Why I Write “My Shows”

It’s been almost six decades of my writing original plays and adaptations for the theater.
You would think that when I wake up each day I wouldn’t be filled with joy, dread, anticipation, fear and that burning unquenched desire and need to work on “my shows”.
But I do.
They talk to me at the oddest times – the characters and the ideas and the situations that want to be a part of “my shows”.
They insist I pay attention to them.
Since I was a kid.
I guess as long as they don’t say, “Put on that armor, pick up that sword and save France, Joan!” I haven’t lost my mind.
Some days I just can’t heed their call.
Life doesn’t let that happen every day.
Some days I am acting or directing and their voices have to be silent because I am too absorbed in the words of other playwrights.
Other days are devoted to ACT of Communication – the extraordinary blending of theatre and the law I created in 1977 with Alan.
Still others are all about family – Alan, sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, mother, etc. etc. etc.
I’ve learned how to tell the voices in my head that I’ll be with them again soon.
And so I shall be.
But for this moment –
I take a pause.

What “My Shows” I Am Writing Right Now

I remember when I was in college my playwrighting professor said, “Write what you know.”
Then I didn’t think what I knew was that interesting.
Apparently he didn’t think what he knew was that interesting either since he was kicked out of academia for plagiarism.
I’ve done other things in the past, which I’ll get to later.
Now –
All I write is what I know.
Everything comes from the various byways and highways of my past and mashes together, talks and gets elevated to something that is “stage worthy”.
I got stuck a few years ago on something a painter told me, “Oh, I always have at least a couple of canvases I’m working on at the same time. Why would it be different for plays?”
Dang, if she hadn’t told me that I might still be insisting on perfectly completing one project before moving on with the next.
Well, I’m old enough to know that as Anne Lamott says, “Perfection Is The Oppressor”.
So I make sure I am always working on a few plays at the same time.
In various stages, of course.
First, I always am writing a brand new full length play – a first draft. That is the one that I work on in my playwrighting group with Trey Nichols. There is nothing like having a deadline of 10 brand new pages on Saturday to put my creative self on the front burner of a life that could get sucked into my glorious business and my fabulous family and my desperate need to stick the lines of someone else’s play in my ever-decreasing-memory-bank-shit-when-do-we-open-again brain in a heartbeat.
Oh, yeah.
When an opportunity to explore a 10 minute play for a festival pops up I let that be another “brand new” play that takes over my laptop for a bit.
Second, I always have a first rewrite going – a second draft.
Then there are the third drafts longing to be given one final polish before they are ready to be workshopped.
The ones ready to be workshopped that are demanding collaboration with a team.
The workshopped ones that want a further production.
There are others that have been produced and are now ready to be produced again in yet other theaters.
Finally there is the one or are the ones in production right now.
Let’s start there.

In April of 2017, my play Muse Me will be read as part of the Athena Cats New Works Festival. This one is a tribute to my sister, Laura Ellen James, who lived and died February 5, 1955. I wrote it for a birthday present for her 60th Birthday/Death Day. I have spent a lifetime of wondering “what if” she had lived and we had a relationship of living sisters rather than one that only exists in my heart and head. I miss her terribly – amazing for a relationship that no one but me knows exists. I changed up the facts just a bit – but the longing and essence and spirit are all there.

In May of 2017, my play Zero-Six-Two-Eight will be in the semi-finals of the Little Black Dress Ink National Female Playwrights Festival here in Los Angeles. The theme of the festival this year is “Hot Mess” and when it was announced I knew immediately I was going to write a monologue based on the work I did in 2016 with a man named Paul for ACT of Communication. Paul has a traumatic brain injury suffered when the refinery he was working on in Louisiana exploded. As I blogged for LBDI, Paul is one of the witnesses that scares the living daylights out of me because I am so scared that I could become him. I can’t imagine anything worse than having a totally together body and a brain that is a Hot Mess.

Ah, those plays waiting for production – Love Through The Cracks Of Time, Little Pink Lies, Finding Common Ground. They mount higher and higher. Can’t wait to collaborate with others on these!

I am currently working on a new full length called Willing Suspension Of Disbelief. Somehow three things I know better than anyone else collide here with ambition: theatre, law and tenure. Having a blast barreling through the first draft of this one.

