Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman’s Playwrights take Center Stage at the American College Theater Festival

Senior Clay Johnson was a semifinalist in playwriting at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. Photo by Cooper Andersen

Whitman College’s playwriting course gave students the opportunity to creatively delve into complex topics through theater, providing the catalyst for Ellie Cain and Clay Johnson to use playwriting as a medium to tell the stories of friends drifting apart and stark familial loss. Cain, a junior philosophy major, and Johnson, a senior film and media studies major, were both semifinalists in the playwriting category of the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. The students’ plays were performed by students and judged by a panel of experts last week in Spokane.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater Alex Higgin-Houser described the the rigorous selection process students must go through to become eligible for this honor.

“Hundreds of students from a number of participating institutions submit their work, whether that’s whole productions, musical theatre performances, monologues, design work, plays, dramaturgy or academic work that relates to theatre,” Higgin-Houser said. “From those submissions, a small number of performers, pieces, performances, designs, etc. are chosen to participate in the regional festival. Out of all those who submitted, Clay and Ellie were two of the six total students who had a ten-minute play selected to be performed at the festival.”

Johnson made the drive up to Spokane to attend the festival and watch his play be performed by students at the festival.

“A bunch of actors who were also at the festival did rehearsals of it and then did a big reading of it in front of hundreds of people. It was nerve-racking but it is really cool to see something be produced, hear people talk about my playwriting and see my [play] be performed. This is the first play I’ve ever written that is longer than five minutes,” Johnson said.

Cain and Johnson submitted their plays as part of the playwriting class they took last fall. Playwriting is a distinct style of writing with its own details, format and content, all different than more traditional academic writing, and it takes practice to perfect. Higgin-Houser, who taught the class, finds his favorite part of the process to be the discipline centered around developing a play’s structure.

“Structure, structure, structure. I like to tell students that the story of your play is like a sequence of events taking place inside a building, and the structure of your play is which windows the audience gets to look through to experience it. Structure, or what moments in a narrative that a playwright chooses to put on stage, and when and how, massively influences how an audience receives meaning from a story,” Higgin-Houser said. “Both pieces selected for the festival had structures that beautifully supported the feelings those writers wanted to capture.”

Cain loves playwriting with friends and finds the process of playwriting to be valuable and unique. Cain described how she blends structure, content and laughs when she writes.

“The [best part] of playwriting is when you can make yourself laugh. Our final for the playwright class was a one-act and me and my friend wrote it together. All of the best parts of the play were when we were making each other laugh brainstorming stupid lines. When we could actually make each other laugh, [we thought] we can’t put that in there. Those are the exact perfect lines that need to be in there. As long as you are genuinely enjoying yourself when you’re writing it, even if you think it’s not going to translate and nobody is going to get it, that is exactly what you should write,” Cain said. 

Johnson agreed with Cain, and explained that getting into a rhythm and going with what feels best is the most enjoyable way to write. He also finds the ability to watch his words be performed to be a highlight of the festival and playwriting in general.

“I love rhythm. I find it really hard to figure it out but once it works, and once you’ve thought of something that would make sense, like a location for a play to happen, whether it’s tables or art anywhere, it clicks, and it’s just fun to write. The characters are almost kind of just themselves. I also just love writing and then hearing people act the words that I wrote. It is really rewarding to hear that,” Johnson said. 

Students hoping to explore the world of student theater can look forward to the annual One-Act Play Festival where more Whitman students will have the opportunity to coordinate performances of their written work. 

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