The Stokes family Thanksgiving dinner in 2012, in a house on a hill outside Mazomanie, included a spirited discussion of the nude Mazo Beach on the Wisconsin River.
The nude beach is celebrated by some, denigrated by others, and a solution to the controversy has pretty well baffled the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the beach.
Those in the “against” camp may not have appreciated the nudity, but it was the activity they viewed as fall-out from the nude beach — drug use and public sex — that was most upsetting. In the summer of 2012, the DNR set a five-year high for arrests around the beach, 26 for sex and 16 for drugs, during a nine-day surveillance.
That year, the Stokes family tossed the subject around the Thanksgiving table. That might have been that, except for the family patriarch, who for the past six decades has delighted in creating amiable mischief when he sits at a keyboard.
Bill Stokes, 82, is near the top of any list of the best newspaper writers ever in Wisconsin. His columns in the State Journal, and later the Milwaukee Journal, informed, entertained and provoked countless readers. He moved from feature writer to columnist in the 1960s, after the monkeys escaped from Vilas Zoo and Stokes wrote a piece from the point of view of a monkey in a tree, amused by the strange behavior of the humans beneath him.
In the decades since, humans have not abandoned strange behavior. After the Thanksgiving dinner in 2012, Stokes found himself writing a stage play inspired by the nude Mazo beach, the arguments pro and con, and the characters advancing them.
Stokes had a farmer named Arnie ask his tavern owner friend, Hairpin, what you could possibly tell your kids if they happened upon the nude beach goings-on.
Hairpin says, “I suppose you could tell them the mosquitoes are gonna get fat.”
Arnie: “It’s nothin’ to be makin’ fun of, Hairpin!”
Hairpin: “Seems pretty funny to me.”
Stokes called the play, “Naked at Amazo,” with the fictional Amazo Beach substituting for the Mazo Beach.
“I did a draft in just a matter of weeks,” Stokes said last week. “It was a really fun writing experience, in part because I had no idea what I was doing.”
Fortunately for the novice playwright, a young woman who was also at Thanksgiving dinner is wise beyond her years in the ways of plays and how to stage them.
Sarah Stokes, 23, is a 2013 graduate of UW-Whitewater, in theater performance and arts management. She is also Bill’s granddaughter, daughter of Bill’s son, Mike Stokes.
Sarah grew up in the Mazo area, and attended American Players Theatre, near Spring Green, for the first time when she was 11. She wasn’t the first young girl to project herself up onto the stage, wondering if she could move others as she was moved. But Sarah actively pursued the dream, working summers at APT. Last summer, she interned at Peninsula Players Theatre in Door County.
When her grandfather shared his first draft with her, Sarah was surprised. There had been some desultory conversation at Thanksgiving about the subject’s dramatic possibilities, nothing more.
“Then two weeks later,” Sarah said, “he had the whole thing done.”
Sarah was still in school at Whitewater, but the two began revising the play, sharpening the dialogue, whittling down the extended monologues Bill was prone to write. It was fun for both of them, but it was more than that. At some point came the realization that they had something pretty good on their hands.
The play — after many more months of revising, casting and rehearsals — will have its world premiere on July 11 at the Mazomanie Community Building. Six performances in total are currently scheduled through Aug. 3. Ticket information, dining options and more can be found at www.amazingplayers
Amaz(ing) Players Co. is the theater company formed by Bill, Sarah and other members of their family — Sarah’s dad Mike is the business manager — to produce “Naked at Amazo.” Sarah is the company’s artistic director and is directing the play with the help of assistant director Isa Leigh.
The octogenarian playwright has watched with increasing admiration as his granddaughter has turned his musings into a living production. There are 13 actors, many from Madison, in the cast.
“I had no idea Sarah would be willing to do this,” Bill said. “It’s made it a much more meaningful experience for me. I can’t stress enough what a great job she’s doing. It’s like she’s been a director for decades.”
There is no nudity in the play — the playwright, too, promised to keep his clothes on throughout — although the language is advanced enough for them to suggest kids be at least 12 years old to attend.
Last Friday, Bill was headed to the Avenue Bar in Madison for his regular weekly lunch with a group that includes retired reporters like Neil Shively and Frank Ryan, and men they covered, including former Madison Mayor Joel Skornicka and former Gov. Tony Earl. Bill had a bunch of flyers for “Naked at Amazo” he was planning to pass around the table.
“I’m ordering them to put them up on their church bulletin boards,” he said.