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January 26, 2003

William Gibson, 88, says his playwriting is done

From: Tacoma News Tribune, WA - 26 Jan 2003

Adam Gorlick; The Associated Press

Alan Solomon, The Associated Press
William Gibson poses, with his cat Reilly at his home in Stockbridge, Mass. Even though he says his playwriting days are done, he won't give up the 'self-curative process' of writing.

William Gibson moved audiences with the story of Helen Keller, made them laugh with a romantic comedy and compelled them to ponder questions of global power.

Now, at 88, the playwright who gave the stage a dozen plays is bowing out of theatrical writing. But the compulsive creator isn't ready to set down his pen.

"The act of writing makes everything possible to me," says Gibson, who is working on his second novel - a work in progress that he won't discuss - at his Stockbridge, Mass., home. "I've always found the business of writing has helped me to live."

Writing gave him confidence as a boy and a better understanding of the world as a man. For seven decades, he has been writing short stories, poems, screenplays and books to explore his interests, exorcise his demons and put some money in his pocket.

And his works - including "The Miracle Worker," "Two for the Seesaw" and, most recently, "Golda's Balcony" - have always been more recognizable than his name. "The Miracle Worker," his best-known play, will be revived on Broadway in April with Hilary Swank as Annie Sullivan and Skye McCole as Helen Keller.

"He's never gone the celebrity route," author James Carroll said. "The thing that's most striking about him is his devotion to his work. He doesn't see himself as more than a man at his desk."

Figuring he was "incompetent at everything else," Gibson started writing as a high school student in New York City. He says he was always skittish as a teenager, and writing gave him refuge.

"I just found that writing was a self-curative process," Gibson says. "A writer ... makes up themes that come out of his inner dilemmas. In the making up of the themes and in the struggling with the material, he gets on top of it."

A short-story writing contest he won in high school gave him enough confidence to study creative writing at City College of New York. His first professional piece - a short story for Esquire - netted him $150 in the 1930s. But his agent, who was a play broker, said there was more money to be made in theater.

It didn't take much to sway him. Gibson had been hooked on Broadway since he was 12, when his father started taking him to 55-cent shows featuring some of his favorite actors, like Spencer Tracy and John Halliday.

But this was during the Depression, and while the dream of a big payoff was there, no producer was about to take a chance on an unknown name. So Gibson's agent landed him a place at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., where farmers would swap pigs or turnips for play tickets.

There, Gibson acted and worked as a stage manager. But most importantly, he wrote - taking criticism and feedback from everyone who read his words.

"There was an actor there who told me I have to write something that an actor wants to do," Gibson says. "That was a new angle for me."

And that's an angle some people say he has perfected.

"He has the ability to write in the same rhythm that we speak," said Annette Miller, the actress who delivers a 90-minute monologue as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir reflecting on the 1973 Yom Kippur War in "Golda's Balcony. "

"His words bounce off the page at you," Miller said. "And he poses questions that we've all asked - questions about power and questions about where we're heading as a world."

"Golda's Balcony" - the reworking of his 1978 "Golda," a full-production play he wrote after visiting Meir in Israel - is in many ways the culmination of decades of work in which Gibson has honed his craft.

"Two for the Seesaw," Gibson's first professionally produced play, hit the stage in 1958. The romantic comedy about a straight-laced lawyer and a free-spirited dancer was as much a smash with Hollywood as it was with Broadway. Gibson sold the film rights to the play for $600,000 - Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine starred in the 1962 movie - and moved to the Berkshires hills of Massachusetts with his family.

He started his next project, writing "The Miracle Worker" for television and making $1,500 for three weeks worth of work.

The story of a young deaf and blind Helen Keller forging a relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan, turned into Gibson's biggest hit. When he was urged to rewrite it for the stage, he took the job seriously. Six months later, "The Miracle Worker" was ready to be cast.

"Writing for the camera is child's play," Gibson says. "Writing for the stage involves a sense of architecture that isn't there when you're writing for the camera. I'm not decrying it as an art; it's just not the art that interests me."

If writing for the stage is art, writing for himself is therapy.

He wrote "A Mass for the Dead," an autobiographical family chronicle he started after his mother died in the 1960s. His father had died slowly from cancer 20 years earlier, and the memory of hopelessly nursing the dying man, coupled with the new loss of his mother, overwhelmed him.

It took five years to finish the book, a vehicle he used to work through "all the dark feelings that were mixed with the love that surround relations between parents and children."

"Many people talk to the psychiatrist for five years about that burden," he says. "I wrote a book."

And he still keeps writing, even as many men his age would be ready to give up their jobs.

Although his body is betraying him - he does most of his walking with a cane, listens with the help of two hearing aids and is waiting for doctors to plan the best strategy to fight a prostate cancer diagnosis - nothing has stopped Gibson from working at his keyboard every day.

He has a novel to finish, and maybe he will peddle it to Hollywood.

"Who knows, maybe no one will like it," he says. "But I'm not ready to stop working on it. I enjoy it too much."

© 2003 Tacoma News, Inc.