Field Report No. 20160604RC
Topic: Spokane Civic Theatre's 28th Playwrights' Forum Festival
Bob is a 91-year-old playwright and a resident of Portland, Oregon. He wrote his first play in Chengdu, China, in 1944, while he was serving as a weather cryptographer in a base for B-29 Superfortresses, which were making bombing raids on Japan. His day job was to study and predict cloud cover for these raids.
Bob's first play was performed by an ensemble cast of mostly American ex-pats, some of whom had fled to Chengdu during the horrific Nanjing Massacre perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army in the late 1930s. Amid this turbulent season of his youth, the staging of his first play in a small theater on the other side of the world is still vivid to Bob.
This particular wartime experience was an exhilaration, and a catalyst for a life in the theater. Bob went on to Yale Drama School, to study playwriting under the famed American author Robert Penn Warren. And, though his career took different turns over the past seven decades, Bob has kept writing, especially in his retirement years.
"Writing doesn't get any easier," Bob says. "But you do simply gain more experiences and relationships to draw upon as you get older. In that way, writing gets better with age."
Bob is still writing plays. In fact, he has one being performed this weekend and next at the Spokane Civic Theatre's 28th Playwrights' Forum Festival, a two-weekend celebration of short one-act plays by a group of experienced playwrights, June 2-5 and June 9-12. Bob's play is called "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise"—a mostly tender piece that gives way to sharp bitterness, like the Oscar Hammerstein song that shares the same title. The two main characters are political prisoners, being held together in an undisclosed location.
"Softly" has been previously staged in many U.S. cities, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. However, this weekend is Bob's first time seeing it performed, due to the reasonable travel distance between Portland and Spokane.
"It's always a delight to see your concept get up on stage, with real actors and a real audience. No matter how long you do this—and I've been doing it a long time—it is really fulfilling to see it happen. And the Civic does very good work; they are well-respected—one of the leading groups in the country."
To Inland Northwest locals, it is somewhat well known that the Spokane Civic Theatre has won more national awards than any volunteer community theater in the nation. However, it might be known just well enough that certain events of high artistic merit can be taken for granted by the surrounding community.
Don't let that be the case with the Playwrights' Forum Festival.
Get your tickets online or at the door; it's going on in four two-day cycles in the Civic's intimate Studio Theater. Engage with the work of these authors. Discuss the content with playwrights and directors during each session's talk-back, which follows the four brief plays. Continue the discussions later, over cocktails, with your companions. Let the plays stir up new insights within you, and among those with whom you share life.
That's what art is for, and it's why Robert M. Barr—or just "Bob"—has been writing plays since World War II.
— Ross Carper