Still more ideas come to me every day.

Thus it ever is.

Thus it ever will be I think until the day I die.

Or forget who the heck I am like my poor father did.


It all begins with him.

Thus it ever is.

Thus it ever will be I think until the day I die.

Or forget who the heck I am like my poor father did.


It all begins with him.

1957 to 1977

I didn’t come out of the womb a theater person April 3, 1952.

But I was born to a woman who did (and does) think I can do anything and a man who lived and breathed the theater. My father, his own dreams of a life as a theater professional skewered by the second world war chose the much less uncertain life of a theater academician in an English Department and community theater star.

I was born to act and couldn’t wait until the day would come when I could go to rehearsal with Daddy and be one in one of his plays.
He directed and he acted – and he wrote. One of his plays had even been produced at the Goodman in Chicago.

By the time I was five I was really tired of waiting around for that day to arrive. I walked down to Jessica’s house, knocked on her door, and said to her, “Our daddies are in the English department together. We should be friends.” And we were. And we still are.
The thing about Jessica was and is she is forever a bundle of creativity. Then she was six. A whole year older than I was. She started playing a song on the piano. I said, “What are the words?” She said, “I don’t know. I’m just making it up now.” I said, “I know what they are.”

And I did.

By the time I did get to act in one of Daddy’s shows when I was six Jessica and I had already written a show every Saturday for almost a whole year. Songs, dances, scenes – each one had two performances. One for my mother, one for hers.

And, of course, I was getting bigger and got bigger acting roles in Daddy’s shows and the shows of others. And writing with Jessica. Year after year after year – learning I could act in one show and write and produce another at the same time.

Then came Junior High and Mrs. Fox’s drama class filled the writing for the theater place in both our hearts and our grade point averages. It was the first time anyone said to us, “Write this. This assignment. This show…this scene…the one I am telling you to write.”

When I look back on this time as a playwright I see that it was the first time in my life I stopped writing “my shows” and started writing “other people’s shows” for the theater. As wonderful as Mrs. Fox was, she gave us the outside edges of the jig saw puzzles she wanted us to create.  Every single time.

And so I learned that I was brilliant at writing what other people needed and wanted me to write. Filling voids and gaps and ideas that were assigned by other people. Funny how getting praised by others for making their hopes, dreams and visions come true gently edged out “my shows” for a long period of time.

High School – who is going to write the frame for The Talent Show? Who else but me? My own original monologue sophomore year that got me all the way to regionals. Writing about nothing I knew anything about except that I could play the living daylights out of that character I created and blow everyone else out of the water. Which I pretty much did except for that kid from Wheaton Central – John Belushi. Oh, well.

By the time I was an acting major in college and ventured into taking that playwrighting class from the plagiarist  I was good at completing all assignments. All outside edges of the jigsaw puzzle. For some reason, “Complete this assignment I am giving you to write a specific play” and “write what you know” seemed at complete odds to me when he said it.

Fulfilling the assignment I could do – but coming up with something from inside me? Nah. I decided I wasn’t so good at that. I got an “A” so…I figured I got it right.

Then at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco omy playwrighting opened up in a new way.

We were to do a project for our master’s thesis starting in the fall of 1976. My father had named me for Katherine Anne Porter (“A name to dream on!”) and I really loved her work. I was especially drawn to Pale Horse, Pale Rider and many of her other autobiographical short stories and felt that there was a play in there somewhere. The late great Ed Hastings, my glorious mentor, said, “It seems to me that a lot of this could be done with two women.” I said, “Oh – and a man.” He said, “Sure.” The adaption flowed out of me purely and freely. Opening night of this three character dream play Ed said, “My God! That is brilliant! How did you do that?” I said, “You told me about the two women, all I needed to add was the man.”

He looked at me and said, “It is you. All you. Don’t think it was me for a minute.”

It was May of 1977.

Early Days of Free Association Theatre

We took my play, which I called Miranda and Alan’s one person show on Sholem Aleichem and started our own theater company with it – Free Association Theatre. We were dedicated to creating original plays and adaptations. We also wanted to find a new way of combining theater and education and created the program for lawyers now called ACT of Communication.

