big bee like mine would make a much bigger sting.
Bruce tried reading it one way, then another, using different pacing, until the whole room was rolling with laughter. The unintended kind that gives writers nightmares. He finally gave up.
“What the hell am I supposed to be saying here?” His glasses slid down his nose. I got the “honey this doesn’t work” look loud and clear.
I tried to explain. I really did hear this joke, out of the mouth of a Beaufort judge. Only it was in the 90s, and it was at a hot-tub party (no lie) and gossip had turned to how hugely pregnant a mutual friend looked.
The judge said, “Oh that’s nothing. You should have seen my wife when she was pregnant.” His wife was a little Southern belle, hard to picture hugely pregnant. So he clarified. “Guess it just goes to show. The bigger the stinger the bigger the bee sting.”
I still think that’s funny (I can’t speak for his now ex-wife) But where the joke died was in the re-write. I backed into it, got the timing tangled, basically butchered it by trying to steal it.
Hmmm…there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I’m just not sure if it’s for me or the judge.
They say screenplay pitch festivals in LA are a lot like speed dating. Not having tried seducing anyone before a five-minute buzzer cuts me off, I can’t actually vouch for the analogy. But there was a woman with a cow bell. Literally, at the Great American Pitch Fest in Burbank Sunday, a 50-something woman presided over a cavernous convention center hall with a cowbell. Which she rang, with Christopher Walken enthusiasm, every five minutes, for six hours.
You’d think, given that her job was to keep five hundred would-be Nora Ephrons and Judd Apatows moving right along, she would signal your time’s up with the clap of a sync slate. Or a flashing red applause light and canned clapping. But the cow bell was the perfect cue. We were, afterall, being herded — shuffled out a side gate to what organizers affectionately called the bull pen, to wait in line to do it all over again.
Waiting in line was the most entertaining part. It’s where I met a woman from Texas, I’ll call her Lanky, who wasn’t satisfied pitching her epic to the 120 production company execs there to listen in five-minute increments. She had to pitch me too – how the one true God was still to come and we’re all just circles of light waiting to receive the signal. I think her movie was the signal, but I didn’t really want clarification.
Then there was the couple in their sixties who carried around a miniature Siberian all day. I had to ask. The dog was part of the pitch. Again, no need to know more. Those lines were long and once a conversation like that starts it’s hard to stop.
I liked the whisperers the best. Nervous writers, mostly from other parts of the country, who kept reciting their pitches to themselves in line. This is when you’d think blue-tooth headsets would be a good disguise. Except when you still whisper. Kinda gives you away.
Like the woman from North Carolina, who bonded with me because we’re both from states that end in the word Carolina. She looked nervous, so I told her she looked like Isabella Rossellini. She told me that her screenplay was a riches-to-rags story, about how she and her apparently unlucky husband had to leave New Jersey and wound up in the sticks. (Charlotte – her description, not mine) Then she took a cell phone call from her husband, who told her that her whole church was praying for her. Right at that very moment, three time zones away.
“I’d lead with that when you pitch those producers,” I suggested. “You might be the only writer here with God on your side.” She fiddled with her pearl necklace and replied, “Right, and have everybody here think I’m a hick?”
I really felt for the couple from Japan pitching an animated short film. Which they’d already made. What they needed was distribution, and maybe a translator who could have explained they were playing in the wrong sandbox, wasting their time and energy. They looked dazed and disappointed, like I’m sure I did at my first pitch fest, when I found out that nobody in Hollywood wants to buy dramas unless they’ve already been a best-selling novel.
“But what about all the Oscar nominated dramas?” I sputtered – back in October. Then I checked. They’re always adaptations. Turns out my first two screenplays are destined only for “good-for-you” film festival awards.
This pitch fest was more productive. I took what I learned at the first one, swallowed my pride and spent the next four months creating something commercial. Which also turned out to be way more fun – both to write, and pitch. I had no trouble describing my R-rated, female-lead comedy, called “Free Corona,” before the cow bell rang. Although now that I’m back home I keep wondering if I should have had an actual Corona in my hand. Or better yet, one for each of the patient executives who had to listen to Lanky’s epic before they got to me. R-rated comedy and free beer … maybe that writer from Charlotte would have sent some prayers my way.
