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Gwen Orel and Elaine Molinaro discuss lights, at a technical rehearsal for the Montclair Arts Festival. COURTESY NEIL GRABOWSKY

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

When I interview artists, which I do nearly every week, I like to offer experiences of my own.

It relaxes people, and makes them forget that they’re being interviewed and that I’m quietly going down a list of questions in my mind.

So Steven Wright knows that I play the fiddle. Iris DeMent knows I spent a year in Prague.

When I asked David Chan, conductor of the Montclair Orchestra, if it was hard to conduct and also perform as a soloist, he said, “Um, yeah!”

I said that I knew it was hard to be creative and administrative at the same time: I forgot to even send an email to my family and friends about the two plays of mine that had staged readings at the Montclair Arts Festival the week before it took place in November.

That’s true, actually.

At the Montclair Arts Festival, which ran for four days at the end of November and beginning of December, visual artists, musicians, playwrights, actors and dancers mingled and saw one another’s work. Lots of us also have day jobs.

Montclair is an artsy town. With a film festival, an orchestra, a literary festival, an art museum and striking distance to the city, Montclair is a place where people who make and love art can easily find one another.

I’m fudging when I write “lots of us have day jobs.” It’s just not true that I’ve been an artist all along. I’ve been a critic who writes about art. That’s kind of like art, but it’s not the same. It’s like a musician who works in marketing for a music company.

Oscar Wilde wrote a wonderful essay titled “The Critic as Artist,” in which he argues that writing good criticism is an art all its own.

To critique anything well you have to know it well, and writing an elegant essay is an art. Sports writers know and love sports. Food writers know and love food. And the people who read these things read them as writing as much as they do as news.

Wilde is more known for his plays, of course, than for his elegant and witty essays.  Playwright Tom Stoppard worked briefly as a critic, too.

He once said, “I never had the character to pan a friend.” Then he rephrased: “I had the character never to pan a friend.”

Coming back to art has given me empathy that isn’t a strategy. Art is hard. And worth it. When I write about art, I can affect those artists, and the readers.

But artists like DeMent and Wright do something different. They don’t just have an effect; they create a moment. Great art can make you cry as well as smile.

Last year I left The Montclair Times and almost immediately my first love, theater, said “aha!’” and rang the bell.

First I got a call, out of the blue, from Eric Alter, to direct a piece at the Deron School’s Grove Street Theater.

Then my short play “Graveyard Shift” was accepted to the ThinkFast Festival in Maplewood.

Then I was invited to the National Winter Playwright Retreat in Creede, Colorado.

I’ve done a lot of theater: directing, stage managing (a member of Actors’ Equity, so up unions), teaching, working with playwrights as a dramaturg.

All these things have artistic elements to them. But writing plays and putting myself out there put me in the same boat as the artists I write about.

There’s a myth that an observer can’t participate. Sure, you usually shouldn’t write about the exact thing you’re doing, and if you do you need to disclose that.

But being involved not only helps you understand.

It changes the way you understand.

Author Joe Brown, Bobbi Brown’s father, worked as a lawyer all his life. Now that he writes children’s books he’s happier than he’s ever been. His books grew out of bedtime stories he told his children. Being a writer was always something at the back of his mind, but life took over. At 70, he found a new career, and now, he says, he’s a “rock star.” Discovering that many children at PS 135 in New York didn’t own their own books, he thought “Holy cow, that’s terrible,” and began giving books away. Sharing them, and encouraging imagination, is his way of giving back. Starting a new career later in life has even inspired others, he said.

For me, coming back to being a playwright was like having the sun come up in my toes.

There’s nothing like hearing an audience laugh at a joke you’ve created.

Daria Sullivan, center, makes her first confession in “Tashlich” by Gwen Orel, while Christine Rauschenback-Nevill and James Hartmann look on. COURTESY NEIL GRABOWSKY

When Daria Sullivan, in my play “Tashlich,” performing in the Montclair Arts Festival, calls the rabbi a “fish murderer,” people laugh. Every time. Part of that is her delivery, part is Elaine Molinaro’s direction. (Her company Culture Connection has hugely supported my work.) But part of it is me. We’re a team. Theater is my team sport. (So is Irish music, but that’s another essay).

Elaine directed four of my short plays in Culture Connection Theater’s Loft in an evening titled “The Jewish Plays.” During the Montclair Arts Festival, I got to set lights at tech, and set sound cues with my director, like the Real Writers there.

AlexaLynn Alessi performs in “Visiting Day,” by Gwen Orel. COURTESY NEIL GRABOWSKY

One of the things I loved when I went to a college reunion years ago was that my Stanford friends still think of me as “the playwright” (or the D.J.). In college, over five years, I had four short plays in the Ram’s Head Original Winter One-Acts. I chose actors. I went to rehearsals. Cried at the shock of hearing my own words.

I forgot how different it was to look at life as an artist.

I forgot that I am still that girl.You might think writing about the theater and writing for the theater are the same thing. They’re related, but different. It’s kind of like someone who plays an instrument who also works in marketing for a record company.

I’m not alone: Terry Teachout, drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is in Florida right now with his play “Billy and Me,” a play about the friendship of Tennessee Williams and William Inge.

Terry writes: “I don’t know whether being a practicing theater artist makes me a better critic, and that’s certainly not why I write plays.

“But it certainly makes me a more fulfilled person, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s sharpened my critical eye as well. I do know that I see stage direction in a more comprehending way as a result of my having done it myself.

“For me, though, what matters most is that I find playwriting and directing to be powerfully stimulating to the imagination—and endlessly refreshing to the soul. That can’t be a bad thing!”

And Montclair is full of artists who have day jobs

Montclairite Martin Golan, an editor, said in an email that he wrote his last novel “largely on the DeCamp bus to the city, and during lunch and breaks in the Reuters cafeteria.” Many journalists told him they had books inside them, Golan wrote. His creative side informed the journalist, and vice versa: working on deadline didn’t always “cover” something in his mind, so he’d write a poem about it.

St. James Players’ Jamie Pagliaro runs a tech company by day in New York, but writes that working with St. James Players on the last seven productions has rekindled his love for the theater so much he even started a Renaissance rock band (BARD). But, he writes, “I still gotta pay the mortgage.”

It’s not as if over the years I didn’t participate in making art at all: I play Irish fiddle, as well as write about Irish music and culture for my site New York Irish Arts.

But Martin is onto something.

When I went to the National Playwright Retreat in Colorado, coming so soon after my play “Graveyard Shift” in Maplewood, I began imagining bits of dialogue. I hadn’t done that in years.

Being immersed in that side of things made me see things differently.

Last year, when Elaine directed my play “Graveyard Shift” at ThinkFast, I heard people around me crying as they looked at the body of an old man alone in a hospital room.

My play didn’t win the audience or the judges’ competition.

But when the winner was announced, a woman near me said loudly, “Not the hospital play?”

That’s a win.

Are you an artist with a day job? Have you come back to art after a long time? How does it make you see things differently? Drop us a line at orel@montclairlocal.news; we’ll create a list. We all need to know one another.  

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