Family Drama…Without the Drama: Writing a Family Play

By Catherine Hedge.

The adventure began simply.  My Uncle Bill called and asked, “What do you think about us putting together a simple little skit for the family reunion?”

Even while I was answering, “Yes! That sounds like fun…”, my stomach was churning.  In my family, nothing is ever done simply.  I could hear my grandfather’s voice in the background, “Do everything to the very best of your ability and you will never be ashamed.”  It was going to be a lot of work.

What I didn’t know was that I would learn so much.  Of course, I discovered more about my family, of the dreams and passions of my grandparents and their children, including my mother.  Since we had the fourth generation performing the parts, I had real conversations with my cousins’ adult children and second cousins.  They had seemed pleasant before at the last reunion, but they were busy watching stars with the other teens while I drank wine with my aunts and uncles.  I learned that they, like our patriarch, were inquisitive, lively adventurers.  Grampa Borel would have been proud!

What I didn’t anticipate is that I would learn so much about writing.  Writing fiction is somewhat safe.  You do delve into your personal emotions to invent the responses of the characters. You can also take the drama in your knowledge and experiences to use as working matter.  You pull it out and away from yourself like a glob of putty.  Then you stretch it, compress, explode, reform to make something entirely new…and unidentifiable as your own.  That’s safe.

But when you are trying to pass on your family history, there are so many ways you can fail.  Inaccuracy, tedium… going for maudlin emotions or the cheap laugh…  I was terrified!  Over several months, my uncle and I wrote drafts and responses, dug out old memories, old jokes, and old pain.  Some of my relatives we lost tragically too young.  Their children or grandchildren were still small.  Others had died only months before and their loss was keen.  How could we navigate the emotions while staying true to history and still provide a touching, enjoyable moment for our family?

I’d like to share the revelations that came to us in this process.  Just as every family is unique, I’m sure you will discover your own writing experience if you ever get “roped” into this.  But maybe these pointers will help!!

Know your purpose.  Why are you presenting this in the first place? This will narrow your scope to make it doable.  Otherwise, you’re trying to explain a hundred or more years! This isn’t Gone with The Wind, but a glimpse into small moments of history…that are big to your family.  Our purpose was to introduce our founders to the youngest members and to honor the wisdom-keepers of our family, both living and gone.

Pick your time carefully!  There are so many dramatic times in a family’s life…weddings, births, funerals…but someone is always coming or going, and the dynamics will rest with that event.  We decided to pick a festive but recurring time…Christmas Eve dinner.  We needed a reason to gather everyone together.  What better reason than a meal?

Pace:  At first, we thought our actors could simply stand and tell their story.  But my grandfather and grandmother had seven children.  That’s nine stories!  The pace would be deadly if each one stood and talked for three minutes.  Short speeches, 30 minutes at least! Yawn.  Instead, we had characters enter the dining room, move about, interact within the play, and had one tag-along brother annoying the other.  I think the final play was about 15 minutes or less.  (I was too involved to time it!)

Action:  We kept the action very simple.  No big fights.  No pratfalls.  No high drama.  Our purpose was sharing history.  Not entertainment.  Still, we didn’t want it to be boring.  We had to have movement.

Preparation:  Two words:  READER’S THEATER.  This worked for us because we have a fairly gregarious nature.  My uncle and I knew that there would likely be no time to practice.  (Too much star-watching and wine tasting going on!)  For the most part, by pressuring my cousins, brother, and son, we were able to nail down our actors ahead of time.  Swearing them to secrecy, the actors received the play in advance to read through…not memorize.  Each copy of the play was highlighted so the players knew their lines and the places for “General Chatter”.   We set up a deck with a picnic table and a few extra chairs.  No props except my apron.  (Grandma always wore an apron.)  (We didn’t have one part filled until right before “curtain”, but she played her grandpa perfectly!)

Humor:  If you want hilarity, hire a clown or a bad juggler.  Taking old family jokes, mugging, and fawning for the cheap laugh can cause serious, long-lasting harm.  Each of us have those ancient memories, the teasing of a younger sister when you have your first pimple, the reputation for being the messy one in the family, or the one who had to repeat kindergarten.  They weren’t funny at the time and they aren’t funny now, just because you’re sixty.  We did have some humor, but it was using a soft touch about relationships that have always had those elements, characteristics that seemed the essence.  (For example, the hero worship of Bill for his older brother, the one Grandma always liked best.)

