After decades as a professional speech therapist and community volunteer, the last thing Judi Schram expected to be was an author and playwright.
“I had no long-term plans to write or pursue this path, but it just sort of happened to me,” said Schram, whose humorous play, What Am I Doing Here?, will have its world professional premiere beginning Friday, Aug. 12, at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor.
The five-woman show, which takes a hilarious look at aging, is performed by actors perched on a row of stools across the front of the stage, in the style of other women-oriented plays such as The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler or Love, Loss and What I Wore by Delia Ephron.
Using humor and heart stemming from Schram’s own experiences, the play covers themes universal to female “boomers,” women in their 50s and above, such as menopause, belonging to the sandwich generation, dieting and other body-image issues, technology challenges and forgetfulness.
Aging With Humor
Schram, 66, who calls herself an “unwitting playwright,” said the play exemplifies her credo: “We are all aging and the best way to navigate this process successfully is together and with humor.”
The play, which Schram prefers to call “a performance piece,” is an outgrowth of a book of humorous poems Schram wrote and published in 2011, called Lights Out in the Attic, a take-off on the title of Shel Silverstein’s popular children’s poetry book The Light in the Attic.
Schram, who lives in Bloomfield Hills with her husband and childhood sweetheart, Bradley Schram, wrote the book at a time she was experiencing a transition in her own life. After retiring from her career as a speech therapist specializing in early childhood issues, she spent a decade as a dynamic volunteer for various organizations. She took on several leadership roles that included president of the Greater Detroit Chapter of Hadassah, chair of the Michigan Region of the Anti-Defamation League and board member for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
As she and her husband began spending more time at their home in Delray Beach, Fla., Schram found it challenging to keep up with the commitments and follow-up her positions required.
“I wasn’t in one place long enough to be an effective volunteer, and I realized writing can be done on airplanes, anywhere you have a computer,” said Schram, who claims the poems “just came pouring out” during an airplane trip between Florida and Michigan.
Her original intent was to write a series of scholarly essays about the issues facing aging female boomers. Instead, she found herself writing comical poems about these same issues.
“I wrote about the things my friends and I would sit around and kvetch about,” she said.
Once she completed enough poems to comprise a book, Schram called upon her close friend and artist, Ellen Rontal, to do the illustrations.
“She perfectly channeled the sensibility of the poems,” Schram said.
When she wrote the play as a natural extension of the book, Schram did not expect it to evolve into a professional production. Using a “pop-up theater” concept, she produced it originally as a fundraiser for Hadassah, using a rented space at a local library. Acting as narrator, she enlisted a group of friends as cast members. She went on to produce the show several more times locally and in Florida and Colorado, using local amateur actresses.
“The response has been wonderful; everyone identifies with every topic,” she said.
Deciding to move the production into the professional arena, Schram contacted producer Barbie Weisserman, formerly of the local Two Muses theater company. Weisserman saw one of the local productions of Schram’s play and decided it would be an ideal project for her newly formed independent production company, PAPA Weeze.
“It was very funny and enjoyable,” Weisserman said. “Everybody loved it, and the ladies enjoyed doing it. Every single thing in there you know you’ve been talking about with your friends.”
Weisserman looked around for a location and found the ideal venue: Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor, a 72-seat theater located in the Yellow Barn in downtown Ann Arbor.
“I knew a smaller, intimate theater would be best, and I knew they [Theatre Nova] do new works, so it was like a kismet [fate] for both of us,” Weisserman said. “The director [Emily Pierce] is not a boomer. She’s younger, so she has a different perspective. Everything is falling into place.”
A team of professional boomer-aged female actors, including Weisserman, who will serve as a substitute during certain performances, will portray the roles previously filled by Schram and her friends.
Schram is thrilled at the prospect of seeing her work in its first professional production. She harbors a fantasy that includes an “off-off-off Broadway” production of her play starring Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren.
“That’s my dream cast,” she said.
She appreciates the support she has received during this new phase of life from her adult children, Zachary, Justin and Alison, and her husband, whom she calls “remarkable.”
“My children have been so incredibly supportive during this process, each in their own way, and my husband has been there for me in every possible capacity,” she said.
In addition to playwriting, Schram has written a series of 20 children’s books that she hopes to get published in the near future. She has also begun painting.
“I guess you could say I’ve had this pent-up creative streak that’s finally coming out, and I’m having a lot of fun with it,” she said. *
What Am I Doing Here? will be performed Aug. 12-28 at Theatre Nova at the Yellow Barn, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Gala opening is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12, $30 includes refreshments. Other performances: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Advanced tickets, adults, $18, seniors 62-plus and students, $15; $3 more at the door. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (248) 701-2643.
By Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer