Take a moment to think about entertainment: pre-recorded works like television shows, movies and films; live performances like plays, musicals, concerts and comedy acts; even broadcasting and hosting during shows and events. The people associated with these works are often the people we see, such as actors and musicians, comedians, talk show hosts and occasionally a director or producer.
While our culture has a deep appreciation for those who work in the entertainment industry, many don’t realize how much goes into creating a work like a television show or a play. Often, the unsung heroes of the entertainment industry are the creators of the story itself, without which, the musical, TV show, play or comedy show wouldn’t exist.
One such creator is Sandra Seaton, an established playwright and librettist, as well as a resident and community member right here in East Lansing. The talented writer has crafted more than 10 works, most of which have been performed in cities across the country including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and at venues like Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Herbst Theatre, the Library of Michigan and the Rialto Performing Arts Center.
While Seaton is extremely credible academically, holding a master’s degree in creative writing, she credits her upbringing as a large part of her success.
Growing up in Columbia, Tenn., her mother and aunts were teachers. As a young girl, her grandmother, who was very literary-oriented according to Seaton, would watch her when her mother was working. When her grandmother couldn’t watch her, she would go to school with her mother, where she learned early on how to read and write. “I think I learned to read early on, because before I ever went to school I knew how to read and write,” said Seaton. “I think I just naturally thought those things were important.”
Seaton’s adolescent years largely shaped the work she creates. Her domestic upbringing, surrounded by educated, independent women combined with her cultural upbringing – flooded with rampant racial discrimination – are large themes that appear in the stories she tells.
For example, her first play, The Bridge Party, was based on her experience watching her mother and her friends gather each week to play Bridge.
“It was just very meaningful to me,” said Seaton. “The sense of community that these African American women had when they were playing bridge, they would meet at different houses; if they were teaching they would come straight from school. My earliest memories were of those bridge parties.”
In the play, the women meet to play the card game, but the weekly meetings become more than a game for the women. As the play unfolds, the game seems to become more of a support group, a sense of community, for these women.
“I’m influenced by other writers because my work, my writing, it comes from a lot of influences, not necessarily [always] plays,” said Seaton. She listed poets, history writers as well as events that she has personally experienced, all as avenues of inspiration for her plays.
“I try to bring in a range of things. I would say that they are all history based, but I [also] want to show African Americans as multilayered, complex people,” she said.
Over the span of her successful career, she has worked with directors and composers, both locally and regionally, collaborating to make her plays come to life. One of the works Seaton is most known for is a libretto (the text of an opera or other long vocal work) called, From the Diary of Sally Hemings, a collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, William Bolcom. Her libretto has been sung at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, among others.
Bolcom was asked in 1999 to write a song about Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, and upon his research on the relationship, he felt that the information about it “rang false.” Bolcom reached out to Seaton, asking her if she would tackle the subject. Together, they created their interpretation of the story between Jefferson and Hemings in the solo drama, From the Diary of Sally Hemings.
“Sandra is a joy as a collaborator and as a friend,” said Bolcom. “I immediately fell in love with her ‘channeling’ of Sally. To my mind, she is a counterpart to August Wilson in her portrayal of African-American life from a woman’s point of view.”
Other directors, composers and producers Seaton has worked with include, Paul Carter Harrison, Andy Callis, Mary Job, John Lepard and more.
Seaton noted that she has always been a writer, doing “little writing projects” during her adolescence and throughout high school, but her writing career really started when she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While there, she wrote the first version of her play, The Bridge Party, graduated with a BA in 1971 and also met her husband, James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University.
The Seatons were married right out of their undergraduate programs, children following soon after. Being a busy mother, it wasn’t until 1989 that she received her master’s degree in creative writing from Michigan State University. Seaton noted though that being a writer and a mom wasn’t always easy.
“As a woman who writes, I’ve always had to juggle a lot of things just to get in writing time,” she said.
Seaton talked about what her days entailed when her twins were young and she was working on the Sally Hemings piece, saying that her day often began at 3 or 4 a.m., and included writing, taking care of her children, her house and teaching at Central Michigan University, which she did from 1990-2004.
“I’ve had to train myself to write whenever I have the time. Because I’m part of a family, no two days are ever the same,” she added.
Although Seaton’s personal drive for being a writer is obvious, she noted that the support of her husband played a large role in helping her achieve her goals, even through those busy years.
“He is really the person that has been so supportive to me, so encouraging,” said Seaton. “I just can’t imagine life without him.”
The Seatons have four adult children; Ann, Jim, and twins, Amanda and Jeremy. She noted that her interest in reading and writing had a significant influence on how she raised her children.
“They grew up being read too,” she said. “We didn’t have a TV in the house — I know some people would go crazy if they didn’t have television — but our kids didn’t grow up with a TV, so they were reading all the time.”
All of her children are still “big readers.” Seaton’s oldest daughter, Ann, is an English professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Aside from writing occasional articles for magazines and journals, currently, Seaton is working on her first musical about teenagers in Chicago in the 50s and 60s.
Seaton expressed that writing, and storytelling in particular, are important, because aside from it being entertaining, stories help us understand the lives and perspectives of others.
“Writing helps us to imagine the lives of people we have never met. We get to feel their pain, witness their joy, disappointment, regret and success. Through the writer’s use of her imagination, these characters come to life.”
To learn more about Sandra Seaton, visit her website at sandraseaton.com.