Note: The play I wrote for young audiences, Fake Flowers Don't Die, is going to be performed in schools, theatres, and community centers in the Cincinnati area throughout the month of October. I was asked by the Education Director of Cincinnati-Playhouse-in-the-Park to write something about the origin of the play for those who are interested. It is written so that it can be read by anyone 10 years or older.
It started with a title. It never starts with a title for me, but if you write long enough you’ll find that things that “never” happen happen all the time. So it started with a title.
I was visiting Birmingham, Alabama when I looked up from my book to see a bunch of fake flowers sitting in a vase. A phrase appeared in my mind – fake flowers don’t die. I liked the sound of it, the way the last two words sounded like a door shutting. I thought it would make be a good title.
“Hey!” I yelled to my stepmother in the other room. “What do you think of the title Fake Flowers Don’t Die?” She muttered something in response. It sounded like “good,” but I can’t say for sure that she heard me.
Some time later I was reading a book by one of my favorite writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I came across the story, “A Tale of Three Wishes.” It is about three kids, two boys and a girl, who want to be a great rabbi, a powerful man, and the most beautiful woman in their village. They get what they think is a magic lamp, but make a mess of it when they try to make wishes. A wizard then appears to tell them they didn't get what they wished for because they had done nothing to earn it.
When they are older, all three achieve the things they wished for. Only instead of getting them by wishes, they achieve them through hard work and kindness. Their wishes ended up teaching them about what it was that they really wanted.
I decided to merge that basic story with a story from my childhood that took place when I was 13 and 14. Near the end of middle school, the group of friends I had been part of for several years stopped including me in the things they did. It didn’t take long to get the message that they didn’t want me around. I was left basically friendless when I got to high school. It was one of the hardest things I ever went through.
Eventually I made a new best friend, whose name was Mark. But less than a year after becoming friends with Mark, I met a new group of people. These were friends like I had never met before, people who are still my friends now, 25 years later. These people meant so much more to me than Mark did, so I stopped hanging out with him to become friends with them. I basically did to Mark the exact same thing that had been done to me a year before. The thing is, I knew as it was happening and felt terrible about it, but I had no language to speak of it. So I said nothing. Many of these big changes we go through when we are young go unspoken because we have no words to speak of them.
I had originally intended Eugene to be the main character of the play, since he’s the one who finds the lamp. As I wrote outline, however, I found that the only character who was in every scene was JJ. His story, with his sister Barky, became the center of the play.
I wrote a first draft of the play, and the theatre was pleased. We read it several times, I made changes, then put it away for awhile. When I came back to Fake Flowers a few months later, I was both pleased and not. I thought it was a good play, enjoyable enough, well put-together…but there was something missing. The great American playwright Arthur Miller said that every really good thing he ever wrote embarrassed him a little. I think he meant that there was something intimate and personal to him in all his best plays that made it awkward to hear them in public. I know that has been true of my own best work. I felt like that was missing in Fake Flowers Don’t Die.
So I went back in and made it more personal. The main way I did this had to do with Barky. In the year that I spent writing the play my own son, Henry, was diagnosed with autism. My wife and I were, and still are, trying to figure out exactly what that means, how to deal with it, and how best to help Henry. It also brought out the vexing idea of what we mean when we say someone is “normal.” What is “normal”, anyway? Why is it a good thing to be “normal”? Would my son, Henry, be better if he were more “”normal”? What would we lose if Henry was “normal”?That did the trick. Writing those questions into the play made it much more personal to me. Now it is, I hope, a rich enough story to be very entertaining to watch while still dealing with important issues about how we live our lives.