Playwright Julian Wiles on the Writing of Helium
I’m often asked how I came to write a play. I wish it were as simple as coming up with an idea, starting at the beginning, and a few days later writing “curtain falls” at the end. For me playwrighting is never a straight line. There are often a lot of false starts, you go off on flights of fancy that lead to dead ends, and you have to begin again. But sometimes a flight of fancy is the spark that makes the whole idea come into sharp focus. Such is the case of the floating refrigerator. I was trying to come up with a way to show the whimsical flights of fancy the mind of my main character, an 80-year-old known affectionately as Gramms, was taking. Being trained first as a set designer, I often look for scenic solutions, especially when the writing eludes me for a bit. Some time ago, I had decided to name the play Helium to give that sense of thoughts taking flight. That led me to making Gramms a former chemistry teacher which then led to having her invent her own elements with whimsical words that sound like they could be elements—“pandemonium —hysterium.” But first, back to that floating fridge. I thought, why don’t we suspend items in Gramm’s random mind above the set—a refrigerator, a grandfather clock, a pizza—much like a Salvador Dali painting. In the play taking shape, Gramm’s mind often wandered to the seashore of her youth, so I placed this floating mental detritus in the sky over Gramm’s lovely beach scene. And then it clicked, why not show the audience the imaginary world that Gramms sees and let the other characters see these items as other things. For instance, Gramms sees that onstage there is a life guard box, beach chairs, and a beach umbrella. But her family sees these items as a sofa, overstuffed living room chairs and the beach umbrellas as a lamp. In a fantastical sort of way Gramms and her family each live in the same place but in different worlds. It is between these two worlds that the fun and the drama will play out. And audiences are part of the process for they have to use their imaginations to really figure this out. To me this became a whimsical scenic solution that served the story well —especially a story that mixes both comedy and drama. I learned a long time ago that while you need a great story for a play to work, the way you tell that story is just as important and Helium’s playful set is a perfect way to let this whimsical story take flight.
My inspiration for Helium, which I first wrote in 1990, came after I read a memoir by New York Times Humor columnist Russell Baker called Growing Up. When Mr. Baker went to visit his 90-year old mother whose mind had started to wander, she greeted him with a “who the hell are you?” Mr. Baker explained in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir that his mother’s mind “could wander free through space and time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place a half-century earlier . . . she moved across time . . . with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.” While Mr. Baker certainly saw the sadness of his mother’s mind beginning to wander, he also saw that there was a freedom there as well. From that thought, my Helium took flight. I wondered why we delight in a young child’s meandering mind and often funny little comments, yet when we see the same behavior in an adult we see it as a tragedy. Of course a baby has a world ahead and we know the aging are often leaving a world behind. Yet in each moment they are both vibrantly alive.
Over the next few years I was able to see aging and dementia first hand. My delightful grandmother, having reached the age of 100, passed away still with the twinkle in her eye and her good humor mostly intact.
And so at Piccolo Spoleto in 1990 at the Footlight Players Workshop down the street, the first production of Helium took flight with noted Charleston comic actor, Kaye Shroka, in the lead. That world premiere production was a great success with festival audiences, becoming the top selling play of Piccolo Spoleto that year.
A few years later, my wonderful mother-in-law, Margaret Hane, became, on many days, lost in the fog of dementia. It was a challenging time for our family, especially my wife Jenny, who became her primary caregiver. Our kids were little and they marveled at Granny’s mind and her flights of fancy, but they often went right along with her on her journeys into the past. Sometimes we wanted to cry, but often we just had to laugh at the funny things she would tell us. She was once horrified I was sleeping with her daughter. She’d forgotten we were married, and when I reminded her we had a big laugh together. Like Russell Baker’s mother, Margaret spent much of her time traveling to places in her past, revisiting in fond memories the world of her youth. Much of her long-term memory remained intact and her visits to those long remembered special places in the past delighted her.
After Margaret passed away, I decided to revisit Helium and the play underwent a major revision in 1997 with a new version, featuring the wonderful actor and Charleston Stage Acting Ensemble member, Samille Basler, as Gramms. Samille returns to play the role in our new production as well. This revised version of Helium struck an even greater chord with audiences. Many people came up to me after the play and say things like, “let me tell you about my aunt, my mother, my uncle, my cousin.” Obviously, the show had struck a chord and often they would share with me the flights of fancy that their own loved ones had taken at times.
The next year, Dramatic Publishing published the play script of Helium and other productions have followed around the country including a performance in Greenville.
The world has become much more aware of dementia and Alzheimer’s since I first wrote Helium in 1990, but much is still unknown. Patients and their caregivers must still struggle to find their own way. And each way is different, as no one has all the answers. In Helium, I simply wanted to share one family’s journey, its joys and its sorrows, and with them to marvel and to celebrate the human spirit of someone they love taking flight.
Of the thirty something plays I’ve written over the years, Helium remains my favorite. I wanted to be sure it was included in the special 40th Anniversary Season and that audiences could enjoy this special story once more.
Performances of Helium run Feb. 9th – Feb. 25th at the Historic Dock Street Theatre. For tickets, call our Box Office at (843) 577-7183 or purchase online by clicking here.