Tightness:  There is so much we could have said about each member of our original family.  They led active, loving, complicated lives.  Probably the hardest part of the whole process was to take all that information and pull out a few lines that encapsulated a person.  It was much like writing poetry.  The sentences were fragmented, excess words deleted, and the other characters had to respond to what they said.  Just like in dramatic dialogue.  (Not like real dialogue where we wander all over the place and interrupt each other!)

Impact:  How in the world can you end this in a way that seems natural?  We were having a meal.  Should they just stop and say, “Let’s eat?” Blah.  Or something corny like Santa comes in with candy canes? (You’ve just spoiled the whole point!)  How can you have pathos at the end that isn’t too much so everyone out in the audience is depressed for the rest of the evening.  (Neither wine nor stars are fun that way!)

So, we made the decision to turn to song and to draw in the whole group.  Music has been a strong bond in our family.  It seemed a natural for us.  Sure, we had lots of tears, but there were smiles, too.  And hands being held.  And hugs.

When I walked away from the stage and took off my apron, I was surrounded by love.  Hugged by my co-author, Uncle Bill, my sniffling mom, my crying sister, and my dozens of cousins, I was dazed.  Somewhere, near the part where my godmother, my Auntie Ann entered the scene, I caught my breath and stared around the stage.

I could feel him, standing somewhere nearby.  Though he’s been gone forty-seven years, I know Grampa Borel was there.  I hope he liked what he saw.


I’ve attached our final play for the benefit of my relatives, most of whom have never read our script.

Thank you, Uncle Bill!  It was wonderful working with you.  I love you all!  Cathy


Legends and Legacies: The Borel Clan

By Bill Borel and Cathy Hedge

Bill Borel: Hello everyone. Cathy and I have written a family history play and it takes a little imagination. The setting could be a house anywhere, but for this play, the house is in Arcata. The date, well it isn’t important, it is a play after all. But the play is loosely based on a period in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s. The play is not actual history, but Cathy and I hope it reflects who the original Borels were and what it was like for them, and for me,

Of course the setting is in the kitchen and dining room. And it has to be at Christmas. After Midnight Mass.  The hour is a little after 1 in the morning. Arnold stays home from Mass to start the meal.  He’s cutting the Montana Slab Bacon.  A huge bowl of sourdough pancake batter bubbles beside him.   A starter batter sits in the Armour refrigerator for the next time.

(Arnold is alone on the stage right pantomiming cutting bacon or mixing pancakes)

(All except Ann file in from stage left and walk on the back side of the table.)

Bill Borel:  The first to enter is Mother Borel, (She says, “Merry Christmas!”

Followed by Mary (Merry Christmas!)  Joan, (Merry Christmas!)  and Gene (Merry Christmas!)  Anne, we’ll see soon.  Then come those whom Mother called, “Those last three” May, (Merry Christmas!)   Johnny “Merry Christmas, when do we open presents?”and Billy “Merry Christmas!

Mother Borel stands at end of table stage left.  Others sit down in order except Johnny and Billy.  They walk around to other side.   Billy is one step behind Johnny.

Johnny: Stop Following me!

Billy: I’m not following you  (He still follows.)

(Johnny helps Mother Borel sit at the end of the table.)

Mother Borel: Thank you, Johnny! It just wouldn’t seem like Christmas without you here!

(The rest of the table groans.)

Mother Borel: Billy and Johnny, you set the table.

May:  You ask them to do to much, Mom

Joan:  (Jumps up) I’ll do it, Mother.

Mother Borel: Anne? Where’s Anne?  Mary, (Fairly authoritative) Get the juice please.

Mary: I’ll start the coffee!  A little defiantly.

Joan: Need any help out there, Dad?

Arnold: (General clanking) Thank you. It’s under control. First batch nearly done!

Gene: Don’t forget to take out the starter!

(General laughter)

(Johnny sits down at the table.  Billy sits right beside him.) Stop Following me!

Bill:  I’m not following you! (He scoots closer to Johnny and they elbow each other)

Mother Borel: Billy, leave Johnny alone!  Mary, pass the napkins, please.  Anne? Where are you?

