Passing Rose-Mary Harrington on the street, you might not guess this 61-year-old, British-born, mother of five and grandmother of seven has penned 15 full-length plays and won the 2008 Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in Drama.
And that's just the way she likes it.
"I write plays that deal with social issues," explains Rose-Mary Harrington of Ashland, half of whose 15 plays have been produced nationally and internationally. "As Vaclav Havel said: 'Theater is a means of giving concrete shape to our hope. It is precisely what will show humankind the way toward tolerance, mutual respect and for the miracle of being.' "
Playing last fall at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., "Hutto" earned Harrington the 2008 Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in Drama. The story of two teens and their families caught in the crossfire of U.S. immigration policy and the Department of Homeland Security also claimed a Writer's Digest Honorable Mention last year.
Also in 2010, "There is No Dash" played in Louisville, Ky.
In 2009, Harrington's "I Do Wander Everywhere" was winner of the Arts Club of Washington Playwriting Award, and "The Wedding Dress" was named Manhattan Theatre Source EstroGenius Finalist.
"CATCH," a play addressing teen HIV prevention, was produced by Ashland Children's Theatre in 2008. "Every 20 minutes in America, a teen becomes infected with HIV/AIDS," says Harrington. "As a mother of five children, I felt impelled to get the word out there."
Harrington is currently shopping around a play called "Illegal," which deals with racial profiling in Arizona. For research, she and one of her daughters trailed a sheriff in a small Arizona town. The experience left a deep scar. "As Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner said: 'Labeling a race as illegal is how the holocaust started.' "
She also is writing a children's play in the style of Chinese opera based on an Anglo-Chinese myth.
Harrington has a master of arts degree in playwriting from the University of Arizona and a bachelor of arts from the New College of Speech and Drama, London University. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.
"I've kept a low profile so I don't embarrass my teenagers," she says with an easy laugh, chatting alternately about her unique, personal history and her first-ever attempt at making traditional, English plum puddings.
"This house is like a Turkish bath because you have to steam the puddings for five hours!" Then, more thoughtfully: "I'm the neurotic mum that worries all the time. I do the worrying for all of them."
Worry was a constant for Harrington while raising three children from her first marriage in Arizona. She came to the United States after marrying a Naval Academy graduate during her last term at London's New College of Speech and Drama. There, she spent her days studying theater, drama and education and her nights acting as a film extra and in commercials.
Born into a thespian family, Harrington always envisioned herself in the profession. Her mother, stage and film actress Gwendolyn Showcroft, graduated from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and would insist her daughter visit every set.
"She introduced me to everyone, and I made my first stage appearance when I was 3," says Harrington. "I fell madly in love with theater at age 7, when I was sent off every Saturday on the train by myself to Piccadilly Circus to take dance and Shakespeare. And by 11, I was on TV."
Harrington's degree in education, speech and theater led to her teaching high-school English as a newly married expatriate in Pensacola, Fla. Another opportunity followed, taking her to Japan for five years, where she religiously attended the theater and directed, acted and taught theater classes for the Atsugi Players.
"But in 1985, I became a destitute, single mother in Tucson, Ariz.," she remembers. "I postponed my theater aspirations and, for 19 years, I was the director of a school, working part time on my M.A. at the University of Arizona, specializing in Children's Theater."
The program came to an end before she could finish, so Harrington found herself studying playwriting under Sam Smiley, author of "Structure of Action."
"My mother was ecstatic. She had spent years insisting I should give up acting and write," says Harrington. Other family, friends and even the milkman — all of whom had read her weekly "epistles from Japan" — seconded the motion. But Harrington was "oppositionally defiant," and it wasn't "until the millennium" that she devoted herself to the craft.
Continuing on as a school director, she earned a master's degree and, in 1987, married Ken Chapman. The two were introduced by a mutual friend and amazingly were from the same, small, "one pub, one church," English village. They found joy in their growing family, adding a son and 2-year-old, adopted daughter to Harrington's three children.
But it wasn't easy. In 1993, both of Harrington's parents died of cancer, and she had a miscarriage. In 1995, she faced an ultimatum regarding her health: Either leave her stressful job, where one of the parents she worked with recently had murdered her own baby, or run the risk of ever-increasing high blood pressure.
Harrington left the job, and it was "a long, hard road back" from the pattern of fearing for herself and her family. The journey, however, helped fuel her "re-career" as a playwright.
"I'm able to pull on those experiences when I write, which is very productive, I think," she says.
"When you go to the bottom of the well emotionally, you can only come to the top."
Harrington and Chapman found "the top" in 1997, when they and their youngest child landed in Ashland. They had stopped for the night on their way to watch their oldest son captain the University of Portland soccer team.
"We've never regretted me leaving that job, leaving our gated community and the drug-trafficking issues, and coming here," says Harrington. "All of our children thrived here and, of course, having the Oregon Shakespeare Festival here really does give me inspirations and ideas about certain things; they're very experimental, and it acts like a springboard."
At first, she started with one-minute plays, then branched into 10-minute plays and one-acts. Chapman works two jobs to keep his wife busy at the keyboard.
"He really believes this is my time to write, which is really special of him," shares Harrington. "He's a wonderful balance to me because I'm the emotional, over-the-top person, and he's very quiet and staid."
Contemplating her past, present and future, Harrington has a single, resounding piece of advice to pass along to other playwrights — or to anyone living on or returning from the edge of dissolution: "Live your passion."
"If you are waylaid, but you can still just have a thread, it keeps your soul alive," she advises, "and your passion for it will never die."
And those plum puddings? Well, they're now resting in the cupboard, awaiting another two-hour steam and Chapman's brandy-butter sauce. Like Harrington's acclaimed "re-career" as a playwright, some things are worth waiting for.