Sandy Asher and Barry Kornhauser - two of Lancaster’s best writers - were
honored recently by the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.
Asher, 76, received the Sara Spencer Artistic Achievement Award for lifetime contribution to theater for young audiences.
Kornhauser, 66, won the 2019 Distinguished Play Award for his adaptation of Don Freeman’s picture book, “Corduroy.” It was produced at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication.
Both Asher and Kornhauser received their awards at the alliance’s annual national conference at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City.
This is Kornhauser’s third Distinguished Play Award. Both “This Is Not a Pipe Dream,” about the childhood of artist Rene Magritte (1993) and “Balloonacy” (2012) were original works.
Asher has won the Distinguished Play award for “A Woman Called Truth” (1994), about Sojourner Truth; “Jesse and Grace: A Best Friends Story” (1999); and “In the Garden of the Selfish Giant” (2005).
A multitude of other awards have been bestowed upon both throughout their careers.
While Kornhauser mostly has been a playwright for young audiences, Asher has written in a wide variety of genres, including novels for both young children and young adults, anthologies, nonfiction books, poetry, and short stories. She is also an editor.
She and her husband, Harvey, originally came to Lancaster to visit Kornhauser and fell in love with the place. She is a full-time writer, and much of her work comes from local and national commissions.
After more than 30 years at the Fulton as playwright-in-residence, Kornhauser now works at Millersville University, where he serves as assistant director of campus and community engagement. Most of his playwrighting is for theaters across the country.
We sat down with Asher and Kornhauser — before they headed to New York — to talk about writing: how they approach it, why they love it and how they got started. Both loved reading when they were kids — Kornhauser in New Jersey and Asher in Philadelphia. Kornhauser was a comic book fan who loved wordplay. Asher was drawn to classic books such as “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Little Women.”
She started writing plays in second grade.
“I would write plays and boss people around in acting them out,” she says. “It was a way of playing let’s pretend.” Kornhauser’s connection to theater was more complicated.
“I had a love-hate relationship,” he says. “During the Christmas play I wet my pants on stage. It certainly taught me humility. But I did like writing, especially limericks.”
Both credit mentors and the support they received from teachers.
“By sixth grade, I’d showed a proclivity,” Kornhauser says. “I was a bad kid, and (as punishment) Mr. Engels made me write. I found myself.”
“That support was essential,” Asher says. “My teachers were always there.”
They were both asked to write plays for their classes when they were in elementary school.
Both admit to being shy and spending a lotof time alone. And both found themselves being picked on at times.
“I used sarcasm,” Asher says. “I think people were afraid of me.”
“I was the smallest kid in class and I had red hair and a funny name. I
got bullied,” Kornhuaser says. “My response was humor. People stopped picking on me.”
Asher knew she was going to be a writer early on and in college majored in English literature with a minor in theater.
“I was always going to write,” she says. “I was not particularly interested in children’s theater until later. I was going to write the great American novel.”
Kornhauser majored in a self-designed degree, which included psychology, anthropology and education with a minor in theater.
He went to Franklin & Marshall College, and theater professor Hugh Evans saw something in him and took him under his wing.
It was his connection to Evans that years later got him a job at the
Fulton Theatre, where he was encouraged to write plays, eventually becoming playwright in-residence.
Asher was on her own in the Midwest. Married with two kids, she felt isolated.
Freelancing for magazines, she began to realize that much of her writing was about children.
“I didn’t realize how much children meant to me,” she says.
Both Asher and Kornhauser call themselves slow writers.
Asher takes lots of notes and says she feels like a pressure cooker of ideas are going to burst forth.
“I try not to rush it. When I’m not writing, ideas come into my head,” she says.
She remembers listening to the famous Sojourner Truth speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” and couldn’t get it out of her mind.
“I started doing research on (Sojourner Truth). She would not leave me alone until I got her story down on paper,” Asher says.
Kornhauser remembers seeing the famous Rene Magritte painting “This Is Not a Pipe” (also known as “The Treachery of Images”) when he was young.
“That image stayed alive (in me). Magritte had a surrealistic childhood and I asked myself if I could tell his story in a different way, a different style.”
Both Asher and Kornhauser steep themselves in research.
“You go through periods of incubation and periods of illumination,” Kornhauser says. “And I read everything because it may strike a chord.”
“Things start to come at you,” Asher says. “When I am not writing, ideas come into my head. A lot happens.”
Both writers get commissions and therefore have deadlines, which they both say they appreciate.
For Kornhauser, it forces him to let go — at least for a while.
“I never ever once felt a play was done,” he says with a laugh. “I rarely submit for publication. I’d still like to change ‘Corduroy,’ but I don’t have time.”
“I find myself changing things and then changing them back,” Asher says. “Then I realize it’s time to let go.”
And Asher says when a work is finished, another one takes over.
“I always have several projects going on at once.”
So is writing fun?
Both smile at the question.
“Absolutely,” says Asher, who is now working on a project with Lancaster County Library, called “It Happened at the Library,” in which students were invited to send in writing and drawings about the library.
“It’s really joyful,” says Kornhauser, who is writing a play about a rock ’n’ roll band called “The Lost and Found Tour.” “I feel blessed