Patricia Griffith became a playwright almost by chance. Since moving to Washington 20 years ago she has worked steadily as a writer; she published two novels and numerous short stories, taught writing, and was a cofounder of the Washington Review. One of her stories, "Nights at O'Rear's," was made into a short film, and at a party in New York in its honor a woman came up to her and said, "Why don't you write a play? If you do, I'll produce it."
Before long she began work on "Outside Waco," which was produced in Dallas in October and will open at the Hudson Theatre Guild in February. The woman who asked her to write the play, June Rovinger, is its director.
"I started with the characters. I woke up one morning thinking about the play and got up and wrote six legal pages of notes," Griffith says. "It was like the people were standing around the desk talking to me."
Griffith, who lives in Northwest Washington with her husband, a professor of philosophy at George Washington University, and their 12-year-old daughter, is one of three sisters and is from Fort Worth. Her play is about three sisters and is set in Texas, but, she says, it is not autobiographical. It deals with the sisters' return home after their mother has had a stroke, and their relationship to their possibly senile father.
The play got mixed reviews from the two Dallas newspapers. "One said I had a fresh new voice and the other called it a 'sagging family drama,' " Griffith says. "But I've been mauled before, so it didn't bother me too much." Variety's critic also thought her voice "authentic and fresh" and, with some reservations, called it "deeply respectful playwriting."
For Griffith, who retains a trace of her Texas accent, working in the theater was a refreshingly social experience after years of solitary toil at her typewriter. "It was more fun," she says. "All my old friends and family came to see the play, old boyfriends and college roommates, and we had a big party and everyone in the room was someone from my life. When people ask me, 'How was the play?' I say, 'I had a lot of fun.' "
In fact, she thought the production was fine, and learning how an actor creates a character was a surprise. "I thought you just wrote a character and everybody played it the same," she says. "What an actor can bring is truly amazing . . . It breaks my heart to see how actors knock themselves out for you. The last performance was very hard for me -- I didn't see how they do it, just leave it all and go on to the next show."
Griffith always wanted to be a writer, and studied journalism at Texas Christian University, the University of Texas and Baylor University. The day she graduated she left for New York to look for a job, not suspecting that the International News Service had just folded and the streets were full of unemployed journalists. She ended up as a secretary at a top public relations firm, Rogers and Cowan.
"They had never seen anyone as ignorant as I was. They couldn't believe there was someone who had never heard of Toots Shor," she says. Occasionally she got to write press releases, such as one about a contestant on "The Price Is Right" who won as much as she could grab in Macy's in an hour. Her employers were "horrified" when Griffith left to take a job at the American Civil Liberties Union, which she thought would be more constructive than writing about entertainment.
Not long afterward she got married, moved to New Haven and began to write full time. She published "The Future Is Not What It Used to Be" in 1970 and "Tennessee Blue" in 1981. She helped found the Washington Review, now established as a respected journal in the arts field. She gave up editing there last summer because of the press of her own work and the feeling that a "new eye" was needed.
Her first play brought forth the inevitable comparison to Beth Henley, whose first play was about three sisters and was set in the South. Griffith is not familiar with Henley's work, but says she thinks the comparison is not necessarily apt. "My sisters are mature women, with careers, and mature emotional concerns," she explains. (Henley's sisters in "Crimes of the Heart" are younger women, and at least two of them are quite wacky.)
"I feel lucky that I didn't get into playwriting until I was older," Griffith says. "I love writing about women my age, in their forties. And in my next play I'm going to add husbands! I'm really enjoying that."