Marilyn's career as dramatist serves as inspiration to anyone wishing to move in a new direction at any age. Her first play, Acts of Faith, begun at the age of fifty as a project in a play writing class, premiered off-Broadway. Her second, Asher's Command won a 2001 Kennedy Center Production Grant for New American Plays. Both have been repeatedly produced.
This autobiographical piece, describing high points of her career and family life, was written by Marilyn in 2004 for her 50th high school reunion – at the Birch Wathen School (now the Birch Wathen Lenox School), a private school in New York, the city where she grew up.
**********Marilyn (Hirsch) Felt
After Birch Wathen I went on to Barnard, where I majored in Psychology, married, and was lucky enough to have a professor who let me bring my rats home to run so that I could be with my infant daughter, Laura. After graduation, we packed up and went out to the Midwest for graduate school-- Indiana University. Having a child, I soon decided that behaviorist psychology was not the key to human nature.Back in Boston three years later, I heard that the National Science Foundation was funding a project in Cambridge to create for elementary school social studies, a course that would go beyond the familiar history and geography and explore the nature of humankind. I was hired to be a course developer, and this was my start at Education Development Center. I've spent much of my career life there, it's a great place to work, lots of room for creativity, and you're always learning. That first project turned out to be Man, A Course of Study, which was well esteemed until fundamentalist objections that it taught evolution stopped it short in its tracks. A later project was Exploring Childhood, a high school course that depends on work with young children. I started making documentary film on this project, filming around the country seven families of four-year-olds, to make video material for students to analyze for parents' values and ways of inculcating them. In my current project, our client is the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, and the product is a curriculum to introduce youth everywhere to the Geneva Conventions and the humanitarian perspective. In pilot testing I got to travel to Geneva, Thailand, Morocco, South Africa, Northern Ireland. After only three years, the program-- Exploring Humanitarian Law-- is in 93 countries, and the Geneva Conventions are a hot topic today, as you can imagine.. Right now I'm steeped in developing response materials to help teachers and students explore recent events and come out learning something positive.
About fifteen years ago, I decided to try forms of writing other than curriculum, so a friend brought me to a Harvard Continuing Education course in playwriting. There, I wrote my first play, Acts of Faith, about a young fundamentalist terrorist and his American captive, and I think the timeliness of the topic (it was the summer of the Achille Lauro) helped to get a production at the 92nd Street "Y" in New York. That was an engaging start for a playwright. Shortly afterwards, I began work on a new play, also about the Middle East, and I went to Israel and the West Bank to research an incident. The play is Asher's Command and it has taken twelve years to write. This time, I think the "timeliness" of the topic is making it hard for anyone to want to risk a production. All in all, these controversial subjects take a toll-- where people did risk productions, one play or the other has had a hand in the subsequent demise of two small theaters and one annual festival. On the positive side, though, Asher's Command did receive a wonderful grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, and had a well-received premiere in Sanibel, Florida. The plays may just take a long time to take root. Confirming this, I've just heard from a German producer that he has arranged for a production of Acts of Faith (virtually unproduced for 12 years) at a prestigious state theater in Augsburg. It will have a larger audience than ever before, and this will be our first trip to Germany.
I have two children, Laura Clayton Baker and Josh Clayton-Felt. Josh passed away of a rare and aggressive testicular cancer in January, 2000, at age thirty-two. It is difficult to know whether to say "I have" or "I had" a son, because his spirit is so alive and so much with me. I have started to prefer the present tense. Before his loss, I believed only in the here and now and what I could see, as did most of Josh's friends. But his own spirituality seems to have taken root in many of us. He was a gifted singer-songwriter with a remarkable ability to connect with people. For a sense of him, look at his Web site www.joshclayton.com and see the message section. I hope you'll do this, because it's a way of sharing him with me. Or listen to his recently released album, Spirit Touches Ground. Currently I am working at a way to tell Josh's story and spread the music-- possibly a radio serial, possibly an animated film. The general story is titled Lightsong.
Laura lives in Santa Monica, is married to Steven Baker, and has two children: Jed, almost thirteen, and Lucie, ten. Laura is an interior designer, and a very involved school mother. And we work together on managing Josh's music. Although we live on opposite sides of the continent we get to see each other, one coast or the other, at least every season. Her warmth and support kept me going at the time we lost Josh, as did the strength and caring of my husband, George Lukas. George and I have been married eleven years, and from him I have two stepsons, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson. George has just taken early retirement from teaching computer science at the University of Massachusetts, and is starting on a long-denied exploration of a world of other interests; plus he's a great cook.
May 21, 2004
Marilyn does not mention nor did she make it known outside her immediate family that she was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of cancer in May, 2002. She continued her work, leading as normal a life as possible until her death April 4, 2006. We never made it to Augsburg to see the German translation of Acts of Faith. We did, however make it to ICRC conferences devoted to Marilyn's Exploring Humanitarian Law curriculum in Budapest and in Riga where her seminal contributions to that program were thoroughly recognized.
The Education Development Center (EDC), where she spent nearly all of her professional life has created a very nice memorial article: Remembering Marilyn Felt
A reference letter, in support of a nomination to the MacArthur Fellows Program (PDF, 60KB) presents an outside view of her work and also, in describing how she could have used her Fellowship, shows how much was left undone. She had too large a life to fit into her short time span.
Not long before her own death, Marilyn completed Lightsong as an audio drama. In seven parts it weaves together her son Josh’s music and a fictionalization of Josh’s life story extended into a fantasy realm. I am now producing Lightsong with a wonderful cast of professional actors and director and it should be available via free podcast in about six months. (I am building a Web site www.lightsongplay.com to provide background and updates about the play. The site will be up soon).
Marilyn did not like the limelight. A film was produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Service about Man a Course of Study, a major social studies program in which Marilyn served as Director of Research. (Unfortunately, this curriculum too eventually vanished.) She is not even mentioned in the film but for a couple of seconds, if one has been watching closely, she is visible at the back of a classroom, carefully, pensively monitoring the curriculum in action. And that is just where she felt most comfortable – in the background.
[by George Lukas, March 15, 2008]