UW News

July 19, 2007

Prof’s play is ‘First Class’ look at Roethke

Professors may sometimes see their classes as a kind of theater, but it isn’t often that a University class is portrayed onstage at a real theater. That’s what will be happening at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle, when First Class debuts next week. Written by UW Professor Emeritus David Wagoner, the play is about famed poet Theodore Roethke, who taught at the UW from 1947 until his death in 1963.

“I’ve tried to re-create the atmosphere at one of Roethke’s poetry workshops,” Wagoner said of the play.

He’s in a position to know something about that, because he took one of Roethke’s poetry seminars as a senior at Penn State, and the experience had a profound effect on his life. “I’d been writing poetry since I was 10 years old, but after two weeks in his class, I thought that if everything he said was right, then everything I’d written was terrible,” Wagoner said. “Fortunately, I decided that what he said was right.”

Roethke, Wagoner explained, placed a great emphasis on revision, something he hadn’t bothered to think about up until then. “It hadn’t dawned on me that you could improve on your first attempt,” he said.

But more than that, Roethke became a role model because he was the first living poet that Wagoner had ever known. Thanks to his professor, Wagoner said, he understood for the first time that he could teach and be a poet, and not just write poetry as an avocation. He headed off to graduate school and was later hired to teach in the then-new UW Creative Writing Program in 1954, thanks to a good word from Roethke.

Wagoner remained Roethke’s close friend and colleague until his death, and in 1972 he published a book, Straw for the Fire, based on the notebooks that Roethke left behind (his papers are in the UW Libraries).

The play was a lot longer in coming. Wagoner has published numerous volumes of poetry, and novels as well, but despite a long-standing interest in theater, he hasn’t been as successful as a playwright. Some years ago, he said, he was one of 10 writers supported by the Ford Foundation to write plays.

“I did my best but it wasn’t good enough,” he said. “First Class is my first play to be professionally produced.”

Wagoner gave the script a few years ago to his friend Kurt Beattie, now the artistic director at ACT, who was then at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Beattie, who has taken poetry workshops with Wagoner and is an “avid reader and lover of poetry,” found the play intriguing. Thanks to a grant from local arts patron Bagley Wright, he workshopped it at the Rep, with well-known local actor and UW School of Drama alum John Aylward playing Roethke.

In a workshop, Beattie explained, actor, director and playwright spend a couple of weeks exploring a script, revising as they go along. Then the play is presented as a staged reading to an invited audience. The workshop audience liked what they saw, so Wagoner went about making further revisions, and in the meantime Beattie moved to ACT. Now the two are once again collaborating with Aylward, this time on a full production.

First Class is a one-character play. For much of its running time, the audience is in class with Roethke. “It’s a conversation between him and the audience. You’re not looking through the fourth wall,” Beattie said.

He never considered anyone but Aylward for the role, and not because of a physical resemblance to Roethke. “This isn’t mimicry,” Beattie said. “John is an actor with classical training, the kind who can do verse. He’s also wonderfully intuitive and very funny.”

Wagoner agrees. “Even if the play’s no good, Aylward thoroughly embodies Roethke. He doesn’t look like him really, but when he’s performing, I’ve just been flabbergasted. I’m haunted by the resemblance.”

One thing the play doesn’t include is Roethke’s verse. That’s partly because of the difficulty of obtaining the rights. But Beattie said it’s also because they didn’t want to turn the play into a poetry reading. Aylward as Roethke does spout a fair amount of verse, but it’s verse written by other poets — the poets that Roethke admired and quoted to his students.

The play also portrays Roethke as the deeply troubled person he was. The poet suffered from bipolar disorder, and when he was manic, he would call people like the University president, the mayor of Seattle or the governor, and try to give them advice. However, Wagoner writes in the play’s introduction that Roethke “never put his students in danger, and as far as I’ve been able to find out, they never felt afraid of him.”

On the contrary, he was a mentor to many. “He was genuinely glad, even joyful, when one of his students wrote a good poem, and he showed no trace of jealousy or rivalry,” Wagoner wrote.

Beattie thinks the audience at First Class will be able to share vicariously in the inspiration Roethke offered his students. “I hope the play leads people to a rediscovery of their own potentialities,” he said. “There’s a simple problem that we all have. We look but we don’t see. We go around with our own concerns and there are mysteries and beauties that we don’t see. Roethke used to tell students that the purpose of class is to get to know yourself — and all that you are.”

First Class can be seen in previews July 27-Aug. 1 and during its regular run Aug. 2-26. For ticket information call 206-292-7676 or go to www.acttheatre.org.