Mary:  Here’s the syrup, Mother.

Arnold: (Calls out of the kitchen) Somebody get Major out of the kitchen! He’s trying to eat the butter!

Billy: Yeah, let him outside so he can go pick a fight with a boxer!

Johnny: Are the kids all asleep?

Mary: Yes, Joe and Mark took care of that.

Gene: Anyone want more eggnog?

Auntie Joan: Joe and Mark took care of that, too!

(General laughter)

Mother Borel:  Ann? Where are you? You’re going to miss breakfast.

Ann: (Pokes her head in)  Sorry, Mom.  I was reading about the environmental impact of the deforestation of the Amazon Forests.

All: That’s our Ann!

(Ann sits down wherever there is space.  We’re crowded together)

Mother Borel: (Waxes poetic) Oh my! I’m so happy with all of you here! It’s been so long!

(All say things like)  We love you, Mom. Glad to be here!

Arnold: (standing by the door, smiling. He has a heaping plate of pancakes and they are passed around. ) Yes, it is beautiful to have you all together! I wonder, though…

Mary: What Dad. I’ve seen that faraway look on you before! You ready to go off to Venezula, panning for gold again? Take me with you!

Ann: No, Me! I want to go this time!

May:  (chirps) How about we all go? I want to see Venezuela someday!

Arnold:  (Laughs) I know you’ll all have your adventures soon enough! But I was just wondering…What would we see if we could time travel 10, 20, Maybe 50 years from this night? Who would you be? What legacy would you leave behind? What do you wish you knew now that you’ll know then?

Gene:  (Interrupts) Like if Emily will ever marry me?

Johnny: Or if Afghanistan will survive

Joan: Or if I’ll have a boy or a girl?

Billy: Or if Kathleen McCarroll will go with me to the spring dance?

Mary: Quiet! I think it’s a great question! Think about it! Maybe in 50 years we’ll have colonies on Mars!

Arnold: Yes, I’m sure the world will be very different. But my world is here, right now, with you. I’ve been writing about it in my journal, this elusive life we have. In fact I wrote an important poem titled “The Power” about that.

Mother Borel: Well, my legacy is right here! My beautiful babies and your babies!

Johnny: Thank you, Mom…but what else do you want us to tell the future about you?

Mother Borel (rocks in her chair a bit, and then stands):    Well, My goodness.  I guess they should know I was born Mary Catherine Kirby in Marysville, a mining town in the mountains of Montana.  I had to walk miles in the snow just to go to school.

Mary:  We’ve heard that before.  Uphill both ways!

Joan: In minus ten temperature

Ann: With no shoes

Mary: And you were only six years old

(General laughter)

Mother Borel:  No, it’s true!  Marysville is a registered ghost town now.  My twin, John, and I were the twelfth and thirteenth children of Irish immigrants. My father was the town blacksmith, a tough but good man.  He invented spurs that Teddy Roosevelt used with his Rough Riders.  The patent papers are around her somewhere.

I was only thirteen when I went to live with the nuns in Helena, Montana.   They trained me to be a nurse.  They were so kind to me! Then I met Arnold at a dance and married him.  One of my fondest memories is our wonderful summer honeymoon in a tent near Leavenworth, Washington.

I’ve told you those stories so many times,   but I’m proudest of my home, yes. I’ve always made a home for my family. And I’m a good nurse. My patients always told me how gentle I am, and a good listener, too. I guess someday I’d like to give that comfort again. But in fifty years? Well, I want to be in heaven then. I’ll be with my Jesus and Singing with the angels! (She starts a few notes of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”)

General: Everyone starts to join in.  Sings one verse.  (All applaud at the end)

Arnold:  That you will, Mary, and they’ll sing all the prettier for it!  (He helps her to sit down)

Mother Borel:  (Blushes) Oh, Arnold

Arnold: (He is still standing):  Mother says it often, that you will all find love, family, perhaps children because you are loving, exciting individuals.  But besides that, what will you give this world…Just you?  How will they remember you?