One day I will write the greatest love story of all time, because it will be about the love affair between Byrne and Duncan Miller. It will not be a sappy romance, or always happy. But as everyone who ever witnessed the magnetic field between them will attest, it will be riveting.
Just a tease then, of that someday story, drawn from what might seem to be a trivial detail. When I was in my twenties, Byrne told me that an established New York editor once compared Duncan’s writing to that of Thomas Mann. I had never read the Nobel-prize-winning German writer so it seemed a bit of unnecessary name dropping at the time. I had no need of external validation – I never doubted Byrne’s biography of the husband she adored. He had been a copywriter in Manhattan’s golden age of advertising, grown tired of copy writing and dedicated the rest of his life to novels.
Byrne and Duncan’s first “date” was a meeting of a writer’s group in Manhattan that Byrne joined to improve her technique. Duncan walked her home and over the course of the fifty city blocks, convinced her to quit the group because real writers don’t need groups. He also convinced her to marry him.
Their sixty-year romance was well chronicled in the journal Byrne kept for her two daughters, now housed in the Special Collections of the Beaufort County Library. “Duncan and I agreed that we each should have a chance at a career,” Byrne wrote. “He would have first try – writing at home while I earned the money.”
The next part, to me, is the very definition of love. “I edited his day’s writing and re-typed it. In ’34, Duncan submitted his “Sit in Dark Palaces” to the Atlantic Monthly. It did not win the prize, but one of the ten big editors said he’s the only one this side of the Atlantic Ocean writing like Thomas Mann.”
By the time Duncan died, Byrne had edited and re-typed six complete novels by Duncan, all of which ended up in bankers boxes under the home-made sofa in their living room – unpublished. There were also hundreds of rejection letters – the early Thomas Mann glimmer of hope was the only one of its kind.
I’ve always wondered how she did it, how she kept encouraging Duncan through six decades of disappointment, how that single reference to Thomas Mann managed to keep them going. So this year I read several stories and novellas by Thomas Mann, searching for similarities to Duncan Miller.
“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”– Thomas Mann
What I found is that that anonymous editor didn’t lie. In his attempt to let Duncan down gently, he may have encouraged a lifetime of futility but there are similarities. They both wrote in many modes: Mann from everyday realistic to surreal, Duncan from political to paranoid. Both were heavily influenced by Nietzsche, Mann so much that he rarely abandoned the theme of the artist as outsider, “a dubious figure, a creature of sickness and longing for death.”Duncan shared with Byrne what would become her favorite quote. “Life is hard to bear, but do not affect to be so delicate.” – Nietzsche.
A major theme in Mann’s work is homoeroticism. The scholar Jefferson S. Chase describes “Death in Venice” as based on a true-life, same-sex crush Mann developed while on a vacation with his brother and wife. He never established a clear moral position in regard to homosexuality. Neither did Duncan. Byrne wrote that the first of his six novels, “Sit in Dark Places” was the story of a boy with a sexual love for his mother. His final novel, “Regiment of Woman” was about a soldier who had a sex change to prove that women feel more than men. In a handwritten note Byrne asked, rhetorically I presume, “What does all this add up to?”
The answer wasn’t the one she wanted. Byrne said her one regret in life, was never getting Duncan published. I think it telling that she didn’t describe this regret as never seeing Duncan published. But I suspect Thomas Mann would understand.
“A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.” – Thomas Mann
It took me longer than I expected to finish Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” I am not a fan of priests, nor do I have any history with the American Southwest. The only connection I have to Santa Fe, where the novel is centered, is borrowed from Byrne Miller. She lived there in the 1960s, a hundred years after the priests that so intrigued Cather. I wonder what they would have thought of Byrne: a modern dancer from Manhattan, Jewish, uninhibited, radical and experimenting with open marriage.
