Playwright Patricia Henritze
A number of years ago I started writing a piece inspired by Florence Nightingale. It started as a twenty-minute monologue, and over the next few years it began to emerge as a play. As the work took shape I would talk about it from time to time. Personally, I don’t talk much about my work when I’m in process, but sometimes when you’re hanging out with a friend the inevitable question of “what are you working on?” comes up.
Well, it turns out that nothing puts a listener to sleep faster than telling them you’re working on a play about Florence Nightingale. Even as you say her name you can see their eyes glaze over. “And what else are you doing?” they ask as they head for the bar and no amount of explaining that the play is really about war or science or that it’s not a lesson in history will regain their attention. I tried floating different titles, but the effect was the same. “Oh, really?” they’d yawn.
Then, a little over a year ago I went to a Working Title Playwrights workshop on adaptation led by Vincent Murphy at Emory. I read him a bit of my play and told him that Florence was sometimes referred to as the “Bitch of Balaclava” by those who, perhaps, did not appreciate her meddling in the status quo of the army hospitals. We joked that I should call the play that and I submitted it to Emory’s Brave New Works series under that name. And they took it. Suddenly Bitch, as it is often referred to, was actually being read. Was it possible that just because I changed the title people found themselves eager, or at least willing, to open the script?
Okay, maybe it wasn’t just that. Maybe I had some luck and the topic was more amenable to a university, but I do know that titles have power. I remember a bunch of years ago a screenwriting teacher told me that the perfect movie title was “Hot Tub Time Machine.” His point was that it exactly told us what to expect from the movie. And when you think about it, even Shakespeare kept it pretty simple when it comes to titles: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet.
In a twist that I didn’t see coming, many people mispronounced the working title of my play by confusing Balaclava with the Middle Eastern pastry baklava (which is hilarious, but not ideal…) Partly because of this unfortunate confusion, I’m currently calling it The Nightingale Rose or The Bitch of Balaclava, which was suggested as a nod to 19th century double titles (think Gilbert and Sullivan.) Plus, the Nightingale Rose is the name of the famous graph that Florence created to demonstrate the number of preventable deaths in the Crimea and this graph figures in the plot of the play.
So, we’ll see. Will the new title take? Or will I have to start again from scratch? I’m just trying to find ways to make people excited to read or see my play, but as they say, it’s a process. Whatever happens, I know there’s a lesson in this somewhere because I just read recently that “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” is coming out later this year.
Join us for our next Ethel Woolson Lab reading: THE NIGHTINGALE ROSE or THE BITCH OF BALACLAVA by Patricia Henritze!
Moving seamlessly between the devastation of the Crimean War and the luxuries of Victorian London, this play explores the inner life of one of history’s most renowned women. Florence Nightingale restlessly inhabits a world where she heals the sick, challenges the powerful and discovers the limits of her own brilliance.
Directed by Elisa Carlson, with Rachel Garner, Alex Rose, Brian Kurlander, and Bobby Labartino.
Dramaturgy by Michael Evenden
$10 at the door
About the Ethel Woolson Lab:
Each year, up to four plays by WTP affiliate playwrights are competitively selected by an outside panel to be given readings as part of the Ethel Woolson Lab. Each chosen play/playwright is given a 15- to 30-hour developmental workshop through the course of one week, culminating in a rehearsed, staged reading for the public. Each selected playwright works with WTP’s current dramaturg-in-residence for the EWL, and workshops are lead by the WTP director-in-residence. https://www.facebook.com/events/648319921958159/