Cueing up a Q&A with playwright Cindy Rock Dlugolecki
Editor’s note: There’s an awful lot of work that goes into writing a play. And a lot more effort on top of that to turn that play into a full-blown musical. Which is why, when we heard just before going to press that Mechanicsburg’s Cindy Rock Dlugolecki’s original historical musical, The Hand That Holds the Quill, was rehearsing like mad in preparation for its premiere at Central Penn College the weekend of Sept. 16, 17, and 19, we felt compelled to honor Cindy’s many drops of blood, sweat, and tears devoted to crafting her story with a special sit-down Q&A session. Here’s wishing for broken legs for all of Cindy’s cast and crew!
RG: I understand that Jacob Shallus, your first cousin six-times removed, served as the inspiration for The Hand That Holds the Quill, but that you didn’t start researching his life until you had read the Arthur Plotnick Book, “The Man Behind the Quill.” How did that book lead you to discovering your relation to Jacob?
CINDY: I heard Jacob and I were cousins at a 2005 family reunion in western Pennsylvania from a cousin who had read the book. I ordered the book upon returning home, read it immediately upon receipt, and then displayed it proudly on a bookshelf. It never dawned on me at that time to write a play about Jacob or the Constitutional Convention.
RG: Early on, what was the thing that struck you the most about Jacob’s life? And how soon was it before you had that “light-bulb” moment and said to yourself “what a great play this would make!”
CINDY: The volatile political climate fueled by the 2016 election energized my own political perspective. By 2019, I was ready to put hands on the keyboard. And I hoped to have a play ready just before the 2020 election. Covid had other things in mind. So, I kept writing, as events in 2021 kept informing this play that takes place in 1787.
The fact that Jacob is the son of a German immigrant made me extremely proud of my German heritage. Jacob’s father Valentine and Uncle Sebastian weathered an Atlantic Ocean voyage to make a new life. Valentine must have instilled the value of an education and patriotism in Jacob early on, because Plotnik reveals Jacob’s command of the English language—both spoken and written—was the result of an education in a private Philadelphia school. Jacob also served in the Revolutionary War as a quartermaster and corresponded with other patriots, including John Hancock. After the war, Jacob served as an assistant clerk in the PA Legislative Assembly, which put him in the company of Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris.
His free-spirited Uncle Sebastian, on the other hand, went westward to cultivate land in the wilds of Pennsylvania to become my 5x-great grandfather. I had not intended to make Sebastian a pivotal character in the play, but Sebastian had other ideas.
As patriotic and well spoken as Jacob was, his greatest flaw, in my opinion, was his mismanagement of money. The issue becomes important in the play when Jacob is threatened publicly with Debtor’s prison for his failure to pay taxes. The family contemplates pulling up city roots and moving to the backwoods with Sebastian until the opportunity to engross the Constitution saves the day.
RG: What made you decide to take The Hand That Holds the Quill in an additional direction – and add an extra dimension – by focusing on the roles played by women in the events of that time period, and also the issues of abolition and literacy for the Black community?
CINDY: As I wrote and took copious notes on the Constitutional Convention, I realized early on this play could easily become another 1776. Both scripts had many of the same characters pontificating in the same room. Then in the spring of 2019 a friend told me about a book she had read by Cokie Roberts, “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation”. One insight changed the direction of my play: wives of some delegates traveled with their husbands to Philadelphia. Immediately, I pictured opinionated and entitled women—I call them the “Liberty Belles”—sharing afternoon tea and their own perspectives (or lack of interest thereof) on government.
Delegates spent much of the summer debating representation by state versus by population. Counting the enslaved would greatly increase the number of representatives southern states could have, which threatened the northern states. Because slavery was such a hot-button issue, I began researching slavery in Philadelphia and discovered the formerly enslaved Absalom Jones. Absalom helped to establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church after his own confrontation with white supremacy. He promoted literacy in the Black community to free the minds of those who may not be free in body.
RG: Was it a conscious decision then that perhaps the best way to bring your story to the stage would be by assembling an all-female production team (producer, director, stage manager, music director, and music composer)?
