Tag Archives: theater

Growing Up as a Writer, part one

Liza Ketchum

Question
Liza, you’ve shared that your early fascination with acting and a love of the theater have informed your writing. How do you apply your knowledge of theater to the writing you do? How can other writers make use of this?

Answer
Since I was very young, I loved making up stories and acting them out. As a child, my friend Sally and I dressed up in my grandmother’s cast-off dresses from the Roaring Twenties. Playing in the shade of the elm tree, at my grandmother’s house in Vermont, we became Greek goddesses, queens and servants, and other invented characters. As teens, Sally and I hung out at the local summer theater, trying to help out (but probably getting in the way). I acted in plays in high school, attended theater school after graduation, and ran the drama program at a summer camp in my college summers. Though I didn’t continue acting, my experience with theater was incredibly helpful when I began to write fiction. In drama school, I learned to inhabit the characters that I played, both physically—down to their tics, their posture, their manner of walking, the timber of their voices—as well as emotionally. What were their fears, desires, foibles, needs, secrets? As actors, we needed to know everything about a character’s background, her family, her friends, and enemies—in short, everything a writer needs to think about when creating characters for her novels.

When I taught with Kelly Easton, who is both a playwright and novelist, I realized how important it was for our students to read plays and/or attend theater performances. Watching or reading a play can help the novelist understand the structure of scenes, and the scene’s forward momentum is often more sharply defined in a play than in a novel. I have always thought of dialogue as the spine of a story; the source of a story’s energy as well as its backbone—so reading plays is an excellent way for the writer to hone her skills with dialogue. It also attunes the writer to the sounds of the words on the page. Because young readers also enjoy live theater, I thought it would liven up their reading experience to add three scenes, written in play form, to The Life Fantastic, so that they could take on the roles of my characters and interpret them themselves. 

I’m lucky to live in a region where I have access to excellent major theater productions, but summer stock, university theaters, and smaller neighborhood productions also provide inspiration for fiction writers—so buy a ticket and enjoy!

Summer Stock theater, this one in New Hampshire


Q&A with Liza K, part 3

What propelled you to write a story based in show business?

Vaudeville has fascinated me since I was little girl. That’s when my father told me the romantic story about my great-grandparents, who eloped and ran away to join a traveling theater troupe. My great-grandmother was a singer and pianist, and her husband played the fiddle. The couple’s elopement—and their divorce later on—caused a scandal in the small town of Shreve, Ohio, where my great-grandmother grew up. Because some people considered vaudeville as “one step up from burlesque,” my grandmother was ashamed of her history. She refused to answer my questions about her parents and their stage careers.

I have always loved live theater, and once considered becoming an actor. In high school I acted in plays and I spent the summer before college studying acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Though I didn’t pursue a stage career, that summer taught me invaluable lessons about creating characters.

Interior of the Tabor Opera House today. For more about this theater, visit taboroperahouse.net.

Many years later, I visited the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado, a restored and spectacular vaudeville theater. As I walked down the silent aisle between rows of plush seats, I thought about my great-grandparents and their story, which had never been told. Though the characters in The Life Fantastic are invented, and though it takes place in a different time and place, my great-grandparents’ adventure in the theater inspired me to write the novel.



The Life Fantastic, Question Three

Canary in a cageLiza, how did a dead canary inspire you to write this novel?

Vaudeville has fascinated me since I was a small child. That’s when my father told me the romantic story about my great-grandmother, Carrie Lebo. She stole away from home in the night to elope with a vaudeville musician, leaving her pet canary behind. The family found the bird dead in its cage the next morning and declared it a bad omen. 

William Patton, Carrie’s sweetheart, was a charming red-headed violinist. Carrie had a lovely voice and played the piano. The couple sang and played with a vaudeville troupe that moved from town to town, performing in small theatres. They had two children: a son; and my paternal grandmother, Thelma June. 

The couple’s elopement created a scandal in the small town of Shreve, Ohio, as did their divorce a few years later. Growing up, I often asked my grandmother about her parents. She told me that Carrie loved to sing, and that she was a skilled seamstress and music teacher. Although my grandmother had inherited her parents’ love of music (she also played piano), she refused to speak about her father, except to mention his red hair, and the fact that he seldom visited. Sadly, she was ashamed of her parents’ history.

For my grandfather George Ketchum, who started working when he was eleven, vaudeville was the only entertainment he could afford on his meager earnings. From the time I was four or five, Grandpa and I sang vaudeville songs together. He taught me silly, off-color tunes such as “Everybody works but Father, he sits around all day,” (here’s Groucho Marx singing it) and “There lay Brown, upside down, lapping up the whiskey off the floor.” Grandpa described what it was like to sit in the cheapest gallery seats, high above the stage, enjoying the shows with a rowdy audience.

