martha 5th grade
Fifth grade school picture at 10 years old. Already 5’5″, a swimmer, and totally confused about finding my voice.

When I was 10 years old in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was in a class at Wealthy Street Elementary School comprised of kids selected for their smarts (maybe) and to engage in an experiment: 10 fourth graders and 10 fifth graders (my set) were combined in one class taught by the brilliant Marie Neal, a woman new to town who had most recently taught at a private school in another part of the state. This was the late 1960s tail end of the Baby Boom, so the trial relieved class size stress for the already burgeoning fourth and fifth grade classrooms as much as it offered the chance to play creatively with class structure and routines. I don’t believe this experiment lasted more than this one year, but we had a marvelous time studying unconventional things, memorizing poems, doing some fun thematic reports, and developing presentations for ourselves and for the school. And I’ve been jumping across disciplinary borders ever since.

Among the many gifts during this year of new routines in how to ready, how to study, how to engage with math (egad), I first memorized Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”  — a poem that resolves with lines I continue to call upon in moments of reflection and repose and resolve.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

And in addition to this lifelong gift, I memorized that school year another and rarer poem that captured my quirky humor that had been tweaked by Bullwinkle and double entendre. Edward Lear’s “The Table and the Chair” features two inanimate objects who have a friendly conversation, decide to take a walk to unpack their differences, meet up with a flurry of animals, and introduced me to a set of grand vocabulary words. (Chilblains were blisters! How marvelous!)

Nine years after that fifth grade year, my mother died, and I began picking up the pieces of a life that was just beginning. The following year a 20th birthday gift from the wise and wondrous Anne Mulder, then dating my father, was a hardcover copy of ntozake shange’s choreopoem “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the ranbow is enuf”, first staged by the Public Theater in 1976 and, much to my delight, will be part of the 2019-2020 Public Theater season. The piece that brought me to my knees in that group of poems at 20 was the lady in green’s reflections on the violent loss of voice women suffer and in which they can be complicit. My voice was “my stuff” and I was only beginning to use it.

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgetting while stealin
this is mine/ this aint yr stuff/
now why dont you put me back & let me hang out in my own self

The snowy walk and table and chair and cry of the heart offer guidance for a new life adventure that newly begins. I have been on an interdisciplinary search for roles through multiple interests since early childhood. My love for movies and theater led to literature, history and Scandinavia language studies at Harvard, social science and social welfare studies at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Michigan, and 20 years as a court researcher and domestic policy analyst in university research offices and nonprofit research settings in several cities. Fifteen years ago I returned to theater as a dramaturg and critic: script reading for Washington DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City theaters and festivals; dramaturging productions and readings in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York; writing and mentoring young critics in Chicago and New York City, attending the O’Neill National Critics Institute as a Fellow in 2014, becoming an award adjudicator (Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee 2008-2009, and New York’s Drama Desk since 2012. My fascination with theater design honed during years of writing and editing Chance Magazine continues with work on the Henry Hewes Design Award committee and the new Glenn M. Loney ATCA Production Design Award for Regional Theater.

steketee-martha
At 60 in New York City.

So this month I assume the role of Chair of the American Theatre Critics association, along with Frank Rizzo as Vice Chair and Robert Sokol as Secretary Treasurer. It takes a village to run an organization, and this kid who took decades to find her voice, and who took a circuitous route toward dramaturgy and criticism, now will try not to break things while leading conversations and spending most of her time listening to critics and theater journalists around the country.

Edward Lear’s wisdom will lead me. I expect to ask to talk, listen to answers, and be prepared to laugh a lot along the way.

Said the Table to the Chair,
‘You can hardly be aware,
‘How I suffer from the heat,
‘And from chilblains on my feet!
‘If we took a little walk,
‘We might have a little talk!
‘Pray let us take the air!’
Said the Table to the Chair.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 22, 2019)

 

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