CINDY: An all-female production team was a happy accident; there was no deliberate intent. Having brunch in January 2019 with Janet Bixler and innocently sharing that I was currently researching a play about my cousin, the scribe of the U.S. Constitution, prompted a six-word response: “I want to produce that play!” When I heard music in my head as the script was developing, I called business partner Chris Purcell, who agreed immediately. When it came time for a table reading, I asked Chris Krahulec to listen and advise, as she was enjoying the challenge and success of directing for Keystone Theatrics. I did not invite her with the intent of guilting her on to the team, but she volunteered! Because Carol McDonough has worked with Chris Krahulec as stage manager for many productions, it made sense to use her expertise. Finding a music director had its own set of challenges. But the muses had mercy sending us the divine and dedicated Ellen Carnahan.
RG: So, it sounds like it didn’t occur to you immediately that you wanted to turn the story into a musical. It was something that evolved along the way, then?
CINDY: Right. It was not my intent to make Quill into a musical or a play with music. However, I heard music in my head when working with the delegates. I remember emailing author Art Plotnik and asking him what he thought. He LOVED the idea. So, I went with it. Honestly, some of the best thoughts in the script are in the lyrics.
RG: I see that you have one previous musical under your belt – Into the Desert – and that one was also a collaboration with Chris Purcell. What is it about Chris that made you say “no question in my mind, that’s my composer!”
CINDY: Chris and I met in the 1980s as we both worked part-time as clerks in a Christian bookstore. I immediately liked her independence and quirky sense of humor. At that time, playwriting was not even on my radar. However, in 1999, I found myself looking for a composer for lyrics a college professor challenged me to write. I remembered Chris telling me she was not only a singer but also a composer, so I looked her up in the phone book. Yes. The phone book. And there she was. The rest is history. But, back to Quill … did I say that Chris will make sure the audience leaves humming? Her music ranges from prayerful to playful with patriotism in between.
RG: The Hand That Holds the Quill will have its premiere performances at the Capital Blue Cross Theatre at Central Penn College on September 16, 17, and 19. With those show dates coming just after 9/11 commemorations, do you believe your play will serve an additional – if unintentional – purpose of reminding the audience how precious our Constitutional freedoms are? Are there any other takeaways you’re hoping audience members will have?
CINDY: I use the term fragile in the play, and I’m very intentional. The last years have shown us how fragile our democracy is. For too long we have assumed that anyone holding office will perform his/her duties morally and ethically. That assumption is wrong. And we still have disenfranchised people struggling to be heard at the ballot box. I’m hoping this play brings government teachers to the play. Quill would make an entertaining teaching tool.
RG: Is a production of The Hand That Holds the Quill in Philadelphia still in the works? Of course, every playwright dreams of taking their work to Broadway … is that something you’re actively pursuing with Quill?
CINDY: Yes, we are taking Quill to Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. Stay tuned for the time and date.
I have reached out to around ten Philadelphia theatres, inviting them to the Philly production. I believe Quill belongs to Philadelphia and then Philadelphia should share it with Broadway!
RG: Speaking of Broadway … Even though your roots are in Pennsylvania, when you were younger, did you ever consider moving to New York (or Chicago, or LA)?
CINDY: No. Never. I’m a small-town girl at heart. But I will say that, after watching Les Miserables on Broadway, crying my eyes out, and humming the music for days on end, I thought to myself: I want to write a play just as powerful. Is Quill that play?
RG: A little more about yourself … like a lot of writers, you had a humble beginning, earning $35 a week writing commercials for a rock radio station in Waynesboro. Any lessons learned from those early days that you would like to pass on to aspiring playwrights? Even better, what one word of advice can you offer from your long, stellar playwriting career?
CINDY: Randy, you really are making me laugh! And making me think. People say “write what you know.” I say to challenge yourself to write what you don’t know. I know nothing about art, yet I wrote a play about muralist Violet Oakley (Violet Oakley Unveiled). I knew nothing of the Constitutional Convention. Now I know Gouverneur Morris composed the Preamble, and I wrote about the person who penned it. My life is richer knowing about Absalom Jones. I have learned so much through my writing, even making up stories about my great grandfather Sebastian.
RG: I know you’re probably anxious to get back to rehearsals, but … any parting thoughts?
CINDY: Just that I am indebted to not only everyone on our team for their investment of time and expertise but also to our twenty-three actors, auditioning for a play they had never read and singing a score they had never heard.
RG: Lastly, on a lighter note (and sorry, I can’t resist): your middle name. Maiden name? Or can I just call you a playwriting “rock” star (which you truly are!)
CINDY: Maiden name. LOL.
To purchase tickets for any of the three performances of The Hand That Holds the Quill at Central Penn College’s Capital Blue Cross Theatre, visit www.givebutter.com/Quill.