Billy stands up:  I guess I’m just getting started, but I still know what I want.  I want to go to college, to learn as much as I can hold!  I don’t care if I go hungry or live on beans.  There’s a whole world out there I know too little about.  I want to go to Alaska and on adventures, to ski down mountains into my seventies, to play soccer until I’m 64, to sail on bright blue bays, beat Joe and Mark at golf, and settle down with a great family between mountains and the sea.  I want to run my own business and know that people count on me to make things happen.  And that I’m a good man.

Everyone looks around, surprised that they little brother is so mature.

Johnny pipes up:  I forgot you were here! (Laughs) Well said, Little Brother!  (He pats Billy on the back)

Auntie May (stands)… How will they remember me? For my love of adventure? My little red MG?  I know I’m bubbly, easy to get along with, but I can be pretty stubborn when I know I’m right

Johnny and Joan together:  That’s for sure!

May:  But I’m also a really great teacher either inside or outside the classroom.  I believe I make life happier around me…or at least try my best to make it so.  And I can throw a party where every single person feels as if she or he is the most important guest there.  That’s what I want my home to be like…

Joan:  But we thought you’d just keep travelling.

May: No, I’ll be ready to settle down when I find the right man. And I’ll know when that is. (She smiles and sits.)

Johnny: (Stands): For me, there’s too much happening to settle down.  Yessir, I want to change the world first!  I want to be a Journalist. Maybe even an editor with the Arcata Union.  I want to travel, serve with Kennedy’s new Peace Corps.  To go to some God forsaken land where the little man doesn’t seem to have a chance.  I hope to become a great cross country skier and lead groups through Norway and the Adirondacks. Someday, I’ll marry someone to travel with, who will be my best friend, and paint, and write. and…

Billy: (Pokes him) Give someone else a chance.  (Johnny sits and he and Billy elbow again)

Mother Borel:  Leave Johnny alone, Billy!

Gene: (Stands)…Me?  I want to Drive! Drive! Drive! I’m happiest trucking logs down paths you wouldn’t take a bicycle and I’ve never lost a load.  I want my people to remember me as a great storyteller and a man with a curious mind and big heart. That I could teach my brother in law algebra when his college professors couldn’t.  That I’m a good mechanic, can fix anything! Yea, I’ll have had my adventures, too.  A Stint with the Service in Okinawa late night poker games with my pals, but, I really want a family ready to welcome me home and hear my stories. Nothing better than that!

I’ll want them to think of me as the Great Trucker in the sky, carting that sun round the world, my elbow hanging out the window, and a good strong thermos of coffee on the seat.

(He sits and elbows Joan.  She stands shyly.)

Gene: Speak up!

Joan: Well, I’m a really good telephone operator, fast, efficient.  But now I want to run a good home, have healthy children, and make Mark laugh.  I make fantastic oatmeal cookies and bread and butter pickles that melt in your mouth.  I’ll can any vegetable or prepare any wild beast you bring to me, Elk, deer, the works!  I can sing “Do you want to swing on a star” as sweet as Perry Como…but what I really want to do is travel! See the pyramids! Golf in Scotland! See the great canyons and….

Gene:  You? Aren’t you confusing yourself with May?

General laughter.

She sits down, smiling, and Gene puts his arm around her and hugs her.

Ann has her nose in the book.

Mary:  Anne, put your book down.  It’s your turn!

Ann:  Uh, Sorry!  But it’s so interesting!!  I guess I want to travel, to keep learning, and to give back…I’m proud to be a nurse, a healer. As an Air Force nurse who went to Japan right after World War II.   I want them to remember me as a patient woman with a curious mind and as a good mother. I am concerned about the environment and I want to serve,   I’d like to do social work nursing, maybe at Baker Lake in Canada or even in India where the people have nothing.   We have so much and so many have so little.  Oh…and I guess my secret passion is to beat Mary at Scrabble!  (She sits)

All:  That’s not going to happen!  (Laughter.)

Mary: (Stands) When I was little, Daddy always told me, “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something because you’re a girl.  You can be the best!”

Arnold: You’re right!

Mary:  Thanks, Daddy! Well, I’ve tried hard to reach those goals he set for me, the firstborn.  Nursing wasn’t my first choice.  I wanted to be an actress…that’s why I played a melodrama heroine in the community play.  I was just about to give birth to one of the kids and it took two men to pick me up off the railroad track!

