Exhibit explores the life and works of Wendy Wasserstein

Monday, December 5, 2011 - 10:11

This was originally published in the December 2, 2011 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

By STEVE PFARRER
Staff Writer

When Wendy Wasserstein completed her studies at Mount Holyoke College In South Hadley in 1971, she was like any number of college graduates: unsure what to do next. Maybe she'd go to the London School of Economics, she wrote in a letter to an older sister, Sandra, or maybe she'd study mime in Paris, or go to graduate school to study theater.

"I only hope that I can remain perceptive and never be afraid of examining myself," she added in her letter.

Wasserstein certainly held true to that last statement. Before her death from lymphoma at age 55 in early 2006, Wasserstein mined her life's experience and that of her friends for the material that made her a popular and successful playwright. Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards for "The Heidi Chronicles" in 1989.

Now one of Mount Holyoke's most famous graduates is getting the star treatment at her alma mater, as the college opens a year-long celebration of Wasserstein's life and career. Along with a series of events, including a staging next spring of her first widely successful play, "Uncommon Women and Others," Mount Holyoke is recognizing her achievements with an exhibit at the college art museum, "The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein."

The exhibit, which runs through April 13, 2012, is built around Wasserstein's papers—original drafts of plays, letters, diaries, student materials—that the college acquired from her and her family beginning in 1991. The show also includes photographs from throughout her life, selected lines from her plays, with explanatory text, and a multimedia display of clips from TV interviews, performances of her plays and old home movies.

"Going through this material was such a great experience," said Jennifer King, director of Mount Holyoke's Archives and Special Collections Department. "There was so much to draw on. It was difficult choosing what to use in some cases."

Caroline White, the show's curator, said though she never met Wasserstein, "I feel like I've gotten to know her a bit now. There's a real personal side to her work."

The special collections department is the main sponsor of the exhibit; King says it's the first major exhibition for her department, and she hopes it will jump-start scholarly interest in Wasserstein and her papers. The theater department and other campus offices were also instrumental in creating the exhibit.

"This is something we began thinking about doing a couple years ago. We were just thinking about what an amazing collection this was and how we could make it more accessible to the public."

The show's opening has coincided with the release of the first biography on Wasserstein, "Wendy and the Lost Boys," by Judith Salamon, who came to Mount Holyoke in early November to talk about the book. She made considerable use of the Wasserstein papers during her research.

King says the exhibit is exposing a new generation of Mount Holyoke students to a writer who gave voice to the struggles of previous alumnae to reconcile career ambitions with society's expectations of them as wives and mothers.

"We see this as a great opportunity for our whole community to come together and celebrate her really unique life," King said.

Write what you know

Wasserstein, born to Polish immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1950, majored in history at Mount Holyoke and later studied writing at City College in New York before earning a master's degree in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama in New Haven, Conn., in 1976. One of her fellow students at Yale was Meryl Streep, who appeared in a televised version of "Uncommon Women and Others" in 1978. Other well-known actors who would perform in Wasserstein's plays included Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz, Joan Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Wasserstein based "Uncommon Women and Others" on her time at Mount Holyoke and the years immediately after she graduated. It was the first in a series of plays in which she would explore the conflicts many women of the Baby Boom generation experienced as they tried to balance a traditional search for love and romance with greater independence and intellectual pursuits. Her characters were usually intelligent, funny and successful but often plagued with self-doubt.

According to Salamon's biography, there was a noticeable divide between Wasserstein's public and private lives that reflected that very image. She was a popular figure in the theater world, with a gregarious but quirky personality; she'd sometimes show up at rehearsals in a nightgown or other unusual attire. Behind the scenes, though, her personal relationships were less successful. Her mother, Lola, nagged her about her weight and why she wasn't married. Wasserstein had a daughter, Lucy Jane, at age 48 but never revealed who the father was.

Regardless, she was a prolific writer, penning 11 published plays, three nonfiction books, a novel, numerous magazine essays and the screenplay for the 1998 film "The Object of My Affection," which starred Jennifer Aniston. The Mount Holyoke exhibit showcases the beginnings of much of that material: Wasserstein wrote her drafts by hand in spiral-bound notebooks, later adding typed manuscript pages, some of which have hand-lettered corrections.

King says that from an early age, Wasserstein showed a theatrical, creative side—"In some of her home movies, she's really a ham," she said with a laugh—and that at Mount Holyoke she began questioning the path it was assumed many students would follow: finding a husband.

As a senior at Mount Holyoke, for instance, Wasserstein put together a mock yearbook on what her classmates could expect in their last year of school, including a course called "Gracious Living," about home-entertaining etiquette. Wasserstein wrote, "I think Gracious Living is a cultural excess. When I get out of here, I'm never going to have dinner by candlelight in the wilderness with 38 girls ..."

White, the exhibit curator, says part of the challenge in mounting the show was finding a good way to display Wasserstein's inventiveness, which had a "3-D" aspect to it. "You can see [from her Mount Holyoke papers] that she'd begun to think about a lot of things in theatrical terms," she said. "When I started reading her old book reports and other papers, I thought 'I have to do this [exhibit].' "

The college is also celebrating Wasserstein for her service outside the theatrical world. She taught playwriting at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and founded a program called Open Doors to bring underprivileged schoolchildren to New York City plays. She also maintained ties with Mount Holyoke, returning to the school a number of times, including in 1990 to give the commencement address.

King says she hopes Wasserstein will be remembered for being the first solo female playwright to win a Tony Award, and for changing the image of women onstage. As her longtime friend and mentor Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater in New York City, said of her after her death, "In Wendy's plays women saw themselves portrayed in a way they hadn't been onstage before—wittily, intelligently and seriously at the same time. We take that for granted now, but it was not the case 25 years ago. She was a real pioneer."