Thursday, October 2, 2008

Just a Conversation: Linda Escalera Baggs

Linda Escalera Baggs, who has a residence in Jacksonville, has decided to come further South to present her work, Silent Heroes; now getting a premiere from the Womens' Theatre Project this weekend.

Silent Heroes is set in 1975, where Marine wives are waiting the fate of their husbands after a plane crash. Baggs' piece examines the code on which the military and their families stood for and how they adhered to it.

We spoke to her in an effort to understand how and why Silent Heroes is relevant today.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up on bases up and down the East Coast: Cherry Point, NC; Vienna, VA; Newport, RI; Beaufort, SC.

What made you decide to become a playwright?

I spent 18 years as an advertising copywriter. A lot of my fellow writers worked on some other kind of writing - short stories, freelance magazine work, the Great American novel, even travel writing. Nothing worked for me - all I ever wrote was dialog. Then one day I heard a funny story that shaped itself into a play in my head, and my first play - a one act called Who's Margaret? - was born. Two minutes into the first reading of the play, I heard the audience laugh, and I quit advertising to concentrate on playwrighting fulltime.

Where did the inspiration of Silent Heroes come from?

Three things collided.

One day I ran into two actress friends who were just leaving an audition. They were up for the same part - as usual - and told me I needed to write a play that had roles for several strong women in the same age range.

A week or so later, my dear friend Evan Robinson - a now retired Navy career man - told me a story from his past about a fatal crash on an aircraft carrier that happened while his Air Wing was conducting exercises. Somehow the wives found out and, in an attempt to discover who was not coming home, they gathered at the base as the planes returned. Evan's story ended there, but the women took up residence in my head and refused to leave until I told their story.

These women shaped my life. They were real. They were my mother, my mother's friends and my friends' mothers. And they had a story that had seldom been told - a story of sacrifices made for this country that most people don't understand or in fact even know about.

That's when I began writing a play that is very autobiographical, has roles for women and is based on a true story.

Do you feel that this play is relevant now due to the current issues of war?

Absolutely. In fact, I changed the ending of the play when my nephew (yes, a Marine!) went to Iraq for his first tour of duty. (And no, I won't tell you what happens, you have to come see the play.)

Regardless of your feelings about Iraq and Afghanistan, our troops - and their families - deserve our support and gratitude. For me, one of the most important ideas in the play is something Miranda says near the end. "And I realized he was just doing what he was supposed to do. We shouldn't have been in Vietnam, you'll never convince me otherwise. But it was the war that was wrong, not the warriors." I also think it's important to remember that this is an all-volunteer military - every one of our troops chose to serve.

Quite a few audience members have commented on how the play has affected them and their views of war. I have had Vietnam protesters tell me this play was cathartic. A special ops soldier told me it changed his understanding of what his family went through when he was deployed. The former commander of a Marine base said it was the most powerful treatment of the American flag he had ever seen. The widow of a Marine killed on Iwo Jima thanked me for telling her story. Wives of a Navy squadron deployed in Iraq wept through the play. In one production, an actress wore the dog tags of the director's father who had been a Vietnam POW. In another, three of the wives were played by military personnel who both brought to and took away from the production a different perspective. On the other hand, an Asian man noisely left during a performance, and a retired Marine fighter pilot let me know in no uncertain terms how deeply the play offended him.

Another interesting part of Silent Heroes is the timing of the play. I submitted it for the first time on September 10, 2001, and I was worried that it was too patriotic for our cynical times. The next day it wasn't. The day of the first rehearsal for the first staged reading was the day our Marines invaded Afghanistan. So the developmental stage of this play was in the early days of another war that has divided the sentiments of our country.

What is your opinion on the state of American Theatre?

It is very mixed. It disappoints me when I see revivals on Broadway with so many new, fabulous plays out there. I get nervous when I see a lack of enthusiasm from younger potential patrons. On the other hand, I am excited by the number of small theatres doing great work - new work - and attracting full houses. Last weekend I saw The Merchant of Venice with one of the most eclectic and age-diverse audiences I have ever seen.

Theatre is vital to our society. It is a way to explore our culture. Unlike a movie which is produced and never changes, a play is different with each performance and each production as new actors breathe life into the characters, as the changes in our society - or even changes in a location - affect the way a play is produced and perceived.

Do you have any inspirations in writing; If so, who are they?

Four writers come to mind - each for me has a beautiful, simple and clear style that says so much. They are the ones I read and think "I wish I had thought of that. I wish I had written that."

Neil Simon has created a huge body of work that for me tells the story of life - funny and touching laced with moments of triumph and sadness.

JK Rowling has created a world that truly exists for me.

Richard Bach gives me a unique look at life.

Thich Nhat Hanh has in many ways redefined my spiritually.

Do you have any personal inspirations? If so, who are they?

My mom for one - she is one of the strongest women I know and completely reinvented herself in her early 60s. She took up tennis at 68, learned to boogie board at 70, climbed a rock wall at 72 and went waterskiing for the last time at 73.

All of my friends inspire me in one way or another - that's why I keep them around! ; )

How do you feel about the Womens' Theatre Project and their mission to
present literature for and by female voices?

Women are under-represented in American Theatre, so I highly applaud a theatre that makes a point to tell women's stories in women's voice with roles for women. (And if anyone wants to claim discrimination, I'd tell them it's payback for the World Premieres of all of Shakespeare's plays!) That's not to say women can't write male characters and men can't write female characters (just read Steel Magnolias for confirmation) but I do think that in general we approach life from different perspectives. I am a character in every play I have ever written - me at different ages, sometimes my feminine side and sometimes my masculine side - but always present so in that respect being a women naturally affects my writing.

What is your next project?

My first full-length was a drama. The second a comedy. The third - which I am just beginning to workshop - is a farce. I have several other projects in the works. And, for the first time, I am exploring a collaborative work. When I sit down to write, I work on the play that speaks to me most at that moment. Before too long, one will emerge as the next thing that will receive my undivided attention.

Ms. Baggs will also be in town, so audiences can get to speak to her after performances. Silent Heroes will be performed from October 2 - 26 at Sixthstar Studios in Fort Lauderdale. For more information, please call 954-462-2334 or online at

Ms. Baggs' information can be found online at

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