Sometimes it’s hard to get a playwright to step in front of the curtain. With 3rd-year MFA Bruce Walsh, it’s nigh impossible. Yet as he nears the end of his time here at IU, he felt compelled to write this letter to our Theatre Circle members, whose ongoing support makes new works like this year’s At First Sight production of Prospect Hill possible.
With this letter, my hope is that I can convince you to attend my new play, Prospect Hill, which takes place in our beloved Bloomington, Indiana, and opens on March 24th, in the Wells-Metz Theatre.
Over the last three years, it has been my great honor to develop my craft in your community, to have a son born at Bloomington Hospital, and to be challenged intellectually and spiritually at Indiana University. My wife and I will always have Bloomington in our hearts, no matter where we wind up.
In a way, Prospect Hill is my love letter to Bloomington, tinged with both sadness and joy, as any good love letter should be. It is about three Bloomingtonians brought together: a working-class kid struggling with addiction, and a progressive, perhaps overly intellectual couple trying to save their marriage. These are faces of Bloomington each of us recognizes, and maybe even embodies.
Long before I came to Bloomington, I was an interloper on both sides of that divide.
Before arriving here, I was a struggling playwright and freelance writer in Philadelphia – and about the worst waiter in the city. I scrambled from job to job, lived without health insurance, became a Teamster briefly, tried to save, failed, and generally lived from check-to-check, beer-to-beer, on the edge of eviction.
But since I was a local playwright, and grew up with certain middle-class privileges, I occasionally found myself on the other side of the tracks, rubbing elbows with non-profit donors and garnering unimaginable artistic opportunities (like this one). When I was hiking the Appalachian trail, I delighted in discovering the little state boundary markers in the middle of the forest. I’d stretch my body on both sides; it seemed an apt metaphor for where I landed in American life, straddling both sides of an invisible divide.
There was a honeymoon phase when I came to Indiana University. Bloomington seemed to be a safe harbor from those stresses – a place where I could passionately study my craft on a bucolic campus. But, of course, a honeymoon is not meant to last. I soon recognized that, as I’m sure you know, Bloomington, for all its splendor, is also a place of glaring economic disparity. It is home to an epidemic of homelessness, food insecurity, and opioid addiction.
In America, it seems, there is no running from the great divide.
My last year in Philadelphia, I volunteered at a free meal program. I think now I subconsciously wanted to save myself by helping others just slightly on the other side of the edge I was living on. I decided to do the same in Bloomington. I volunteered at the Community Kitchen and the Interfaith Winter Shelter at Trinity Episcopal Church.
That is where this play began:
On a cold night at the Winter Shelter, there are usually some late arrivals in the wee hours. One senses, at a certain point, the temperature drops to a place where the body just will not allow the mind to “tough it out” any longer. These people enter the church tired, cold, sometimes strung out. They arrive knowing that they, on this night, couldn’t do it alone. They surrender their belongings; they raise their arms to be patted down for weapons and drugs. They are received, but can take nothing with them.
I think we all come to this moment in our lives, eventually, if we’re lucky. Perhaps the details are different, but the call to surrender is the same. It is a very un-American sentiment at the moment, but each of us, I believe, are built to come to the edge of our own resources, through an addiction, a financial or physical hardship, the end of a marriage, empty success, or any of the myriad ways life has of pushing us beyond ourselves.
This is the surrender these characters are discovering for themselves in this play. It is a universal surrender that is sometimes felt most acutely in our hometown. These characters walk our streets, shop at the Kroger, try to keep their lives from unraveling, see the sun set over Kirkwood Avenue, and question their purpose, sometimes on a daily basis.
I think this is the neighborhood each of us are living in, if we’re honest.
I hope to see you at the play.
3rd Year MFA Playwright