I suspect they would have been no more astonished than the Native American students Byrne took under her wing. Here came a tall white woman who walked even taller, confidently aware of her shapely legs and jutting breasts. She wore cat-eye glasses and scraped her jet black hair under silk scarves, except when she posed for publicity photos – wild-haired and wilder-eyed.
When she guest-lectured for a class called “Man and his Arts” at the Navajo Community College, students wrote thank-you letters about how she made them aware of their posture. When she taught dance at the Rock Point Community School, the Title IV Coordinator would later become one of her adopted sons: Benjamin Barney. Her class consisted of nine adults, two little girls and five onlookers – probably their mothers. Ben’s own mother might have been among them; she was deeply suspicious of dance as entertainment. Which might explain why in her journals, Byrne wrote of showing dance films, leading improvisations like “walking through phone booths” and emphasizing movement as a “teaching tool.”
I always found it odd, maybe even a tad imperial — the thought of a modern dancer from New York, teaching dance to a people whose very religion celebrated it. Dance came long before the priests in Willa Cather’s novel:
“The Bishop stood watching the flowing, supple movements of their arms and shoulders, the sure rhythm of their tiny moccasined feet, no larger than cottonwood leaves, as without a word of instruction they followed the irregular and strangely-accented music.”
I wonder if, at the time, Byrne watched as much as she demonstrated. She could be terribly intimidating, as my brother-by-Byrne attests. Ben was one of her best dancers but dance, in his culture, is a vehicle of faith. Movement is literally transformative. Byrne wanted him to wear tights and perform on stage – for strangers. She choreographed a role for him in a piece she called, ironically, “The Walls Between Us.” Against his mother’s wishes, Ben danced for Byrne.
It still haunts him. He writes letters to me, helping with the memoir I am writing of my own time with Byrne. “The performance happened, even when I felt bad about it.”
It circles back to Cather and her Bishops, the novel that made me slow down and study the rhythm of the words. Byrne’s journey was no different than that of any outsider. The bishops had to pay for their awakening in years of travel – by horse, or burro, through Mexico new and old. Understanding wasn’t a souvenir. Byrne was much luckier. She collected children who grew to love her, faults and all.
Blustery days put me on edge. The South Carolina Lowcountry isn’t supposed to be wind-whipped but today the seasons are battling it out on the banks of the Beaufort River. The water is the color of Spanish moss flailing from the massive boughs of Live Oaks. I can’t relax, settle into my thoughts, with palm fronds scraping the window. And I’m not sure why.
When I lived here with Byrne, I could always toss these questions into the air between us. There would be wine, on the porch, and maybe a sliver of cake. And stories, always hers, that I scoured for meaning. She was confidant and fortune teller. I could interpret my life through hers.
Now that she’s gone, I unravel truths from books instead. I wrap the ideas of other writers around my shoulders, seeing how the words fit. Like these, from Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”
“It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it,” she wrote. “The Navajo hogans, among the sand and willows, were made of sand and willows. None of the pueblos would at that time admit glass windows into their dwellings. The reflection of the sun on the glazing was to them ugly and un-natural – even dangerous.”
I have tried to change the landscape, living in this house that Byrne and Duncan Miller loved. Hiding behind its windows and walls, I pretend that all I see is permanent and predictable. Something I can draw from, and write about, at will. The wind reminds me I am an intruder.
One of Byrne’s first adopted “children,” a Navajo elder I consider my brother-by-Byrne, if not by birth, wrote a letter to me when he found out I was writing a memoir of my time with her. We were planning a reunion, here in the house he had visited on momentous occasions in Byrne’s life: major dance concerts, anniversaries, memorial services. One line in his letter has confused me, until today.
“At times I want to see the house and the trees again, but did not know ways to them.”
My brother-by-Byrne sees himself as walking through landscapes, not discovering or claiming them. What matters are the memories and feelings they evoke. The path is not one he controls. He is at peace with that. I sit at my desk and wonder when the wind will stop and I can settle into certainty again.