by Rita Charleston
If necessity is the mother of invention, credit an older sister’s dislike for reading plays for the development of a brother’s career. At least that’s the way Michael Whistler, 50, a Mt. Airy resident for 10 years, explains his introduction to writing plays, including his latest creation titled “The Prescott Method: Easy Steps to Perfect Bread Baking, Every Time.” The production of Whistler’s eighth play begins on March 26 and continues through April 14 in the Walnut Street Theater’s Independence Studio on 3.
“My older sister took a theater course in college which she hated,” recalls Whistler, who grew up as a child in Syracuse but who attended Upper Merion High School in King of Prussia as a teenager. “Well, one time after spring break, she went back to school and left her play books behind.”
Without knowing exactly why, Whistler took the books into his bedroom and began reading the plays by flashlight, just knowing he really enjoyed them.
“I remember reading lots of them, like ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ where Tom needed to escape and find his own voice and create a life for himself,” Whistler says. “I could relate to that character and how hard it is to be stuck in that place. I was only about 14 or 15, but I think it was then that I decided to become a playwright.”
And inspiration for his work is all around him. For example, his latest work was born when he saw two women on “The Today Show” holding a sign that read “On vacation from our husbands.” Whistler says seeing that made him think of the women who raised him, and who they might be when they were by themselves and not busy being wives and mothers.
The two women in “The Prescott Method” — Veronica, the mother of six scrambling to handle her brood, and Peg, the newly arrived wife of a college professor who keeps an orderly house — “handle tasks differently, from baking bread to managing their lives,” Whistler explains.
And all this leads to comedy and conflict, which is the very basis of theater, according to this playwright, who earned a BA in English/Theater Arts from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to the eight plays he has written (he’s a member of the Dramatists Guild of America), he has directed at both Arcadia University and Montco Community College and is a member of Actors Equity Association, having acted in more than two dozen plays.
In beginning the process of writing, Whistler starts with an idea and an outline. “I have to have a back story for all my characters. I have to grab all the pieces of the puzzle and put them all together, like a bird building a nest. I have to understand who my characters are, what they want and where they’re going.
“It may sound boring, but at some point I create a spread sheet and then break things down so I can look at each scene and see what each character is achieving in each of those scenes. As a playwright, you’re always trying to create a story from beginning to middle to end.”
Whistler is also coordinator of the Theatre Arts Faculty at Montgomery County Community College. In his Introduction to Acting and Improvisation class, his students read Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “My students read this play as a class. I want them to have the experience of reading plays the way actors read plays versus the way a critic or English student might read them.”
Next, he does an exercise with his students where the characters fight shamelessly for what they want and are definitely not afraid of conflict. “When that’s done, we prepare all we’ve accomplished as a segment on the ‘Jerry Springer Show’ and title it ‘My Pregnant Sister’s Husband Raped Me.’ Then all the students/characters come up and tell their story exactly the way it would be happening in the theater in a play, or on the Springer show.”
His methods may be unconventional but are so popular that other students often try to get into his class just to witness such a thing fist-hand for themselves. And to think, he concludes, it all started because of his sister’s dislike of reading plays.
“For her, it was a class elective. For me, I’m writing them as a living and because I love what I’m doing. I love exploring the lives of others, taking a step into that big magic area and trying to figure out what I would do if I were that person. — a person I’ve just created.”
Tickets to “The Prescott Method” are priced at $30-$40. For more information, call 215-574-3550.