Reel Dad recalls meeting E. Katherine Kerr

In September 1990, this younger-than-I-am-today writer ventured from my then-home-base of Dallas to Wilton to spend the weekend at a creative workshop led by E. Katherine Kerr, the actress and playwright who died July 1 at age 82.

I was quite familiar with Kerr’s work on stage, having savored her Obie-winning creation of three characters in the off-Broadway hit “Cloud 9” in 1982. And I knew her from the movies, of course, where she delivered rich supporting performances in “Silkwood” in 1983 and “Suspect” in 1986. Later, on stage, I loved her work in “Laughing Wild” in 1987 and “Love Letters” in 1989. But little did I expect, at the time I saw an advertisement for Kerr’s workshop in a magazine about Broadway, how much that weekend in Fairfield County would change my view of words and the world.

Kerr was, as I recall, a teacher with little time for small talk. She greeted the small group of students, on the Saturday morning the workshop began at her Wilton home, with a brief introduction and a small pitcher of ice water. “No coffee served here,” she said, “so, tomorrow, if you need a cup to get you going, have it before you arrive. Plus we only take one break in the morning, and one in the afternoon, as well as have lunch at Orem’s, a diner here in town.”

Yes, Orem’s. And, for this born-in-Colorado-and-living-in-Texas Westerner, that first visit to this Fairfield County icon was simply inspirational. “Everything on the menu is first rate,” Kerr said, “and what you don’t order today you can have tomorrow because this is the only place in town where I eat a weekend lunch.”

Food, as fun as it was to discuss, was not the first thing on Kerr’s mind. Writing was. And, as she explained her approach to playwriting, she emphasized the need to get to know the many layers of a character’s history.

“A playwright takes dictation from a character he or she creates,” Kerr explained as the first workshop continued. “Discover a character you want to explore, first, and then place that character in a variety of situations, letting the character speak to you about what is being experienced and felt in each place. As you get to know how your character reacts, what prompts certain reactions, you will find the story you may want to tell. But always begin with the character. Never begin with the story. Because the story may not enable the character to breathe. And characters must breathe.”

Certainly Kerr arrived at such observations from her own experiences as a first-rate character actress. In “Silkwood,” she made us believe in the realities of working in that nuclear plant as she observed, at times with shock, at moments with sadness, how the conditions affected the co-workers she cared for. And in “Suspect,” opposite Dennis Quaid, she turned a small role as a congresswoman into a bravura take on the reasons people reach for each other.

As a teacher, Kerr brought that sensibility to her facilitation. As the weekend concluded, on Sunday afternoon, we performed the results of our workshop of work, and she sat back and took copious notes, promising to give us more feedback from a weekend than many writers receive in a career.

“Always listen for your character’s voices,” she concluded, “never letting the voices of your critics get in the way of what your characters have to say. Because, at the end of the play, or the movie, we remember the people we have just had the chance to meet, long after we forget who may have said what. It’s the characters that matter.”

Rest in peace, E. Katherine Kerr. Thank you for creating so many characters that matter. And introducing me to Fairfield County and, of course, to Orem’s.