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Watching the Detectives

Describing mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, writer-director Ed. Lange says, “This is a pretty potent woman in the world of writing.”

As an assessment of her prominence, it’s an accurate statement—a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, Clark is affectionately known as the “Queen of Suspense”—but Lange’s appreciation of Clark is more intimate than that. He is fresh off performances by the New York State Theatre Institute of Body in the Closet and Bye, Baby Bunting, new one-act plays he adapted from short stories written by Clark. Lange also directed.

“It came as a wonderful opportunity, I’ll tell you that,” Lange enthuses, recollecting his notification “about this time last year,” that NYSTI had selected him to have a crack at it.

“I knew that Patricia [Snyder, NYSTI’s producing artistic director] had been working with Mary Higgins Clark’s agent, and I understood from her that they had approached us because of our long-term reputation with producing mysteries and with making stage adaptations. And once it became formalized, she asked me to be the writer. I was thrilled beyond belief, as you can imagine.”

Thrilled, but not unaware of the challenges ahead of him. Though an experienced writer himself, Lange knew that the translation of much-loved prose to the specific language of the theater would be tricky.

“For instance, she jumps in time quite a bit,” he says. “In a novel or a movie, you can do that. But with stage, it’s a very different kind of situation, because we’re confined by the physical realities of time, space and people. We have human beings up there who have to get from one side of the stage to another; and you have a very finite number of locations you can create on the stage. . . . In a novel, you can go from the bottom of the sea to the moon in a paragraph.”

Lange also had to work within the conventions of Clark’s genre. “You can’t do a mystery in a fragmented style—you have to have a kind of linear structure to progress from clue A to clue B to clue C, and so forth,” he says. “And it has to be conveyed almost exclusively through dialogue. All the material that takes place in people’s minds or in the omniscient narrator’s voice has to be conveyed somehow through the dialogue or the location.”

Add to all that Lange’s respect for Clark’s writing, plotting, character construction and sense of humor—plus his attendant desire to “stay very true” to the feel and spirit of the stories—and you’ve got what sounds like an overwhelming task.

“It’s a fun process, though,” Lange says. “It’s kind of like, ‘How do I solve this problem?’ Which is exactly what a detective does in a mystery: ‘How do I solve the crime?’ And mine was, ‘How do I solve the structural problem, and the conversion from narrative to dialogue?’ ”

The end results of Lange’s problem-solving were presented as staged readings last week, and all evidence suggests that as a literary detective, Lange’s no slouch.

“As humbly as I can, I must say they came out terrifically,” he relates. “The audiences really responded very positively to both the mystery and the humor. . . . They laughed when they were supposed to laugh and gasped when they were supposed to gasp. And at the moment that a major clue was dropped, it was great to see heads in the audience lean toward each other and obviously go, ‘Psst, psst, that was a clue, that was a clue.’ It was a treat to see those kind of reactions.”

Asked if the success of the staged readings will lead to further collaborations, Lange says: “That’s in the yet-to-be-determined stage. The hope is certainly there, that we can continue this kind of relationship or make one of these shows more fully produced, but all of that is unknown at the moment.”

The fate of the plays may be unknown, but it’s not unpromising, as fans of the adaptations include such famous writers as . . . can you guess? “She wasn’t able to see the show in performance,” Lange reports of Clark, “but she did see the scripts and her reaction was very positive. She said that they were fascinating and very, very—two verys—good. Which was delightful for me, obviously.”

—John Rodat

Candid Classroom

“Risky writing is any personal writing that involves painful or shameful feelings,” explains Jeffrey Berman, a professor of English at the University at Albany. Berman’s latest book, Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom, incorporates candid student essays on topics usually regarded as being too personal for class discussion, such as sexual abuse, the loss of loved ones, eating disorders, broken families and racial prejudice.

The risks involved in exploring subjects usually shrouded in secrecy and stigma can include depression and anxiety. “What happens is that when writing about painful feelings and experiences, students feel uncomfortable, they sometimes feel distressed,” says Berman, who selected the essays from his Expository English 300 class. Risky Writing was published two months ago; last month, Berman’s work was featured on the cover of The Chronicle Review, a publication most easily described as the Review of Books for academia.

“This kind of writing has the potential to be transformative, to allow students the opportunity to write about feelings they’ve never written about before, and to share those experiences with their classmates and gain a feeling of self-mastery,” Berman says. “And as important as it is for them to write about, for example, divorce or abuse, it’s even more important for them to allow their classmates to learn about these experiences.”

Berman says that one of the most important aspects of Risky Writing is the discussion on protocols to help students to write about potentially traumatizing subjects in safety. For example, students never have to write about a certain topic if they don’t want to. They are not graded on the degree of disclosure. And if they wish to remain anonymous, Berman will read their work aloud for them. And what are the protocols for the teacher? “The most important thing that I do is listen empathetically,” he says. “I don’t judge, I don’t interpret, I don’t diagnose.”

Berman’s previous book also incorporated student writings: Surviving Literary Suicide used diary entries to investigate the emotional fallout for graduate students studying suicidal literature, such as Sylvia Plath’s campus classic, The Bell Jar. Surviving Literary Suicide, Risky Writing and Berman’s 1994 book Diaries to an English Professor comprise a trilogy that examines the impact of writing and reading about traumatic subjects. “I think readers will be astonished by how important this kind of writing is for students,” says the author. “And at how writing can be so valuable both educationally and psychologically.”

Although Berman (who is trained in psychoanalysis) is the first to affirm that personal and artistic growth often comes from discomfort, Risky Writing is not specifically about tackling conflictual issues. “This is not just for therapeutic value,” he says. “The main purpose of the course is to improve writing skills, and I’ve found over the years that when students are writing about topics that are important to them, they want to be understood—they want to be as articulate as possible and to express themselves clearly.”

Risky Writing may be the part of the trilogy with the widest appeal for general readers. It even has a snazzy cover: a Marc Chagall image of a fragmented figure holding pen and paper. “The painting really captures the feeling of discombobulation—the poet’s head is upside down,” says the author, who relates that he had great difficulty getting permission from Chagall’s estate. “I paid more in permission for the cover than I’ll get for writing it,” he adds cheerfully.

“Writing these books has strengthened an already-strong bond with my students,” Berman notes. “I feel like I need to do justice to their stories.”

—Ann Morrow

All You Need Is Doves
Photos by Julia Florer

Given that airports played such a visible role in the events of Sept. 11, it’s fitting that the latest tribute to the victims of that day has been erected inside the Albany International Airport. Patrons visiting the ticketing area inside the terminal need only look up to see Healing Wings, a 30-foot sculpture crafted by area artist Lillian Mulero from about 3,000 origami doves. The doves were designed by Capital Region schoolchildren to spread messages of peace and patriotism.


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