(General Laughter)  But I’ve never regretted Mother sending Ann and me to nursing school.  I’ve a good mind and I’m a great nurse.  When I’m the night supervisor, people hop to make sure what I say happens…happens!

All:  I believe that!

Mary:  But what I really want to do is to learn to fly! Just the birds and me, following the sun above the fog…To go to Italy, Ireland…Everywhere…and to be with Joe to watch our children become whoever they want to be.   What a grand adventure that will be!

Mother Borel, Oh, that is just so beautiful, Children! But what about you, Arnold?

All:  (General chatter) Yes, Dad! How about you?

Arnold:  When you’ve lived as long as I have, it’s hard to nail down!  I was born in Pennsylvania in the late 1800’s., only 30 years after the Civil War. I served in France in World War One as second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers.  What I didn’t tell you was that once I went to visit my cousins in Switzerland. They smuggled me in and out.

All: Dad!!

Arnold:  But After that, I became so interested in engineering and science I graduated from The School of Mines in Butte Mt.   You can find me there in the Hall of Fame.  I was a league all star in football for the Miners.     I played fair, but newspapers from out of town called me “Dirty Elmo Borel” when we beat their teams.  Thankfully, Butte brought me and Mother together.  I immediately knew I would marry her and raise a family. I just didn’t know how big of a family.

Billy:  Just seven kids before you got it perfect! (Johnny lightly pushes Billy, Billy pushes back,)

Mother Borel: Billy leave Johnny alone!

Arnold:  But besides you, what do I leave behind? My writing, my love of science?  I imagine sharing my pressed flower collection with my granddaughter and my gold dust with a grandson, and hope to see them grown.  I want the dreams of the working man come true at last and to know I played a part in making it happen.  I want the future to know I built the Grand Coulee Dam, gave up wealth for what I believed was right, but mostly, that I passed on all I knew and loved to my children.

Mother Borel (sighs): Fifty years from now, do you think anyone will remember us?

Arnold: (Walks behind her and puts his hand on her shoulder) I’m sure they will. As long as we can write and tell stories, we’ll live forever!  So I’d like to propose a toast, To my beautiful family. To our loves, To our legacies! A Very Merry Christmas!

All: (Raise imaginary glasses) To our Legacies! To Family! Merry Christmas!

May:  Hey, Mother, let’s sing some Christmas Carols!

(Mary goes to the imaginary piano and everyone bur Arnold and Mother Borel gets up and gathers around.)

Mother Borel: (Stays by the table) Wait. There’s something wrong, something missing.

Arnold:  I  know what it is. (All the actors turn toward him.  Grandma stands beside him. He puts his arm around her shoulder.   He turns to the audience, spreads his arms) It’s all of you. You are the reason for our being. Everything we said about ourselves would be meaningless if we had never married you, given birth to you, and loved you with our whole being. You have always been our purpose.

All:  You Make our lives complete.

Mary Hedge (for real). And since it is Christmas in June, please join us in singing Silent Night.

(Actors join hands at front and sing.  Bow at the end.)

About Catherine Hedge

I am a writer and teacher mentor.
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8 Responses to Family Drama…Without the Drama: Writing a Family Play

  1. Theresa Heistuman says:

    This is the first time I have heard this. I didn’t know a play was put on at the reunion. I so wish I could have been there. This is beautiful. I read it with tears in my eyes because I could feel all the love around me as I sat at the computer, reading.

    • Catherinejeanhedge says:

      Oh, Thank you, Theresa! It was short and sweet, but written for all of us! I miss Grandpa and Grandma still. I guess that is what real love is. I am so sorry to hear about Aunt Ramona. Please accept my sympathies and give Uncle Mark and Auntie Joan a tender hug from me. I love you! Cathy

  2. Angie says:

    What a great way to pass on some history, you really are a great writer, how lucky for the younger generation to know where and whom they came from. It seems today people are so busy thinking about tomorrow, they forget what happened yesterday. Inspirational

  3. Francie says:

    Wow.. somehow you magically know how to weave in family story and teach us something at the same time… really did come out of the womb a teacher!! Fabulous!! love you!!

  4. That was terrific, Cathy. You have an awesome family.

  5. Pingback: Family Drama…Without the Drama: Writing a Family Play | Catherine Hedge, Author and Educator

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