“When I first started writing plays, I felt very insecure about calling myself an artist,” says Claire Willett. After all, she reasoned, who was she to include herself in the same company as the directors, actors and other Portland theater artists she most respected? “I did that to myself for a long time.”
Now, with her own creative endeavors gaining respect and exposure. Willett doesn’t have much choice but to acknowledge herself as an artist.
Saturday night at CoHo Theater, Playwrights West presents the world premiere of Dear Galileo, a smart, moving examination of the fault lines between faith and science, past and present, fathers and daughters. The first of Willett’s plays to get a full production, it’s directed by Stephanie Mulligan and features such Portland stage stalwarts as Gary Powell, Kate Mura and Nathan Dunkin, plus newly transplanted talent Nina Salazar.
And before that show closes at the end of the month, Willett’s debut novel, The Rewind Files, is due out from Retrofit Publishing, a Los Angeles company specializing in serialized science-fiction e-books. As does Dear Galileo, the novel has intergenerational family drama at its heart, but surrounds it with an imaginative swirl of mystery and historical-fiction and time-travel tropes, weaving the Watergate scandal in with the retroactive prevention of World War III.
“I’d spent my whole career not having to finish things,” says Willett, who cut her playwriting teeth mostly through readings and workshop productions in the annual Fertile Ground festival. “Then my final draft of this play and my final draft of the novel were due on the same Friday.”
Willett had been building up to that Friday for a long time. Growing up in Northeast Portland, part of a studious Catholic family, she came by her literary impulses early. “I wanted to be the kind of girl who kept a diary,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t not lie to it – I’d always embellish things.”
Her early writing mentor was Charles Evered, whose playwriting course Willett took during her time at Whitman College. But her post-college internship at Manhattan Theatre Club came in the development department, presaging a career on the administrative side of the arts. Since returning from New York to Portland, she’s worked at Artists Repertory Theatre, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Milepost 5 and Polaris Dance Theatre, eventually specializing in grant-writing.
Whip-smart and voluble, she’s a regular presence at theaters all over town, the sort who stays after shows for talkbacks, offering trenchant questions and comments. “She puts a lot of energy into fellow artists as well as arts supporters,” says Mead Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Portland and the unofficial dean of the city’s playwriting community.
When her former Artists Rep colleague Trisha Mead founded the Fertile Ground festival as an open opportunity to showcase new work, Willett took the chance to start developing an artistic voice of her own, writing a new play for each year’s festival until 2015 — when her writing time was devoted instead to her novel.
Hunter was the first to lend his support to Dear Galileo, encouraging Willett to submit it to Artists Rep. There, Mulligan quickly took an interest and directed a staged reading for the 2012 Fertile Ground. The next year, the play was workshopped in the Hothouse New Play Development Series at California’s historic Pasadena Playhouse.
“Mead and Stephanie have been the people who have shaped my writing the most: pushing me when I needed pushing, and believing in me from the beginning,” Willett says.
“Claire’s always been a fascinating thinker and writer,” Hunter says. “In Dear Galileo, as in most of Claire’s plays, she plumbs the depths and tests the limits of what it means to be a sentient being on this wild planet. Her characters make connections across time and space in way that makes us ask ourselves, from our seats in the audience, where we place ourselves on the cosmic scale.”
After gaining membership in Playwrights West (“One night at an after-show party I lurched up to Matt Zrebski and Patrick Wohlmut and said, ‘What do I have to do to be in your cool-kid’s club?’”) and getting on the CoHo schedule, Willett decided to resolve the lingering issues in Dear Galileo.
The play follows three pairs of fathers and daughters – two contemporary and one historical – whose relationships revolve around matters of faith and science. But another relationship, a nascent romance between one of the daughters and her father’s troubled former assistant, wasn’t quite working.
“It was placeholder text in some way,” she says. “Rewriting to figure out where they end up instead was the first big change. I finally was willing to let it be uglier and messier – which is important. It’s really hard to write good drama if you’re pathologically avoiding confrontation.”
You’d hardly call it pathological, but Dear Galileo and The Rewind Files share a persistent psychological concern: How to come to terms with lives in the shadows of illustrious parents. The novel’s protagonist is Regina “Reggie” Bellows, a young 23rd-century woman working for the U.S. government agency in charge of time travel, whose parents both are legendary figures in the same field. One parent is dead and a mystery; the other is very much alive and intimidating.
Willett’s mother, Theresa Willett, who died in 2008 of ALS, was “always the much bigger personality,” a prominent activist and volunteer, serving on the boards of such organizations as Catholic Charities, Mt. Angel Abby, and Central Catholic High School. She says she didn’t really get to know her quiet father, Ken Willett, part of the team that launched the renowned tech company Mentor Graphics, until her mother’s death. And it wasn’t until after she’d finished writing the novel that Willett realized her sci-fi adventure yarn really was about her relationship with her parents.
It was supposed to be a book about Watergate, albeit with a sci-fi twist.
“Initially it was just going to be a girl and her mom and some wacky Watergate antics,” Willett says. “It evolved into this completely different thing.”
The end result is a sci-fi thriller in which Reggie and a few trusted accomplices jump back and forth through time to unravel the mystery behind the death of her father and to thwart a conspiracy that has altered the true course of history by causing a catastrophic war between the U.S. and China. The plotting is cleverly complex, almost Escher-like. The pacing is brisk, even across 462 pages. Best of all, the characters, especially the insecure but sharp-tongued Reggie, are witty and relatable.
“ I was trying to write the kind of book I like to read: I really like science fiction and adventure stories,” Willett says. “It’s very different from the plays I’ve written. I feel very protective about Dear Galileo, but with this I felt much freer, like, ‘I can just see where this goes and I don’t have to impress anyone.’
“Even if nobody buys this book except my dad, now I know that this is the kind of writing I want to do.”
Willett says that if the book does well, Retrofit might be interested in bringing Reggie back for a sequel. Also, she’s unlikely to stop writing plays just when she gets one produced. And as for a bill-paying job, she still calls herself a freelance grants writer, keeping a foot in the business side of the arts world.
But now that she no longer has any compunction about calling herself an artist, her future is more open.
“Right now I don’t have a career plan anymore. Which is all right, because all I ever wanted was to be a writer.”
Dear Galileo continues through August 29 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.