When I was a kid, I had one wish: to have the power to become invisible to the world. Then I turned 50 and it happened for real.
It happens around the time waiters and salespeople start calling you ma’am. Your dentist is suddenly younger than you and he or she does that patronizing thing of addressing you as “young lady.” Annoying.
I’ve been a writer for an alternative weekly for years, for the past 15 as theater critic. It’s a great job that pays literally tens of dollars, but it’s an invisible one. You see shows, sitting alone in the dark, then alone with your laptop, typing reviews of people who’re in the spotlight.
I’ve reviewed more than 3,000 shows. Great ones, lousy ones. Way too many Hamlets and Steel Magnolias. And one night, sitting in a theater, I got an idea for a play.
Now in the past, when I was hustling to meet deadlines, I would get ideas and file them away with “Not now. I’ll get to that when I have time.” Ideas stayed in storage, like flat-pack IKEA furniture you never have time to assemble.
Idea for a novel: not now. How-to book: not now. Piece of chick-lit that could be a dandy movie starring Reese Witherspoon: not now.
Years of “not now” and “maybe later.”
Then in 2011, I attended Mike Dooley’s “Playing the Matrix” workshop in Dallas. He talked about not getting hung up in the “cursed hows.” He said to see a big goal as reality already in progress.
Something clicked. One of those “Not now” ideas – to write a one-woman play and perform it myself – suddenly became a “Why not?” I resolved to spend one year saying “Why not?” when I doubted myself, just to see what happened.
I sat down and wrote the play, a solo comedy titled Sweater Curse: A Yarn about Love. It’s about my love of knitting and an old wives’ tale that says knitting for one you love dooms the relationship. I wrote about unraveled sweaters and knotty romances with snippets of great lit’s knitters: Penelope in The Odyssey and Madame DeFarge from A Tale of Two Cities. Dialogue poured out, like downloading it from a creative source.
I’m single. Never married. No kids. In relationships, I’m not a “closer.” In life, I’m more of an expert knitter and writer with a keen sense of observation and a tendency to go for the laugh. My play uses all of it, plus references to Bette Davis movies in which she knits. I talk a lot in the play about how hard it is to date when you’re older: “At my age, we should just call it `carbon dating.’”
The script was done in four days. Every time I thought of stopping, I’d tell myself “Why not see where it goes?” When I got to “End of Play,” I knew I had something good.
That’s when another idea struck: Edinburgh Fringe. It’s the biggest theater festival in the world and it happens every August, drawing thousands of actors doing thousands of performances all over the Scottish capital.
I’d never been there but “Edinburgh Fringe” just flashed in front of me like “Some Pig” in Charlotte’s Web. “Why not?” I said, and started the process of getting Sweater Curse from my Texas living room to a stage in Scotland.
Let me shorthand the process: It took a year and a half. I had to raise nearly $20,000. At the time I finished the script, I had $700 in the bank. But when I called a community theater and asked if they would like a weekend tryout of my play on their stage, they said “Why not?” and shared box office receipts with me. When I offered to perform it at dinner parties and country club ladies’ luncheons, I’d hear “Why not?” and then be handed donations from strangers, sometimes hundred dollar bills and checks for even more. A friend gave me frequent flyer miles for airfare from Dallas to Edinburgh. “I’m not using them,” he said, “so why not?
The Universe was repeating my two new favorite words. The great writer and teacher Joseph Campbell said that the warrior’s approach “is to say ‘yes’ to life: say ‘yea’ to it all.” Yes, yes, yes and WHY NOT!
I arrived in Edinburgh on July 27, 2013, alone with two suitcases of costumes and props, including hundreds of the tiny crocheted hearts I planned to give to each audience member. Sweater Curse: A Yarn about Love opened August 1 at the beautiful Sweet Grassmarket Theatre. First day: five tickets sold. Second day: none. My lighting guy, a lovely Scot named Callum Mackie, suggested I perform just for him. You know, why not?
Third performance, a few more people. I didn’t know one of them was a major critic. The fourth day as I walked up to the theater, I noticed my poster had five stars glued on it. Five stars mean you’re a hit. The critic’s review was out and it read like I’d written it myself: “This is as good as it can be and for that, it’s worth a full house – of stars as well as people.”
For the rest of the run, the house was packed, often with knitters who brought wool and needles and knitted along. Older women told me I made them feel not invisible anymore. And get this – my favorite high school teacher, Ann McSpadden, who encouraged me to be a writer 40 years before, just happened to be in Edinburgh on vacation during the Fringe. Perfect.
I’m so glad I didn’t get hung up on the “cursed hows.” That I didn’t go with “not now,” but with “Why not?”
It all worked into my play. Because my show isn’t really about knitting. It’s about love and hope. It closes with a line about how we have to keep knitting no matter how many sweaters go unfinished and how many romances fray at the ends. Because love is lovely at any age and you have to say “Why not?” when love finds you. Love is, after all, what knits us all together.
My Year of Why Not – success at the Fringe, bookings in nine theaters and three more festivals – didn’t end in 2013. I called 2014 the Year of Why Not: The Sequel, with a return engagement and even bigger audiences at the Fringe that August. And 2015 has been the Why Not Jubilee, being asked back to the Fringe to teach workshops and invited to solo theater festivals into 2016.
My cloak of invisibility has worn off. This summer in Edinburgh, I was walking past a coffee shop and a young man came bounding toward me. “Hey, look!” he shouted. From his pocket he pulled one of the little crocheted hearts. He’d seen me in 2014 and still had that little heart in his jacket.
“Why did you keep it all this time?” I asked him. “It makes me happy,” he answered, and gave me a hug.