From the National Trust for Historical Preservation, credit: Huw Webber

Thanks to my grandparents’ stories, I wondered: what was life like for vaudeville performers of all ages and backgrounds? One summer, while driving across the country, I stopped in the town of Leadville, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and visited the Tabor Opera House, which has been restored to its former grandeur. As my footsteps echoed in the quiet aisles, I looked up at the empty stage, with its beautiful forest backdrop, and tried to imagine the theatre packed with miners and other residents who were grateful for entertainment in their remote mining town. Since my grandmother couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell her parents’ story, I decided to invent one myself.



The Life Fantastic, Question Two

Liza, why are you so interested in theater?

Ever since I was young, I have loved theater, music, and dance. The arts were an essential part of our family life, growing up. Music was always playing on our living room turntable, and our parents sang in the car with us on long drives. When our Nashville cousins came for summer visits, with their guitars, ukuleles, and their wonderful collection of songs, we sang for hours. 

My brother and I made up stories about our stuffed animals when we were young, and my friends and I invented characters and put on small plays. With the Ransom family—six boys whose mother loved theater—we put on plays (such as “Winnie-the-Pooh”) and played charades late into the night. I also liked dance, as this picture shows. I have no memory of the story behind it, but I recognize the dance studio in Vermont, where I spent childhood summers. I must have been about seven. 

Liza Ketchum dancing in Vermont

Here I am, dancing in Vermont. I’m the dancer on the left.

In "Ghost Train," I'm the actress seated on the chair.

In “Ghost Train,” I’m the actress seated on the chair.

In Junior High, I sang the lead of Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” (Gilbert and Sullivan), and in high school, I performed in the melodramatic play, “Ghost Train.”  (My most vivid and embarrassing memory of that performance was hearing my father’s laugh ring out from the front row of the audience. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized the play was a farce.) During my senior year, I was head of the Drama Club and often went to see theater in Boston, some of it experimental. I had a minor role in Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” probably the most difficult role I would ever play—because I was onstage for the entire play, but only had four lines. I had to act without speaking.

After high school, I attended The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City for a summer, and there I was introduced to Method Acting. In a funny way, that eight-week course—where I had to improvise and inhabit roles of people totally different from myself —was excellent training for writing novels. Just as in fiction, I had to imagine what it would be like to inhabit the body, mind, and emotions of another person. I had to invent that person’s history, family, and experience—not easy for a young adult who didn’t know much about the wider world. (Just out of high school, my fellow students were all adults working day jobs while trying to break into the theater.)

I was a camp drama coach for three summers, but by the end of my first year in college, where I took a terrific writing class, I knew I would become a writer. I’ve never lost my love for live theater and I’m lucky to live just outside Boston, a first-class theater city.



A fascination with theater, dance, and storytelling

Many years ago, a little girl was born in Vermont. As she grew, she loved to make up stories and act them out. She enjoyed singing, dancing, and dressing up as the characters from the stories that she and her friends created. They might be royalty in the Middle Ages, or Greek goddesses, or Vermont farmers, or female versions of the characters in The Little Rascals. Like her mother—a professional dancer—the girl liked to tell a story through movement and music.

Liza Ketchum dancing in Vermont

That’s me on the far left. I have no memory of what the dance was.

In "Ghost Train," I'm the actress seated on the chair.

In “Ghost Train,” I’m the actress seated on the chair.

In Junior High, the girl’s dramatic play turned serious. She sang the role of Mabel in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance,” and performed in neighborhood plays. In high school, she had the lead in an old-fashioned melodrama (“Ghost Train”) and was president of the Drama Club. She went to theater school in New York City after high school, coached kids in drama during her college summers, and dreamed of a life onstage.

Instead—and happily—she became a writer.

How does this story relate to a novel about vaudeville, which takes place more than a century ago—when stars like Eva Tanguay, George Walker, and Bert Williams were all the rage?

Follow my blog to find out! I’ll be sharing information about the history of vaudeville, the suffrage movement, and the fight for racial and gender equality over the coming months.

Learn more about my newest book, The Life Fantastic.

Eva Tanguary, George Walker, Bert Williams

At left, Eva Tanguay, vaudeville performer. (Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Eva Tanguay” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 5, 2016.) On the right, George Walker and Bert Williams, vaudeville performers and theater producers (public domain).