On Friday night, my husband and I attended a performance of The Foreigner by Larry Shue at The Players Club of Swarthmore. We knew absolutely nothing about this play, attending only out of loyalty to our friend Eric Crist – and the faith that if Eric was in the play, we would have a good time. As it turns out, we loved the play, and not just because Eric, as always, turned out a terrific performance! (Go, Eric! We love it when you play the handsome, charming fellow with a sneaky, rotten interior!)
As a writer, I found the premise of The Foreigner very interesting. The protagonist, Charlie Baker, is dragged against his will to a Fishing Lodge Resort in Georgia, where his friend believes he will find a welcome rest from his marital troubles. But Charlie, who is desperately shy and (in his own words) lacking in personality, dreads the social anxiety of conversing with other guests. So, his well-meaning friend tells the proprietor that Charlie is “a foreigner” who can’t speak a word of English.
When various characters begin to spill their secrets in front of Charlie, believing he can’t understand them, I thought I knew where the play was going. But the story took an unexpected twist. Much to the surprise of the protagonist himself, “Foreigner Charlie” begins to take on a life of his own, developing a personality startlingly different from the one belonging to the shy and boring fellow in the first scene.
This happens to my characters all the time. I put them down on the page with the intention of making them one thing, and they do something else entirely. A character will sometimes demonstrate bravery in a scene where I expected cowardice – or offer a hand of friendship to another character they despised in an earlier chapter. I find it’s best to follow their lead – and luckily the hero in this play gave “Foreigner Charlie” the freedom to develop, which not only conquered his own social anxiety but saved the Fishing Lodge from the Ku Klux Klan! (You kinda had to be there …)
One final connection between this play and the writing process: According to the playbill, when The Foreigner first opened off-Broadway in the early ‘80’s, it was trashed by critics as “unintelligent, implausible, and unpalatable.” The play nearly closed, but the company, believing in their show, took paycuts, distributed fliers, and gave away 80,000 lapel buttons to keep the show alive. The result? A Texas oil millionaire saw the show and, after laughing his you-know-what off, invested $60,000 to keep the production going.
The lesson here? Believe in your own work; persist despite the critics – all it takes is one fan with the power to make things happen to bring success within your reach.
PS: If you live in the Philly area, The Foreigner is still playing through October 2. Contact The Players Club of Swarthmore for tickets.