Helene Turnbull writes herself a new jobby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
For those who believe it's never too late to try something new, 70-year-old retired school counselor Helene Turnbull's story may bolster your argument. These days Turnbull's passion is writing plays, and her very first play is being staged in St. Paul. It's about the relationship between two iconic figures of the last century, Mother Teresa and Princess Diana.
St. Paul, Minn. — This is the story of a new voice in regional theater, who happens to be a retired high school counselor for Minneapolis schools. Helene Turnbull thinks her 36 years helping some of the city's most challenged students prepared her to be a writer.
"It was all worth it, and I think that this is now a reward. I get to write plays. And I get to have some material that I think is authentic and that I think reaches some depths that probably some other playwrights don't," she says.
But Turnbull's school experiences are obviously far removed from her play, "The Diana Story." Its central characters are Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, two of the most recognizable women in modern history, who died in the same week in 1997.
Turnbull admired them both greatly. She believes that despite the minimal time the two spent together, they forged a bond that was all but ignored by the media. She says when Diana died, Mother Teresa very publicly expressed her dismay, as if questioning why God let it happen.
"As a matter of fact when Diana passed away another thing that she said in commenting on her death was, 'she was as a daughter to me,' " Turnbull says. "Now what does that mean? She just became a daughter in just a few seconds there? No. She had this kind of feeling and thought and relationship with Diana. I'm totally convinced of that."
Turnbull says "The Diana Story" is about how a beleaguered and troubled princess, guided to some extent by Mother Teresa, evolved from someone who did good works to someone who tried to make a difference in the world. Diana, Turnbull believes, was being groomed to carry on the nun's advocacy.
In the play, when Diana talks about her growing involvement in the land mine issue, Mother Teresa gives her a warning.
Mother Teresa: "With me, weapons merchants felt threatened, and I am only a small old nun who talks about Jesus and works with souls discarded."
Diana: "I made a tentative commitment with the Red Cross visits, that's all."
Mother Teresa: "Diana, you will become a threat to the munitions cartel. I can see it is time that I gave you this daily prayer mistle. Diana, you do not lack courage, you lack protection."
Turnbull also made a rather gutsy move for a first time playwright by writing a good portion of the play in verse. Here, Diana expresses the pain of her unraveling marriage.
"If only I had known you loved your lady in the shadows all these years. It would have saved me ice cold rivers of tears. You said you wanted me, that's what you said. It is what you said, but a lot of sweet nonsense is what I was fed."
The man partially responsible for getting "The Diana Story" off the page and onto the stage is John Townsend, theater critic for Lavender Magazine. Townsend directed a reading of the play at the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis. At first, he expected a sappy story, full of melodrama.
"A term that some would put on it would be 'chick lit,' " he says.
Townsend ended up pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing.
"One of the great strengths of the piece is that it shows Diana's social and political consciousness growing as her personal growth expands," he says.
Townsend recommended the "The Diana Story" to Urban Samurai Productions, who's fall play had just fallen through. The company is now staging it at the Lowry Labs theater in St. Paul through Jan. 6.
That's not to say Turnbull is a 70-year-old playwriting prodigy. Townsend says she needs to pare down her wordiness. Director Matthew Greseth with Urban Samurai wants to help strengthen her understanding of the mechanics of theater. But Greseth says Turnbull's talent is undeniable.
"In bringing a slice of life to the stage, is she good at doing that," he asks. "Absolutely. Does she need some work on some of the technical aspects of it? Sure, but that's easily fixed."
When asked whether she's a hobby playwright or a serious writer launching a new career, Turnbull says it's the latter.
"The Diana story, it kind of sanctions what I do. I feel I'm a playwright now," she says.
Turnbull has written another play that is already drawing attention from Urban Samurai Productions and other theaters. It's based on her time as a substitute social worker at North High in Minneapolis.
- All Things Considered, 12/07/2007, 5:54 p.m.