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“Please, call me Suzan.”
By Wendy Bable (MFA 2009)
On the evening of my first day of grad school, I was staffing the front desk of the Winship Building. It was a little eerie as the day’s activity came to stillness and more than a little cold as the A/C overcompensated for the blazing heat of the day. I was shivering, knee-deep in syllabi, nerdily scribing critical due-dates into my planner, when this force of nature we know as Suzan Zeder changed the energy of the whole space. What I remember most vividly about this moment is how tongue-tied I was. Suzan can be an overwhelming experience.
Our conversation was brief—she inquired about my first day and how I was settling in. What struck me later is that I felt like a light was shining on me. Dazzling. Brilliant. I can’t remember much of our exchange, but I do remember my final sentence: “Have a good night, Professor Zeder.” She turned back, took me in for a moment, and with her trademark amused twinkle said, “Please, call me Suzan.”
My relationship with Suzan grew slowly. I didn’t have classes with her that semester but I found myself rearranging my schedule to be in the room wherever she was. It wasn’t her status as a playwright or her formidable list of professional accomplishments that drew me—it was her unparalleled ability to activate a space and the people in it. She is fire and wind and electricity. Everything she turns her gaze upon seemed to become more present, more vibrant, more alive.
In the spring of that first year, I served on the Cohen New Works Festival committee and watched Suzan’s inexhaustible energy nurture dynamic spaces of innovation and critical dialogue. That was also the semester she invited me to join her Playwriting Workshop—a class usually reserved for M.F.A. playwrights and Michener Fellows. I was a real greenhorn as a playwright and Suzan didn’t pull any punches. I will be forever grateful for that, because in that short but rigorous semester, I crystalized my core values of theatre-making which have informed every artistic decision I’ve made since then. It was also during this semester that I truly understood why so many of us who create theatre for young people look to Suzan’s work as the catalyst that triggered a paradigm shift in our field.
First and foremost, Suzan’s demand for excellence in an artist’s craft does not distinguish between young and adult audiences. In her early work as a playwright, this was a radical act. She is a living affirmation that making theatre for young people does not make you a second-rate artist. It makes you a courageous artist. It takes grit and legitimate theatre chops to put your work in front of an audience who will not sit quietly and clap politely if your play is not worth their attention.
Suzan believes that children are interesting in and of themselves—that they are so much more than “the next generation of theatre-goers.” She believes that young protagonists should have full agency in their own stories to grapple with complex, conflicting emotions and ideas. This principle was also a radical departure from the existing canon of dramatic literature for young people in which adults usually solved the problem and the young protagonist was a passive participant.
These elements were never clearer to me than when I directed the first public reading of her play, The Edge of Peace, for the 2009 Cohen New Works Festival presented by the University Co-op. I had hoped to be a part of the creative team since the previous summer. I was housesitting for her and we were on the phone for our weekly check in. She was radiant with excitement, because she had just met an actual descendent of Clovis P. Eudy, the owner of the general store in her trilogy of plays, The Edge of Peace, Mother Hicks and The Taste of Sunrise. When I read the first draft of The Edge of Peace a few months later, I was deeply taken with her ability to capture a series of moments in a small town’s ordinary life to tell a story so much bigger than the town of Ware, Illinois. As we worked together in rehearsal, I watched Suzan embody everything she’d ever taught me about working on a new play. She walks the talk—Suzan is the real thing.
I began this tribute to her legacy with “Please, call me Suzan” because that was the beginning of my knowing one of the most truthful, unpretentious colleagues I have ever encountered. Suzan has spent a lifetime planting trees whose shade she knew she may never sit in. Her legacy lives far beyond her work as an artist. Anyone who has had the privilege of working with her carries her fearless spirit, and we are forever changed in ways that we are only beginning to understand.
Wendy Bable is the Producer for Arts Discovery Programs at People’s Light & Theatre Company. She has directed over twenty-five plays for both young audiences and adults, including Still Life with Iris, For Which it Stands, Through the Darkness, i’m not a writer but i got a story to tell, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, American Heroes, Pippin, The 7, The Bald Soprano, Gypsy, Antigone, Lysistrata, and The Lesson.
Her play Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Makes the Best Hamburger premiered at People’s Light & Theatre in the fall of 2012.
The Department of Theatre and Dance will present the world premiere of Suzan Zeder’s The Edge of Peace February 1-10, 2013. Learn more at jointhedrama.org.