Archive for Sunday, August 21, 2005

Playwright prefers life unscripted

Wanderlust brought KU prof, EAT founder to Lawrence

August 21, 2005


Paul Lim has set the stage for success through the years as the sole English professor teaching playwriting at Kansas University and founder of the English Alternative Theatre.

Honored with numerous awards and most recently selected by his students and colleagues as the newest Chancellors Club teaching professor, Lim has come a long way - literally halfway around the world - to arrive at this prestigious point in his life.

When he came to the United States from his native Philippines in the summer of 1968, he was an optimistic 24-year-old with an uncertain future. Eager to see America, he bought an extended Greyhound bus ticket and set off on a cross-country odyssey, hoping to land a decent job afterward and eventually become a U.S. citizen.

"For a month I lived like a gypsy," Lim recalled. "I saw a great deal of America and drank it all in - the big cities as well as the nameless little towns in between."

His wanderlust appeased, he moved in with his younger brother in South Amboy, N.J., and applied for work as a copywriter, an occupation he had held for six years back in Manila. Months later, without a job offer in sight, Lim decided to complete his undergraduate degree in the U.S., having finished only two years at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines.

Kansas University English professor Paul Stephen Lim founded English Alternative Theatre 15 years ago as an avenue to showcase his students' plays. It was a KU professor Lim met in his native Philippines who lured the playwright to Kansas in the late 1960s.

Kansas University English professor Paul Stephen Lim founded English Alternative Theatre 15 years ago as an avenue to showcase his students' plays. It was a KU professor Lim met in his native Philippines who lured the playwright to Kansas in the late 1960s.

It was a decision that would change the course of his life.

Big break

Setting his academic future in motion, Lim called up a friend from the past, Grant Goodman, a KU history professor he had met in 1965 in Manila while Goodman was on a Fulbright Scholarship.

"I was blown away by him, quite honestly," said Goodman, now a professor emeritus, remembering his first impression of Lim. "He had such a flair for language. English was his third to Tagalog (the Philippine national dialect) and Fukienese (the dialect of his Chinese parents), but he still had command of it better than most 19-year-olds in the United States."

Happy to hear that his friend intended to complete his studies, Goodman invited him to Lawrence, had his transcripts evaluated and helped him enroll for the winter semester. Lim went on to earn both a bachelor's and master's degree in English from KU, but instead of finishing his doctorate, he decided to pursue a writing career. He began sending out short stories and plays he had written during his student years.

The decision paid off only a year later when his first play, "Conpersonas," won the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival's National Student Playwriting Award for Best Original Script. The play was produced in the spring of 1976 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to critical acclaim.

"After that my agent tried very hard to get me to move to New York," Lim said. "I could have left. But then I thought that Lawrence was such a sleepy town that it would give me more time to write undisturbed."

Apparently a move to the big city wasn't necessary.

Ups and downs

Short stories and plays he had sent to the Philippines for publication soon earned Lim an unprecedented five Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the country's most prestigious writing honor. Then, in 1982, his first book, a collection of short stories titled "Some Arrivals, But Mostly Departures," was published in the Philippines.

"Many of the stories deal with someone traveling, metaphorically 'coming' and 'going,'" Lim said.

He dedicated the book to Goodman, and coincidentally, that same year, Lim became an American citizen. He had arrived, so to speak.

Interestingly enough, another writer had arrived on the Lawrence scene in 1982: William S. Burroughs, the controversial Beat author. The two met and soon became friends.

"I remember telling William about my first encounter with his novel, 'Naked Lunch,'" Lim said with smile. "It was the mid-'60s, and I was still in Manila working part-time for a newspaper. A local bookstore lent me a copy of 'Naked Lunch' to review, so I had it with me when I went out drinking with some friends.

"Later that night, I got jumped outside of the bar by a group of guys. They drove me over to the outskirts of Manila, took all my cash, my watch and my clothes. But I pleaded with them to leave me the book. Surprisingly they did and even gave me bus fare to get back home.

"So there I was in my underwear with 'Naked Lunch' and 10 centavos at three in the morning. William thought that story was pretty funny."

Source of inspiration

Friendship inevitably crossed over into work in 1987, when the Lawrence Community Theatre produced "Lee And The Boys In The Backroom," a play written and directed by Lim. He based it on Burroughs' novel "Queer" and his unpublished correspondence with notable writers and friends Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady.

"He was wonderful," Lim said of Burroughs, who died in Lawrence of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 83. "He was generous and kind, a gentleman in every sense of the term. He wasn't like a professor is with a student; he treated me as an equal."

Though Lim continued to write, publish and direct, he began to focus more attention on being an instructor. In 1989, he joined the KU English department's creative writing staff, and the following year he founded English Alternative Theatre, an organization dedicated to showcasing plays written by KU students.

"I started EAT because, at the time, there was no real interest in producing unknown scripts here," Lim said. "And I thought my students would grow only if they nurtured their own work."

To date, EAT has staged more than 100 readings and 50 full productions, and a number of the student scripts it has performed have gone on to gain regional and national recognition in playwriting competitions.

Lim was awarded a Kennedy Center gold medallion for his work with student playwrights in 1996, and in the years that followed, he served as a National Playwriting Program chairman for Region 5 and a member of the National Selection Team for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre.

This was the same organization that awarded his first play, "Conpersonas," Best Original Script in 1976.

"It felt good to give back to the organization what it gave to me all those years ago," Lim said, then shifted his gaze to the future. "I'm not sure at what age I want to retire, but I'd like to be in good health during those years. And I want to be able to devote some time to my own writing."

"He's done very well here," summed up Grant Goodman, the KU professor emeritus and old friend who initially invited Lim to Lawrence. "He's more than rewarded those of us who had confidence in him from the very beginning."

- Mike Vicencio is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence and works at the Dusty Bookshelf. He can be reached at


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