I now refer to this time as “when I was 25 years old and knew everything.”

We toured our shows. We played great spaces in San Francisco. I created a one-person show, too. I had become fascinated with the real life story of Beatrix Potter, the creator of the Peter Rabbit stories. A suppressed and oppressed woman/child who broke free and became her own person through her creativity. We ventured further and further out with our tours. We booked a whole summer season of our shows in a theater in the East Bay in the summer of 1978.

Of course…it turns out…I was pregnant with Jordan that whole summer. I was given the opportunity to adapt The Book Of Good Love for another company, La Corte Musicale. When the artistic director hired me she asked if I wanted to be paid up front or if I wanted a piece of the production. I asked what exactly it was. She said, “It is based on the piece of Spanish Classic literature written by a randy priest. We are going to play it at early music festivals and, of course, bars.” I decided that sounded insane. I opted to get my money up front. The show ran for 5 years eventually getting a grant from the NEH.

Baby Jordan was great. Loved to come to the theater. Loved to tour with Alan and me. When he was not yet two I booked a Spring tour  of The Beatrix Potter show out of state. It was fall when I booked that Spring tour. The Fall when I got pregnant with Nathan. Beatrix Potter not only never had a baby, she was a virgin during the time my play took place.

Spring tour in 1981, baby to be born in July in 1981. And I already knew it wasn’t like I was one of those women who didn’t “show” much. I was as big as the State of Rhode Island with both the boys…so I wrote yet another one woman show. An adaptation called “To Be Young, Gifted and Pregnant.”

That play was a real hit. When Alan and I packed up the kids and moved them and our theater company from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1982 I already had it booked into the late great Theater, Theatre. I played that show for years with a preggo pad, kids in tow…

Sometimes I wonder what happened to that brave young woman, not even 30, who thought she could conquer anything and do anything.

I miss her.

Some days I still am her.

The Museum Plays

We were still in San Francisco when Free Association Theatre started to be commissioned to write original plays and adaptations for museums.

From the 1970’s through the 1990’s I got to write all kinds of “plays for others” that were absolutely fascinating. For museums all over the country.

Some were aimed at children and were performed in small theaters in museums. Yet others were designed to educate and entertain while folks were waiting on line to see a popular exhibit. Yet others were three to five minute “encounters” with characters for young and old alike.

What didn’t I learn about everything from art to science? From animals to living history? All that and after writing the pieces I often got to direct them – sometimes using actors from the staff, sometimes local actors. Alan and I are still proud of the fact that we are the first company to create an Equity Contract for professional actors performing in museums.

There were so many, but if I have to pick my favorite it would have to be the Shark show. And not just because I can still tell you that there are 367 species of sharks and most of them are totally harmless. But I get ahead of myself…

The Monterey Bay Aquarium was going to have a Shark Exhibit for a whole summer. It was called “Sharks!” and everyone was really excited to come and see what the exclamation point was all about. Seven tanks (environments – don’t call them “tanks” in front of Aquarium professionals) of different species. Of course, in their zeal to make sure that the public learned the lesson that not all sharks are harmful to people the species chosen were going to basically sit on the bottom of the water and look like they were asleep. Or dead. Like all the time.

Instead of “Sharks!” the powers that be were afraid the public would rename the exhibit “Sh-yawn-arkz…..”

One of the curators came up with a great idea – putting a screen next to each environment. Coming into and stepping out of each screen would be a tour group. Sometimes all together. Sometimes two at a time…one at a time…who would stare at the sharks and talk to one another about them.

I got it immediately – the characters in the group came alive and the first thing I envisioned was a little old lady staring at a shark asleep at the bottom of the water for a few moments. A kid comes up behind her and she says, “Cover your eyes, son. That shark is DEAD.” Of course the kids knows better than the little old lady and tells her just a few things about the shark. She says, “Huh. Well he still looks dead to me.” She moves off and the kid stays, looking down at the shark. The visitors either take their cue from the old lady and move off or stick around to see who is coming next or what else this smart kid might know about these sharks.

Loved it.

It was brilliant. Cast of seven, five different scenes at every environment. An uber story that united all the characters about a slick businessman who was here to see “how he could make a killing off these killers”.

