When Lee Blessing was a senior at Minnetonka High School, his English teacher assigned the class a theme paper – about thirty pages long.
"I knew I had to get out of that," says Blessing. "So I asked Mr. Hoenig if I could write a one-act play. And he said absolutely."
Neither he nor Charles Hoenig realized it at the time, but that play represented the first contribution to a body of work that has placed Lee Blessing '67 among America's most respected and renowned playwrights. His work has been produced all over the world, from small playhouses across the United States to the most prestigious stages in New York, London, Paris and Moscow.
He may have written his first play as a senior, but his writing took root in his earlier Minnetonka school years.
"I started writing in junior high, with Mr. Holden," Blessing says. "And when I went to the high school, I had three more years of extraordinary English teachers: Tom Bauman, Bill Chisholm and Charles Hoenig. Those four teachers had a tremendous amount of influence on my becoming a writer."
Even with an interest in writing, he still did his share of acting at Minnetonka. "I was always somewhere on stage. I did odd roles. In a Harold Pinter play I remember playing a middle-aged truck driver, even though I weighed about 110 pounds." He also remembers being part of the crew in the Diary of Anne Frank and playing Biedermann in a summer production of Biedermann and the Firebugs.
After graduating from high school Blessing enrolled at the University of Minnesota. The following summer he wrote a play that he and a friend produced, staging it in the carriage house on the grounds of the old Burton mansion on Lake Minnetonka. The carriage house was broken down, but the land had not yet been sold and subdivided. It turns out they weren't the first thespians to entertain at the scenic Deephaven locale.
"Later I discovered that when the Burtons lived there in the early part of the 20th century, they had Dame Sybil Thorndike perform on their lawn, so apparently we were carrying on some sort of theatrical tradition," Blessing chuckles. And how was attendance at his show? "It was good because it was all friends and family."
At that time, and all through college, Blessing considered himself more of an actor and a poet than a playwright. That changed when he was in graduate school.
"I was about 25 and I realized I couldn't remember my lines even at that age. It just didn't bode well for when I got older," he says. "And I was never entirely comfortable on stage, even though I enjoyed acting. "
In the years since, he's written more than 30 plays, most taking on serious and in some cases controversial subjects. Blessing was asked to write Patient A by the family of Kimberly Bergalis, who acquired HIV during a dentist appointment and later died of AIDS. Last year, the Minnetonka High School theater department's performance of Patient A received the highest rating at the state one-act competition. Blessing said he was "delighted" when he heard how his alma mater had done with one of his works.
Another of his plays, Independence, was the subject of a legal case that nearly went to the Supreme Court after a teacher in North Carolina was disciplined for choosing the play for her students to perform in a statewide competition. The play had language and characters a parent found objectionable.
"I tend to write serious plays that use humor," says Blessing. "Mostly I'm trying to get the audience to go through an experience, emotionally. It's a subtle emotional thing that happens not altogether in the conscious mind when you watch a good drama. You realize you're going through something that has become important to you emotionally. That's what I'm after when I write plays, to do that to audiences."
Blessing's career really got rolling in the early '80s, when he received a number of grants to write plays. And it took off in February of 1988, when his play A Walk in the Woods opened on Broadway, starring Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky. The play was nominated for both a Tony award and a Pulitzer Prize. It was later produced in London's West End and in Moscow, among other places, with Sir Alec Guinness making his last stage appearance in the London production.
Blessing appreciates the security he felt growing up in Minnetonka, but notes that a happy home life in a stable community isn't necessarily the best environment for a budding artist.
"I felt safe and had a supportive family which can be good and bad for a creative writer," he says. "It can be a little harder – you have to scratch your head a little more about what you're going to write about. It's not coming out of a tortured childhood."
His adult life has become pretty stable too, particularly in the last decade or so. Blessing lives in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., and has been the head of the graduate playwriting program at Rutgers University since 2001. That also happens to be the same year he met another Minnesota native and playwright named Melanie Marnich. The connection turned into a romance a few years later and they were married in April of 2006. ("Since she's from Minnesota, it meant there was no language barrier," he jokes.)
The year after they were married, Melanie got an offer to write for the HBO show, Big Love. She has been based in Los Angeles ever since, making for a cross-continent relationship.
"When you write television, you don't travel, so I do all the traveling," says Blessing. "During summers I'm out there all the time and during the school year I'm out there about once a month."
His travels also include regular trips to Minnesota, where he and Melanie visit her mom in Duluth and his brother, Guy (MHS '61), and sister-in-law in Chanhassen.
Overall, it's a pretty good life for the kid who wrote his first play to avoid a massive senior paper and has been making an indelible impression on audiences ever since.
"I love writing, I love teaching. I'm very happy to be able to write plays. The best compliment someone can give me about a play is if they tell me they're happy or grateful they saw it. I love hearing when people tell me they went through something that they hadn't expected when they watched my play."