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Letting Go, With 'Peace'

Champion for new plays Suzan Zeder closes her career at UT with a new drama of her own

By Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 1, 2013

Suzan Zeder (center) works with actors Robert Schleifer and Alexis Scott on <i>The Edge of Peace</i>.
Suzan Zeder (center) works with actors Robert Schleifer and Alexis Scott on The Edge of Peace.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Peace of a kind will soon be coming to the halls of the Winship Drama Building on the University of Texas campus.

Oh, they'll still be abuzz with students learning the art and craft of the stage, but after this semester, they will no longer know the purposeful stride, the speedy step, the whirlwind scratch of pen to pad, the resolute rustle of notes and agendas, the electric encouragement and crackling insight of Suzan Zeder. The noted playwright and teacher of playwrights is retiring, leaving the UT Department of Theatre & Dance without the closest thing it has to a perpetual motion machine.

"The problem with Suzan is that she's moving at 150,000 mile per hour all the time, making 1,700 things happen at once," says Sherry Kramer, a visiting playwright who regularly teaches with Zeder at the Michener Center for Writers. At that speed, Kramer teases, poor mortals can hear only "the hum of her relentless profligate activity." Kirk Lynn, the Rude Mechanicals' resident playwright who recently succeeded Zeder as head of the department's playwriting program, says that she "comes in like a house on fire to every meeting. Her agendas have agendas; her plans have plans. It is fun and fast and funny," but, he warns, "you do not want to show up without a cup of coffee."

Virtually everyone who knows Zeder feels compelled to remark on the seemingly boundless energy that propels her through an unending gauntlet of classes, rehearsals, plays to read and grade, applications, recommendation letters, emails, phone calls, and committee meetings. It's a drive so exceptional that it strikes many as elemental. "She is fire and wind and electricity," wrote Wendy Babel, an MFA graduate in 2009, in a tribute on the department website. "Everything she turns her gaze upon seemed to become more present, more vibrant, more alive." "Suzan is a force of nature and a force of nurture. She always says yes and makes it happen for her students," adds Denise Martel, who taught stage management at UT from 2005-2012, during which time she co-produced three of the Cohen New Works Festivals with Zeder. Calling her "the wild heart and true spirit" of that festival, which she masterminded as a tribute to her colleague David Mark Cohen, the head of playwriting before his tragic death in a 1997 auto accident, Lynn says, "Suzan has broken rules, cut corners, and wrestled with bureaucratic angels, all in the name of celebrating student work."

Indeed, you won't find a force more vital and persistent for student plays – or new plays, period – than Zeder. Through her many years heading the playwriting program, working with writers in both Theatre & Dance and the Michener Center, and running the New Works Festival, giving students throughout the department the opportunity to create and present original work, Zeder has midwifed enough plays to fill the stages of a hundred theatres. And she never bypassed a chance to coax another one into the world, especially one for the same audience that Zeder famously writes for: young people.

"Beware the student playwright who says, in passing, 'I've never written a play for young audiences, but I'm toying around with an idea for one,'" says faculty member and playwright Steven Dietz. "I can promise you that this sentence, uttered within 20 feet of Suzan Zeder, will not only result in a play, but with Suzan's remarkable guidance and encouragement, will likely result in a play that will garner awards and acclaim and change the trajectory of that writer's career. The answer to hundreds of questions about the success of 20 years of UT writers is this: Suzan Zeder."

Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Nell Hicks and Robert Schleifer as Tuc in <i>The Edge of Peace</i>
Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Nell Hicks and Robert Schleifer as Tuc in The Edge of Peace
Courtesy of Josh Rasmussen/UT Austin

So you can see it'll be a whole new kind of quiet in the Winship when she leaves.

But before that peace, the department will see another "peace": The Edge of Peace, a new play by none other than Suzan Zeder. It's fitting that someone who, for two decades, has devoted so much time and – you can't help but say it – energy to helping others get their plays onto the page and then onto the stage should be able to draw the curtain on her time here with the premiere of a new play of her own.

And it's doubly fitting in that the pioneering playwright of Wiley and the Hairy Man, Step on a Crack, Doors, Time Again in Oz, and The Death and Life of Sherlock Holmes also draws to a close the story of characters she's been writing about for 30 years. The Edge of Peace features characters from Mother Hicks, Zeder's most produced and acclaimed play, a tale of outcasts in a small town in Illinois during the Great Depression. Zeder says she didn't plan to write a trilogy but has "always felt that the plays came from somewhere, passed through me on their way somewhere else, and that it has been my job to follow them." After the strong response to Mother Hicks, particularly for the character of Tuc, who is deaf, Zeder wrote him a play of his own. The Taste of Sunrise, set 13 years before Mother Hicks, shows Tuc in the State School for the Deaf, where he learns sign, "the language of his soul," Zeder says. "In this play, the characters revealed their backstories to me, how they came to be who they became in Mother Hicks. I learned how the townspeople came to suspect and fear Mother Hicks. I learned how Tuc found an almost spiritual connection to the land and the world around him. I learned the 'secret' of Girl's mother. By filling in the past, these characters became tangible and real. But there were many mysteries left at the end of both Mother Hicks and The Taste of Sunrise. So that's why I wanted to write The Edge of Peace."

The third play brings the characters a decade past the time of Mother Hicks into World War II, with families on the homefront anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones at war. While the boy Buddy wrestles with the implications of his older brother being missing in action, Tuc, who has found a place in the community as a mechanic and postman, faces the choice of staying in this hearing community or moving to a deaf community. "The juxtaposition of opportunity and heartbreak, of optimism and fear, quite literally of life and death, seemed the perfect crucible for these characters to tell me what happened next," says Zeder.

"Each of these plays captures the pulse of a period of American history, Mother Hicks the 1930s, The Taste of Sunrise the Roaring Twenties, and The Edge of Peace World War II. Each is set in the same small town – a real place, Ware, Ill. – and each has a child at the center. Through the eyes of these child characters – Girl in Mother Hicks, Tuc in The Taste of Sunrise, and now Buddy in The Edge of Peace – we can see a complicated time with humor and the refreshing insight of a young person's perspective.

"The child characters in all three plays have remarkable courage and resiliency, often more than the adults. I have built a career out of writing strong young characters. But in this play, I think my adult characters are finally up to the level of my kids. These adults are individuals; they have humor and strengths and failings and vulnerabilities. I know these characters so well because they have lived with me for over 30 years as I have grown as a writer and as a person. I could not have written The Edge of Peace 30 years ago. I hadn't lived long enough. I had never lost a loved one. I had never faced a potentially fatal illness. I had never faced great grief or greater joy. But now I have, and so have they. We have grown up and grown older together.

"Perhaps the biggest surprise [of the play] for me is something I have just realized. The decision that Tuc faces is whether to leave the town he has loved and changed to join a deaf community 500 miles away. This is particularly resonant for me as I prepare to leave this community in Austin and at UT that I have loved for more than 20 years. I don't say that I am 'retiring' from UT; after 22 years, I am 'graduating.' The Edge of Peace is a play about home: staying home, coming home, and leaving home. It is also about 'letting go' of things one at a time, which is just what I am doing now."


The Edge of Peace runs Feb. 1-10; Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2pm; in the B. Iden Payne Theatre, 200 E. 23rd St., UT campus. For more information, call 471-1444 or visit www.jointhedrama.com.

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