I got to write, cast, direct and edit. I flew back up to Monterey for the opening…

I wish I could remember why someone “high up” shut down the screens and put a kibosh on the whole exhibit. The visitors were doubly confused – not only were they looking at dead and sleeping sharks but there was a big blank monitor next to each tank.

Yeah. Getting my money up front for that one was a wise move…

The Sholem Plays

Jean Kerr said, “The thing about having children is then you have them.”

When Jordan was six and Nathan was four I found an ad in LA Parent Magazine: “Are you Jewish but not religious? Would you like to find a community that teaches kids about holidays and culture without religion?” I, of course, the Midwestern gentile in the relationship said, “Hell, yes!”
Was it the first or second year we were there that Laurie said to us, “Sholem needs a fund raiser. You know, there are a bunch of us who are in show business here. I was thinking we could put on a show…”

I ended up writing 9 full length plays over the years. When I say to you no one ever wrote in my high school yearbook, “Can’t wait to see your work as the premiere Yiddish playwright of the West Side of Los Angeles” – well, it still stands as the most surprising work I’ve done as a playwright.

My rule was everyone who wants to be in the play is in the play. Every one has at least one line and every character has a name. The cast number grew over the years from 25 to 95 plus a Yiddish Chorus and a Klezmer band. The shows went from adaptations of Yiddish literature that I did alone to a small team of writers recreating the truth of the experience of being Jewish in America from our community’s point of view.

Did I mention that our community was founded by blacklisted writers, musicians, teachers and workers in the 1950’s?

Of all the plays the one I am proudest of by far is Red Nisht. In Yiddish it means two things: “Don’t talk!” and “Don’t be Red!” We took the stories of the elders of our community and turned them into scenes. Some were recurring plotlines…others just scenes that stood alone. The time span was from the rise of McCarthy to when the blacklist was broken.

Here’s an example of a favorite scene of mine. One of our community members, Allen L., can remember being 9 years old and having the FBI come to the apartment where he lived with his mother, Ruth and his little sister, Anne and baby brother, Joe. The two goons from the FBI were checking to see if his father, who they had literally hounded to death, was really dead. That he had actually died the week before. Allen told me the heart wrenching tale of a 9 year old boy protecting his family as the new man of the house and screaming at Hoover’s men that his “Commie Father” was dead.

The scene wrote itself. And who did we cast all those decades later in the roles? Of course Anne played her mother, Ruth. My son Jordan played Allen L. And Allen L got to play his nemesis, the goon from the FBI.

Can you spell the power of theater and catharsis?

The Sholem Plays continue to live in my memory as some of the craziest and proudest moments I’ve had in the theatre – and some of my best as a mother.

My children know about who they are on their father’s side because they lived through much of the history of the late 19th through late 20th century.

Lived it.

After all, theater is the closest art form to life itself.

The Theme Park Plays

When we first moved to Los Angeles, Nathan threw his shoes out of the car window and we couldn’t afford to replace them and I had to get a job teaching kids.

Thank heaven.

Otherwise I never would have hooked up with the amazing team of Wings of Fame Productions.

I never would have written all of those amazing shows for “other people” – those shows for hire that were just a blast and a half with amazing benefits.

Let’s start with the benefits.
If you are two small boys and because your mother has shows running at Magic Mountain and The Disneyland Hotel you get to go there free of charge whenever you want to…well…what can I say?

It was in this environment that I really learned the form of the musical review. Big opening song, scene, upbeat tune, scene, ballad, scene, comic song, scene, ballad, scene, closing number. Sometimes more scenes and numbers…but basically you have to get your plotline accomplished AND move us into and out of tunes really really really efficiently.

Doug: “Here’s what I need here, Katherine – I need him to say something like ‘remember that time we were by the river and you looked at me and I said..’ and then he sings a ballad.”

Me: “Is the ballad about a river…?”

Doug: “Don’t worry about the details…just…you know. Like that.”

I loved those shows. Eventually we had them running all across the country.

And then Ron died.

He was our brilliant choreographer.

Hearts broken, we stopped making shows.

