Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mary Siewert Scruggs

Mary Scruggs, who was one of my instructors at the Second City Training Center, died suddenly last night. She was only 46.

She was a wonderful teacher and a really wonderful person to be around. Exceptionally smart and insightful and also really, really nice, which is a rare combination.

Mary taught me many important lessons about writing, a couple of which are passed along in my book. And she taught me to be a better writer. She had an extraordinary knack for giving solid, direct feedback on your scripts while making you feel great about yourself. It never felt like criticism -- it felt like help.

Performers, artists can be a bitter, insecure lot -- even moreso as they approach middle age. But Mary stood out, exuding nothing but positivity and generosity toward her students. Her aim was always and only to make you better.

She was clearly very happy with where she was in life. She had spent time out in LA when she was younger and I understand she even sold some scripts to the networks. But she said the place wasn't for her. So she made a career back here -- teaching, directing, acting, writing plays and books and lots of other things.

Mary had an easy, boisterous laugh, and class with her was always fun. We had this running joke in our screenwriting class. She advised us that the montage was often a lazy gimmick used by unimaginative writers to propel a film's action forward. "Oh, hey, they're strolling hand-in-hand on the beach, they're trying on funny hats and laughing, they're talking closely in a little cafe -- they must be falling in love!"

So as we worked around the table on our screenplays, whenever we'd get stumped on a plot point, someone -- sometimes her -- would pipe up with, "Montage, montage!" complete with the Wayne's World "doo-dah-doo-doo, doo-dah-doo-doo" gesture, and we'd all break up laughing.

Thanks to Mary, I'll never be able to enjoy a movie montage again. (She also instilled in me an unnatural affinity for The Gilmore Girls. It was homework, I swear.)

I've been thinking about her a lot in the past year as I write the book. I was hoping at some point to present her with a copy.

It breaks my heart that she's gone, and I was just her student. I can't imagine what those who live and work with her every day must be going through, and my thoughts go out to them.


Joanné said...

Rob -- I don't know you, but I've been lucky to count Mary as one of my friends since high school. In addition to being a hugely talented writer, director and actor, she was also a kind and devoted friend and very loving and enthusiastic parent. I never got to experience her as a teacher, but knowing her great generosity of spirit, I envy you the experience. Thank you for sharing your memories with everyone -- the world is most definitely a heartbreakingly sadder place without her.

Rob Biesenbach said...

Thank you for the kind words, Joanne. It must be very difficult for you. My thoughts are with you, her many, many friends and family.

sylvie said...

I spent many Thursday evenings with Mary in Nancy Beckett's Lakesiders private studio, listening to her read from her manuscript, marveling at her insights and profound humanity, laughing along with the group. Her comments on my writing were always spot on, and as you said Rob, never, ever did it feel like criticism, but always like a new solution...

She was talented, yes, and a great teacher. But mostly she was kind and generous, someone whose warmth stayed with me long after class. Her death is very hard to process, and harder still to accept.