Beth Lincks ’75
AKA Arlene Hutton

Full Circle: A Playwright’s Return to Rollins

By Mary Seymour ’80

Beth Lincks. Photo by Tony Firriolo.

If Beth Lincks ’75 were to write a play about her life, she could call it Circles. The opening scene might take place in the Annie Russell Theatre in the early ’70s, where the main character spends all her free time—acting, making costumes, building sets. Scared but determined, she dreams of becoming an actor in New York City. Later in the production, the curtains part and reveal the Annie Russell Theatre in February 2011. This time Beth is older, an elegant, golden-haired New Yorker. She’s watching a rehearsal of a play she wrote, Letters to Sala. Rollins theater students, earnest reminders of her young self, are playing the parts.

Circles. Beth Lincks’ life has always been full of them.

She was born in Louisiana and raised in Florida. Her parents, Kentucky-born and -bred college professors, gave her a lifetime of dramatic material with their family histories. Her grandmother’s voice (“Don’t make no nevermind to me!”) took up residence in her head, as did family tales, like the time her father painted stripes on a mule so he could imagine what a zebra looked like.

Lincks made her way to Rollins, where she majored in theater arts and—flash back to Act One—practically lived in the Annie Russell. “What was really important about the theater department at Rollins was that we did everything,” she said. “When I finally went to New York, I had a set of skills I could draw on. I wasn’t just an actor.”

For that arrival in the Big Apple, around 1980, she also had an MFA from the Asolo Conservatory at Florida State University. Lincks acted in soap operas and Off Off Broadway productions, directed plays, and worked with small theater companies, but her mainstay was the costume-making skills she learned at Rollins. A card-carrying member of Theatrical Wardrobe Union Local 764 IATSE, she worked behind the scenes for 10 years on the crew of Saturday Night Live.

However, as the years rolled along and Lincks entered her 30s, she began to notice a dearth of fulfilling roles. “I started writing plays so I could create good roles for myself,” she recalled. “I had no formal training; the writing came more through osmosis than anything.” Her first play was a one-act called I Dream Before I Take the Stand, in which a defense lawyer callously cross-examines a woman during her testimony in a sexual assault case.

The play debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1995, with Beth Lincks playing the lead and Arlene Hutton listed as playwright. In fact, Beth and Arlene were one and the same. Lincks didn’t want the audience to know she was doing double duty, so she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to adopt a nom de plume (Arlene is her middle name, Hutton a family name). The play received glowing reviews, and Lincks decided to stick with her pen name.

Her playwriting career took a giant leap forward with Last Train to Nibroc, a 2000 New York Drama League nomination for Best Play. Set in 1940, it follows the budding romance between two young Kentuckians, Raleigh and May, who meet on an eastbound train from California. A folksy two-character drama, it draws on Lincks’ family stories; of the eight full-length plays she’s written, this one lies closest to her heart. “When I finished writing it, I walked around the city and said to myself, ‘I think I’ve written something good.’”

Last Train has been revived six times in New York and produced all around the country. Because she so loved the characters of Raleigh and May, Lincks wrote two more plays tracing their lives, See Rock City (2005) and Gulf View Drive (2009). Lincks is particularly fond of May because she is much like herself: “She tries to do her best, but her mouth sometimes gets her into trouble.”

In an era when playwrights are a vanishing species and Disney dominates Broadway, Lincks has fashioned a remarkable place for herself. Her plays have been produced in London, New York, and Los Angeles. She’s held residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and numerous other artists’ communities. She served as Tennessee Williams Playwriting Fellow at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee in 2005 and 2007 and is currently teaching playwriting at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

She credits Tennessee Williams for showing her the poetry of Southern language, and playwright Lanford Wilson for teaching her about overlapping dialogue and giving her the courage to write a play with just two characters (his two-character play, Talley’s Folly, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize). During an early job as a press agent’s assistant, she transcribed an interview with Harold Pinter, known for his spare dialogue. “Listening to the way he talked and seeing how he wrote the same way really struck me. I’ve met a lot of playwrights, and they always sound like their plays. I think it’s about how we hear the world—my plays certainly echo the way I hear.”

Letters to Sala

Actors Alexa Gordon ’12 and Brian Hatch ’12 find love in the most desolate of places as Young Sala and Harry, while Shannon Singley ’11 as Old Sala looks on in melancholy remembrance. Beth Lincks’ Letters To Sala was produced in February 2011 at the Annie Russell Theatre.

Six years ago, theater director Lawrence Sacharow approached Lincks with a proposition. Ann Kirschner had written a book, Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story, drawn from letters her mother, Sala Garncarz Kirschner, had saved while interned at Nazi labor camps during World War II. Would Lincks be interested in writing a dramatic version of the book?

Her answer was an emphatic yes. Under Sacharow’s guidance, she wrote a short piece that he directed for the New York Public Library’s exhibition of the letters. Lincks, Sacharow, and Kirschner continued to develop the material into a full-length play, Letters to Sala. When Sacharow died of leukemia in 2006, the two women decided to continue with the project.

Lincks wrote and rewrote Letters to Sala for five years, staging it informally here and there, crafting the dialogue until it fit the characters just right. Asked to debut her latest working version of Letters to Sala at Rollins in February, she suggested that Eric Nightengale, a New York director who has staged several of her plays, be brought in as guest director. They worked closely with the 18 Rollins students cast in the play, seeking their input on everything from dialogue to stage direction. “We never thought of these actors as students,” Lincks said. “They were so good—we worked exactly as we would with professional actors.”

Lincks ended up rewriting about a quarter of the play, which debuted at the Annie Russell Theatre to positive reviews (the Orlando Sentinel called it “a moving, timeless, beautiful poem”) and standing ovations. Ann Kirschner’s parents, Sidney and the now-86-year-old Sala, came to see themselves portrayed on stage for the first time. Sixty-five years after Sala was freed from the Nazi labor camps, the people she knew and loved were alive again, on stage, telling their stories.

Closing scene: Beth Lincks rides the train from Winter Park to New York City after the final performance of Letters to Sala; the journey reminds her of Raleigh and May and their train-bound romance, which in turn reminds her of her parents. She looks out the window, watching the Southern landscape unfold, thinking about how lucky she feels, how she’s living a dream she never felt possible. Although it all seems accidental, she knows everything she did led her in this direction. And even though that northbound train is traveling in a straight line, she sees circles all around her.