Seeds of Inspiration

Then came a period of time that seemed like forever – it was really only about half a dozen years – when I was not writing shows. True, ACT of Communication took off like gangbusters and took all my time…but…even as my writer self seemed to be sleeping, seeds of inspiration were being planted. Growing slowly. It was during this time that I worked on the case that became Headcase. On another case I met the expert witness who would form the basis of The Old Salt. I went to Giverny and got the idea for Love Through The Cracks Of Time.

I put time between me and writing plays for others.

And…Jordan Blumenfeld-James fell in love with Eleni Apostolakis.

Waking Up In 2003

Eleni’s parents were born in Greece and I became obsessed with studying Greek history…philosophy…and then mythology. I hadn’t read mythology since junior high.


There were and are so many stories that I never studied because they were TOTALLY in appropriate for 7th graders.

I fell in love with the mythology and became absorbed in the stories of Zeus and all the women, goddesses, nymphs, animals – who were the mothers of his children. I started thinking about all the great stories told from the point of view of the mothers of Zeus’ children…Achilles’ mother…Aphrodite’s mother…Helen of Troy’s mother…

And then one day I saw a stage. On it was the tip of Mount of Olympus with Zeus surrounded by all the mothers crowded on this mountain top. I knew that was how the show started. Then I saw how the show ended – with a completely bare stage with the night sky, filled with constellations.

All I had to do was figure out how to get from the first image in the first scene to the last image of the play.

All About Me

Olympus was the first show that was written just for me. From my heart and my soul and my mind. I was beholden to no one else’s vision. No one else’s needs or time table but mine.

No more solving problems in a hurry because the actors were showing up for the first rehearsal on Tuesday.

No more adaptations of someone else’s work.

“My shows.”

The development of Olympus was a wonderful experience. The first draft was like a dream come true. I didn’t owe anyone but myself anything. I was writing in blank verse. I was going to capture every kind of mother that there was, caught in these giant mythological females. I decided to start by writing a monologue for each of them – most of which didn’t survive the rewrite, but all of which made clear each of these amazing gals. But which one would be the first…?

I leaned back and thought to myself, “Alright, girls. Who’s first?”

Clear as a bell I heard a soft, sexy, seductive voice in my head:

“They say we look
My daughter Aphrodite and I…
And who am I
To tell them they are

After the first draft, I had a reading. A group of actors, sitting in a circle, reading the play. Friends and family got wind of the fact that there was a reading and I was inundated with messages that people wanted to be there.

I took a deep breath. It was really really far from perfect. So much further from perfect than anything I had ever let anyone see since Jessica and I played our living rooms for our mothers. But I thought about how I could take advantage of this gathering. The out loud feedback talk backs that traditionally follow playreadings were fairly unsatisfactory.

I knew from all my years as a trial consultant that when the consultants who did focus groups gathered research, they did it through written questionnaires first, group discussions after. This is because you get your best information from people “independently” – that is, before they hear what others have to say and start “building” off of it.

I discovered a really great questionnaire developed by a company in New York. It consisted of two questions:

“What drew you into the play?”

“What pulled you out of the play?”

I added one more:

“Anything else you want to tell me?”

Fantastic reading – fantastic feedback. I took my time, and let the feedback help rewrite the show.

A staged reading at Theatricum Botanicum directed by artistic director Ellen Geer came next. The good sized invited audience gave fabulous notes through my three question questionnaire.

I knew the next step for Olympus was a rewrite and a workshop production.

Olympus fermented in my mind as I wrote other shows. All were read, some had staged readings, some workshops, some full productions. Eventually Olympus magically had the opportunity to have a workshop production at Pomona College. It was glorious, glorious, glorious.

Along the way…

I discovered that I was really great at the 10-minute format in addition to writing full-length plays.

I discovered amazing festivals.

And they discovered me.

I became a founding member of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, part of the 50/50 by 2020 movement (Goal - 50% of all the new plays produced by 2020 written by women).

I joined a playwriting group.

And plays poured out of me. Plays still pour out of me.

Look at all the plays in “My Story” that I have written since 2007.

And where they’ve been.

Plays which all had a basis in my experiences, my ideas, my world…my life.

Now I write a full-length play and a handful of 10 minute plays every year.

All “my shows”.

With no end in sight.