Every theatre student at Hope College remembers being corralled into Theatre 105: Introduction to Theatre Practice during their freshman year. It’s a one-credit course that is recommended to take the first semester of your first year to acclimate yourself to the department and your fellow classmates. The class briefly goes through the different job descriptions in the field and how one might go about doing those jobs.
Two things I remember in particular: part of working in this industry is making work for yourself, and connections are very important. Oh, acting isn’t going well? Don’t give up on it, but stretch your skillset. Go for dramaturg, lighting designer or playwright. Know someone who you might be able to direct alongside? Reach out to them. Take the leap.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had already learned this lesson. During the summer of 2018, an English teacher at my high school directed a slew of freshly graduated Hope College students in an original play, “SONDER: A Story of Girlhood”, written by alumni Laura Schmidt (’17) and Sydney Luse (’17). They toured their play in various small towns across the Midwest.
It was there, seeing playwriting so accessible, so doable, that I embarked on the project myself. I started writing my first play in June of 2018. It was incredibly cringey, lacked real plot and was an overall mess. Luckily for me, I was blessed with supportive friends who did table reads, skipped class to talk about characters and dreamed with me about how incredible it would be to put on our own play one day.
Throughout the year, I tweaked it here and there, but mostly thought to myself, “I finished it! That’s good enough!” Back then, the play was titled “Tired Velleity,” and the character named Ben was the one who died (spoilers!).
In the fall of 2019, I reached out to the performance space where I saw “SONDER,” a quaint place called Wild Rose Moon Performing Arts Center. What felt like a complete shot in the dark actually granted me clearance to put my play on its feet in the summer of 2020.
…And we all know how that went. My play was cancelled, as was every other performance scheduled for that summer. I was bummed and felt down on my luck. However, I truly believe that everything happens for a reason because if I had put on that version of the play, it would’ve been far from where it needed to be.
Last semester, I asked my playwriting professor, Richard Perez, about creating more opportunities for student playwrights. See, the editing process for a play is very different from that of a novel, short story or poem. Plays require hearing the words out loud, with actors making choices and directors making sense of it all. It requires being in the room, so to say. Of course, there were doors to go through and discussions to be had, but there was no harm in asking, just as there was no harm in seeing if the Wild Rose Moon would put on my play a year prior.
That is where the staged reading was born. Four glorious days –– three rehearsals, one performance –– to rewrite, discuss and breathe some life into my little high school play. Within those days, I rewrote scenes, added new scenes and went so far as to change which character died. (Finn, if you were curious. Rest in fictional peace.)
Had it not been for Professor Perez and all the actors involved (Payton Johnson [’22], Jack Slevin [’23], Adam Chamness [’23], Emily Dykhouse [’23] and Rachel Scott [’24]), I don’t think I would have blown the dust off of this play, and I certainly wouldn’t have been invigorated with new excitement for it.
Just this weekend, a peer in my dorm pulled me over and asked me about the play. I told her I wrote it in high school and had my small but mighty four days to buff out some of the kinks. Her first response was, “I wish I was talented enough to do that.”
That’s where she’s wrong. I truly believe that, especially with creative endeavors, anyone can partake. Just like anything, talent is always helpful, but it is not necessary. I mean, I got As in math classes in high school because I just studied the material, but if you were to candidly ask me anything about the quadratic formula I would promptly pass out.
Anyone who watched my staged reading on Wednesday would easily be able to find flaws, cringe their heart out and laugh at the ridiculousness of the language. That’s just the way it is. Writing (and any creativity for that matter) is not all roses. Unfortunately, above all, it is hard. Trial and error is the most essential part of the process, but there cannot be one without the other.
I hope that more student work like this staged reading continues to happen, and I hope that perhaps my measly advice will inspire a student out there somewhere to advocate for their work. My gratitude goes to the fabulous student actors and wonderful director who believed in me and the process of my play.
It all comes back to that little lesson all freshmen learn in Theatre 105: networking is important, and make work for yourself. Create opportunities where there are none. It’s not easy, but if there’s anything I’ve learned throughout this project, it is this: there truly is no harm in trying.