“Bad day at the hospital. Come tell me jokes.”
Two days later, when I finally caught a breather to check my Facebook messages, I apologized for not responding sooner. Not merely out of obligation or guilt—Erica Bennett was dramaturging a play I’d written. I had to check in, right?
“Don’t worry Joel; I can wait until u have more time.”
No, she couldn’t. Or at least the chronic illness that she had battled for most of her adult life couldn’t. Four days later, Bennett, as prolific and committed a playwright as OC has ever seen, was moved to a rehab facility. Eight days after that, on May 4, she was dead at 57.
There are few things more self-serving than making another person’s death all about you, particularly when your relationship with that person, other than two brief in-person encounters over seven years, had been through social-media messages. But anyone who knew Bennett on a more creative than personal level would probably agree that when communicating with her online, it was always about you: What you were working on. How much she liked something you had posted (or didn’t like how you once again used the dreaded C word, usually in reference to a president who, like most sane people, she utterly loathed). How you were doing.
Meanwhile, she was literally dying inside. Housebound for more than a year, usually bedridden and under palliative care, her lung capacity diminishing more and more, prescribed a buffet of drugs and medical treatments that each carried their own pernicious side effects, she inched inexorably toward that final dying of a light that, once extinguished, would plunge her into something unknowable, but that she had long known had readied its embrace.
But, oh, she did not go quietly. As the physical world she could interact with shrank, she seemed hell-bent on claiming the digital one. Rarely a day passed without multiple posts, ranging from the inspirational and profound to the mundane. But the constant was always her writing: new ideas she was pursuing, old ones she was revising, what she’d submitted, who she’d heard back from.
And she was constantly working. On her own work, such as an untitled poetic monologue that she was contemplating whether to turn into a play or book; blowing the horn for the latest play by perhaps the only person in this county more dedicated to playwrighting, Eric Eberwein, with whom she had worked closely over the years; even agreeing to lend her considerable research skills and knowledge of play structure and mechanics to a baseball script I’d written that had received two prior productions but was a shambled mess on the page with about 16 different margins and at least as many line spaces and that should have caught a felony by the font police.
In mid-April, she’d sent me back her thoughts, two of which I immediately inserted, a few appendices of some of the real historical figures in the play, and a completely reformatted script that was clean, crisp and professional. I told her that mean Old Testament God could only hope that the three tablets he handed Moses atop Mount Sinai looked so good.
She replied with a big red heart.
Four days later, on April 17, Bennett was checked into an emergency room. The next day, she apologized for not getting to a couple of meaningless rewrites in the second act. I told her nothing could be less important than her feeling better.
Her last message to me came on April 29, a missed video chat. I don’t even know what a Facebook video chat is, let alone how to respond to one. Later that day, I saw she posted a public announcement that she’d be in rehab until the end of the week. That was promising, right? She’d stabilized; all was good. I didn’t see any reason to bug her.
I missed a May 1 post, her final one: “Pray for me.”
Three days later, she was gone.
Whether or not she knew it, those were the last three words Bennett would ever write. Given the opportunity, maybe she would have liked to go out with more of a flourish. But it was also achingly honest, saying so much in so few words. And that makes sense. For Bennett was many things: actress, friend, confidant, collaborator and colleague, dog-lover, generous hostess, medical marvel (most people diagnosed with her condition die within five years), systems librarian at Fullerton College. But it all sprang from, or was informed by, what most defined her: writer.
And it defined her because it’s impossible to define. It just is. In contrast to those us who write for a living, as a hobby, out of necessity or because of a warped concept of what “fun” is, writers just do. They are neither born nor trained; it is less skill or craft, talent or gift, calling or romantic ideal than it is work. Their work.
It’s the only way they know how to put their shoulder to the wheel of an existence that not only eludes simple answers, but also scoffs at the very notion. But maybe living so long with the shadow never too far away gave Bennett an insight that eludes many of us: that it’s the living of life that matters, not what it means. And that the answers are far less important than asking and living the questions.
The founder of the Orange County Playwrights Alliance (OCPA) and co-founder of OC-Centric (the county’s only play festival dedicated to local writers), Eberwein described Bennett’s myriad full-length and one-act plays as “very powerful, strongly feminist, very intelligent.”
