Playwright and former journalist enjoys personal side of writing

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

BURNET — Though Raymond Whelan has always felt a creative twinge when it comes to his writing, he recalled the moment he knew he wanted to take his pen and head to the stage.

He and a friend were in Houston, where they went to the famous Alley Theatre in 2007 to watch a production of Eugene O’Neill’s play “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”

“It was one of the dreary days that was just made for staying inside,” the former journalist recalled. “So we went to the Alley Theatre, and the whole thing, the play and everything around it, was just exquisite. I thought, ‘This is something I wanted to be a part of.”

Soon after, he moved to Burnet, landing a job with The Picayune and The Daily Tribune. As a journalist, Whelan was constantly writing and making deadlines. But through the help of the Highland Lakes Writers Club, Whelan found a support network that helped him move into other forms such as short stories and, of course, plays.

In 2012, his playwriting landed him, well his play, on stage at the prestigious FronteraFest in Austin. That play, “Southy Pride Ezzah Given” was basically a one-woman show featuring actress Carrie H. Stephens. And, if you can’t tell by the name, it is set in South Boston.

Whelan returned to the FronteraFest last January, this time with his play “Some Women See Things the Way They Are.” It’s a story set during the Kennedy White House years.

He returns in January but with two plays. His play “Lester Leaps Out” is set to take the stage Jan. 16, while his “Dinner at Cinderella’s” goes before the audience Jan. 23.

The two plays are part of the FronteraFest’s Short Fringe show and competition. In the Short Fringe, the performance must stay under 25 minutes, forcing writers to pack a lot into a very short period of time.

“Every word has to count,” Whelan said. “Every movement has to be measured against the clock.”

His two plays get only one shot on the stage but can earn a “call back” for another performance based on the response of the audience or a panel of judges.

“It means a lot if you get a call back,” Whelan said.

While he’s been writing for many years, many as a reporter, the foray into playwriting has been a welcome endeavor. As a reporter, Whelan stayed true to the facts of the story, never allowing his own thoughts, ideas or opinions to intrude. Since leaving the journalism field and fully jumping into playwriting and other forms of fiction, Whelan has allowed himself to explore topics from a more personal point of view.

“(Journalism and playwriting) are different species of writing,” Whelan said. “News writing tends to be exposition, but playwriting tends to be more impressionistic.”

Even before his 2007 Alley Theatre experience, Whelan knew he wanted an avenue for exploring topics he couldn’t as a reporter.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the alleged assassination of Huey Long,” he said. Long served as the Louisiana governor from 1928 to 1932 and then in the U.S. Senate from 1932 until his death in 1935.

In 2005, Whelan began exploring the possibility of writing a freelance magazine article looking into Long’s career and assassination. But as he began researching the former governor’s death, Whelan discovered much of the evidence was either non-existent or had never been entered into record. Without the factual support, Whelan found he just didn’t have enough to write a magazine article. Still, Long’s legacy and death stayed on Whelan’s mind.

So he began writing a play exploring Long’s death but also allowing him to weave in his thoughts into the narrative. He hasn’t finished the play, yet, as other projects took priority. But, it’s still there waiting for Whelan’s eventual return.

While playwriting, and all writing, looks like a solo endeavor, Whelan said it requires support. He found that support network through the Highland Lakes Writers Club. The regular meetings and members offer Whelan a place to get feedback. Another club member, Kay Diane Lee, allowed Whelan to use one of her poems in his play “Some Woman See Things as They Are.”

“All of us need some sort of encouragement no matter what we do,” Whelan said.

One of the most exciting moments in his playwriting career came the first time one of his productions went on stage before a live audience. He recalled the moment Carrie H. Stephens stepped from behind the curtain during the 2012 FronteraFest as part of his “Southy Pride Ezzah Given” play. Whelan was just off stage looking on.

“When Carrie jumped out on stage, I realized this is for real. This is in front of an audience who paid to see my play,” Whelan said. “It’s exhilarating to see your stuff fleshed out by other people. On a scale of one to 10, I’d give it a 10.”

As for the future, Whelan has other projects in the works and a brain full of ideas. He’s already taken “Some Women See Things As They Are” to Houston and New Orleans for performances. He would love to produce one of his plays in Philadelphia or Boston.

“It would be great to get a play published by one of the publishing houses. That way it could be introduced to other parts of the country,” Whelan said. “Plus, there’s a chance to earn some royalties.”

He also would like to produce a play closer to home. Whelan is looking for a venue in the Highland Lakes to put on one of his plays, hopefully, next summer.

“Of course, all playwrights want to be acknowledged for their work,” he said. “I think that’s something we all share.”

Regardless of accolades or performances, Whelan knows there’s one thing he won’t ever stop doing: writing plays.

For more information on FronteraFest, go to www.fronterafest.org. Go to www.highlandlakeswritersclub.com for more information or to get involved with the Highland Lakes Writers Club. The club typically meets the second Thursday of each month (with the exception of June, July and December) at the Marble Falls Public Library, 101 Main Street in Marble Falls. The meetings start at 6:30 p.m. with social time followed by the meeting at 7 p.m.

daniel@thepicayune.com