'Foote' Notes: Renowned Texas Writer Proves You Can Go Home Again

  • News Photo 1206
    Horton Foote, Baylor University's Distinguished Visiting Dramatist
  • News Photo 1205
    Horton Foote, Baylor University's Distinguished Visiting Dramatist
March 26, 2003

by Amanda Lewis, Student Newswriter

Foote's lecture can be viewed online at BaylorTV.com.

The faded color of a patch of worn wallpaper in the living room, the smell of freshly brewed coffee at Sunday brunch, soft green grass between the toes on a warm summer day - specific memories that spur creativity in writers to paint a verbal picture to transport readers directly into a novel or play.

Academy Award-winner Horton Foote returns each year to his childhood home in the small south Texas town of Wharton to reminisce and recall the sights and sounds of his family, friends and life of which he typically includes in his writings.

More than 200 Baylor students, faculty and members of the Waco community gathered to hear the distinguished Texan speak about the importance of developing a vivid setting in his lecture "Writing with a Sense of Place" on March 19 at Baylor University.

Foote was named as a Visiting Distinguished Dramatist for the Baylor theater arts department in November. He spent March 17-21 on campus to deliver his public lecture and to give private interactive lectures each afternoon to students and faculty. Beginning in the spring of 2004, the university plans to sponsor the Horton Foote Playwrights Festival, an annual week-long drama event, and will present the Horton Foote Excellence in American Playwriting Award.

'Bit' by the acting bug

The lecture began with a brief description of Foote's childhood as he shared how his love for the theater prompted him to pursue a career in the business. He was first bit by the acting bug at the age of nine, when one of his teachers persuaded him to audition for a school play. After graduating from high school six years later, Foote left the cotton fields of Wharton for the stage of the Pasadena Playhouse, an acting school in California.

Upon finishing his studies, Foote and 12 friends moved to New York City and formed the American Actors Company, a small drama group who often performed original pieces. This is where the writer composed his first one-act play, "Wharton Dance," a short piece describing the everyday comedy of his birthplace and the many characters who give the town its flavor.

Foote uses the familiar quirks of his friends and family in the rest of his body of work to emphasize the importance of strong relationships and create a sense of community in a small town setting.

Sensory experience

Writing with a specific place in mind allows him to use his senses to recall every detail of the setting and transfer the exact smells, sounds, sights and tastes directly to the audience. He explained, however, that the scenery of a play cannot accurately convey the complete setting of a story. While scenery creates the overall effect for the audience, the language of a text develops the particulars of a play.

"The modern dramatist must use more and more dialogue to establish a sense of place," Foote said.

Foote read an excerpt from poet Elizabeth Bishop's "First Death of Nova Scotia" to demonstrate how exceptional imagery can immensely add to the effectiveness of a piece. After reading the poem, he stopped to reflect on his personal thoughts of the parlor Bishop describes.

"Although I've never been to that parlor, it's more real to me than any other place I have known," he said.

He also stressed the use of diligent actors to create authentic characters based on the social mores and customs of a specific region for authenticity. The playwright points out that "it is up to the actors to make us believe we are in the place we are."

Minute details

Recalling his most memorable instance of an authentic character, Foote recounted an example of Robert Duvall preparing for the role of Mac Sledge in the 1983 movie, "Tender Mercies." Duvall was so committed to the authenticity of the piece, he traveled the entire state of Texas talking to citizens of small towns to create the most effective southern accent for his character. This dedication to minute details is what formulates a memorable place for the audience.

The lecture concluded with a question-and-answer session with the audience where Foote discussed topics such as his creative writing process as well as the development of some of his most famous characters.

Foote's national accolades include Academy Awards for "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1962 and "Tender Mercies" in 1983, a Pulitzer Prize for "The Young Man from Atlanta" in 1995, an Emmy for "The Old Man" in 1997, a National Medal of Arts Award from President Bill Clinton, an induction into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1996 and the William Inge Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Theater in 1989.

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