She had a wide range of interests and concerns: Water Closet(workshopped at Fullerton’s College’s Playwriting Festival in 2012 and presented at the Dramatist Guild in NYC in 2011 by White Horse Theater Co.), in which a U.S. Army cognitive psychologist and interrogator confronts the physical and emotional trauma endured by the orphaned granddaughter of a Nazi; One Good Day, about a Southern California woman seeking a little joy and a sense that she is loved rather than ignored by her family as she turns 50 (presented by OCPA at Theatre Out in 2014); A Waffle Doesn’t Cure Insomnia, a 10-minute drama about love and mortality published in The Best American Short Plays 2011-12; and perhaps the piece she was most proud of, El Primer Dia de Clases, a play based on the true story of a racial-segregation case in Orange County that was a precursor to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and which she adapted into the short documentary film Mendez v. Westminster: Families for Equality (broadcast on KOCE-TV, PBS).
But Eberwein said that while Bennett’s plays can’t be pigeon-holed, most pulsed with three questions, the same ones drilled into the dome of every acting 101 student: Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I here?
The difference between some fledgling actor needing to be grounded in the moment onstage and Bennett is that she lived those questions, particularly in her work.
“Those were the three questions she was dedicated to exploring,” Eberwein says. “And she approached them with the mentality of an artist, never in any commercial way. . . . She really poured herself into the work. Some playwrights are very opaque; you really can’t see them in what they create. You could definitely see Erica in hers.”
Though not married to a style, Bennett routinely included in her plays characters asking questions of other characters and often not receiving a response, according to Eberwein. He thinks that was less of a technique than another manifestation of Bennett transmitted to the page. “I don’t think we ever get answers to the life we’re living, but we have to ask the questions—at least some of us do,” he says. “Erica did.”
Eberwein, who called Bennett “one of my closest friends,” says her last plays did “have a distinct reckoning with mortality. She was quite realistic about her illness and the risk that it posed in her life. But, being an artist and a playwright, she was quite honest about it. But she still had an appreciation for life, for the provisions of life, the gift that we are all given. “I think, by the time of her death, she had learned so much about living that I think she died knowing at least something about [what it meant].”
William Mittler taught Bennett in his first playwrighting class at Fullerton College. The relationship quickly outgrew the traditional teacher-pupil mode. “Three years ago, after my heart attack, she inspired me to start writing again, as she was going through a bad patch and sending me things to read as I recovered,” he says. “She never stopped creating. Ever.”
Both Eberwein and Mittler say Bennett painstakingly labored to make sure she got her own writing right. But she wasn’t arrogant enough to think she could get there alone. Though she was meticulous in the way that “each word had importance and she would look for the perfect line to convey what she had to say,” Mittler says, she loved hearing her work “read before starting a major rewrite. She would reach out to her friends to come over; [she’d] cook, and we’d sit around the table and read.”
But don’t kid yourself: Point out a playwright who has no problem with people changing her or his words, and chances are they’re not much of a playwright.
Though words such as brave, fierce and uncompromising were used by her chorus of Facebook friends to describe the courage of someone who battled her declining health so valiantly, they also captured how protective she was of that which most nurtured her and gave her life meaning: her words.
“She had a strong sense of right and wrong and wasn’t afraid to pull work if it wasn’t being treated with the respect she thought it deserved,” Mittler says.
Mark Rosier, a fellow OC theater artist who performed in three of Bennett’s productions, says that although he admired her work and counted her as a close friend, sometimes he didn’t get it. “She was often criticized for [having] a lot of words, not a lot of action,” he says. “And there were times I couldn’t understand what she was trying to say because it was so poetic and cerebral.
“But though she took criticism well. . . . She would fight for her words. She told me once that after someone [critiqued her play], she told him the comments weren’t criticism as much as a ‘verbal abortion.’ If she felt you were being nitpicky or not respecting her work, she would come out with guns blazing.”
If respect is not given as much as it is earned, maybe the most fitting eulogy was delivered by Jordan Young, a fellow playwright and theater journalist who on May 10 wrote this on Bennett’s Facebook wall:
“Erica, you’ll be happy to know you’ve inspired me to finish the first draft of a play I started more than three years ago.”
The show, as with life and the work, must go on.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???