Jim Gipe—Courtesy Smith College
Since her play piled up so many major awards, Margaret Edson is in demand as a speaker. Here, at her alma mater, Smith College, in 2008.
VERY SOON IT'S CLEAR: Margaret Edson has a firm grasp on the intangibles.
"Our love for each other, our connections to each other should be at the center of our thoughts at all times," she says. "That takes effort, because there's a lot of noise surrounding us."
Edson has made a life out of cutting through that noise as a teacher, a playwright, and a passionate public speaker. Since 1992 she has taught English as a second language and taught kindergarten, often in economically disadvantaged elementary schools in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia.
Just before she started teaching, she wrote Wit, a play about a poetry scholar with catastrophic stage-four ovarian cancer. Edson has said that she decided to present the play without an intermission because she thought it was so heavy—with intense philology and blood-curdling medical treatments—that audiences would flee if given a chance.
Wit won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, along with the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new play, the Oppenheimer Award, and some others. HBO's film version of the play, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, won an Emmy in 2001. Far from fleeing, deeply engaged audiences have embraced the play from prestigious Off-Broadway theaters to local high school productions ever since.
An Unusual Career Combination? For Edson, teaching elementary school and writing a challenging, complex, multi-layered play about the human intellect and spirit are not so far apart.
"In society in general, it's easy for us to forget our purpose," Edson tells NRTA Live & Learn in a phone interview from her Atlanta home. "We've let go of a lot of the tools that remind us of our true selves."
"There was something I really wanted to say in Wit,"Edson says. "What I want to say now, I'm saying in the classroom." It's hard to measure the special things created on stage or in a classroom, but even unmeasured they are powerful and at the core of what makes us human, Edson explains.
"I'm interested in talk and action," she says. "I'm interested in being a part of a group of people that's creating something as it happens."
Using Her High Profile. The attention that came with the success of the play has given Edson the opportunity to speak to a diverse group of audiences, from local high schools to a national conference of hospital chaplains. Most recently she delivered the 2008 Commencement address at Smith College, where she was graduated with a degree in Renaissance history in 1983.
Her speech was a celebration of the mystery of classroom teaching: "Bringing nothing, producing nothing, expecting nothing, withholding nothing," teaching somehow gives the ultimate creative gift of learning. "Nobody can touch it because nobody can point to it," she says in it. "You have it forever. When it grows inside you, it's doing its work."
Students and teachers all receive this invisible, untouchable treasure, Edson says. When she retires from teaching, "someone will bring me a box, and I will put in it a ceramic apple somebody gave me thinking it would be symbolic somehow. I will have nothing, and that will be proof of the meaning of my work."
When you rely on your students—or your audience—to share the work of creation, you must embrace a certain amount of uncertainty. In preparing for class, Edson tells Live & Learn, "I know where I want to go. I'm never sure how I'll get there, but I love that journey."
In a crucial scene near the end of Wit, protagonist Vivian Bearing is visited by her mentor. They share a tender moment and some insights into the metaphysics of Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny. Edson was initially surprised when some viewers wondered if the moment was real or a product of Bearing's painkiller- and cancer-ravaged mind.