Authors Speak to present its first playwright

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By Kelly LeVan

Is it better to write about what you know or to remain uninhibited by personal experience? Why write a play instead of a different form?

Robert Benjamin will discuss these and other questions as the first playwright to present in Mesa Public Library’s Author Speak Series. The free event will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in the upstairs rotunda.

“If the audience wants to talk about process,” Benjamin said, “I can go there. Why don’t I write a novel? I can go there. I need some direction from the audience.”

The presentation will also feature a performance of his short play “Fresh Out,” starring Pat Beck and Jody Shepard.

Before his “retirement,” Benjamin worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 31 years in experimental physics. These days, he spends most of his time either writing or workshopping plays.

His portfolio includes a variety of short pieces and two full-length dramas, one of which, his late-in-life romance “Time Enough,” was produced earlier this year at the Los Alamos Little Theatre. The Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, in Phoenix, will stage his current work-in-progress, a commissioned piece titled “Parted Waters,” next March.

Asking audience members for direction, as he plans to do at Thursday’s presentation, is nothing new for Benjamin. How a group of people reacts – or fail to react – always determines his next move.

A scientist at heart, Benjamin subjects all his plays to a systematic process of readings, workshops and other polishing steps before he considers them complete. He likes to blend into the audiences, watching and listening to the people watching and listening to the play.

“Parted Waters,” for instance, is presently undergoing theatergoers’ evaluations. And so far Benjamin feels encouraged by their comments.

“It had one scene read in Scottsdale, Ariz.,” he said, “and the audience really liked it. They laughed at the right places and gasped at the right places, so I think I’m most of the way there with that scene ee I don’t know if it’s my insecurity or just a way of doing business, but all my plays go through this process.”

Incorrigibly modest, Benjamin added that luck played the largest role in landing his first commissioned work.

“I think (producer Janet Arnold) just took a chance with me,” he said, but he also acknowledged, “She was at three readings. She’s convinced.”

Whether fortune or hard work accounts for his success, this process of alternating between writing and workshopping, for Benjamin, separates playwriting from other forms, such as novel-writing.

“A playwright gets to involve the audience in the development of a piece through readings,” he said, while a novelist usually relies on a few critical readers.

But, he said, novelists have more tools at their disposal while they’re writing to get readers thinking what the novelist wants them to think – mainly, the power of description. In this sense, he said, “a playwright is much more limited, relating to the audience through the director and the actors.”

As to whether he prefers writing from personal experience or strictly from his insightful imagination, Benjamin has not yet cast his personal verdict. “Extra Charges,” another current project, will represent the first of his plays about a real-life experience.

Benjamin’s shorter plays include “Offsides,” “Gorilla Tactics,” “Presents For Me,” “Warm Ashes,” “Fresh Out,” “The Search Party,” “Avocado Wagon” and “Sunrise at Otowi Bridge.” He also co-wrote “Working Out,” “Handle With Care,” “Cruising,” “Mesa by Moonlight” and “Yogurt Security” with Elaine Jarvik. “Mesa by Moonlight” and “Offsides” were produced as short films as well.

His children’s science book, “Spills and Ripples, offers a series of science projects kids can do in their kitchens – with fun names like “Trickle Triathlon” and “A Penny for Your Drops.” Benjamin said he’s most proud of the sections, “Who Cares About Rayleigh-Taylor Instability?” and “Science Research as Toddler’s Play” because the “philosophical part of science is in there.”