By Meaghan Menzel
During the week of March 30, Washington College brought Playwright Sheri Wilner to campus as this year’s Douglas Wallop Fellow. She gave two talks at the Rose O’Neill Literary House and held one-on-one meetings with students who took the playwriting course last semester to discuss their works.
According to Playscripts’ website, Wilner is the author of several plays including “Bake Off,” “Father Joy,” “Hunger,” and “Labor Day” and has won several awards including the Howard Foundation Fellowship, a Bush Artist Fellowship, two Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellowships, and several others. She graduated from Cornell University and received her MFA in playwriting at Columbia University.
Wilner’s first talk on Tuesday, March 31 was a craft talk and demonstration. According to Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and Associate Professor of English Dr. Jehanne Dubrow, a craft talk is a chance “for the speaker to address an element of craft or the work or technique that goes into the making of a piece of theatre.” For Wilner specifically, this was “a demonstration in which she discussed the process of turning news into theatre, transforming headlines into compelling art.”
“Why do we rip stories from the headlines? Why would we do something that sounds like the exact opposite of… write what you know… when our job as writers is to look as deeply inside ourselves when choosing our stories,” Wilner said. “It’s because… stories that we rip from the headlines can actually reveal what’s in our soul.”
During the craft talk, she had the audience write a list of stories they read online or in the newspaper that had affected them emotionally. She said she hoped to prove that “we are drawn to stories that somehow intersect with our own lives.”
She also referenced Donald Murray’s essay “All Writing is Autobiography,” in her talk. She said, “I really agree with what he says about those of us who write only have a few topics,” and that all of her plays “are about people yearning for transformation, for their lives to change drastically.” Two examples she gave of her own works included “Bake Off” and “Kingdom City.”
On Thursday, April 2, Wilner gave her second talk after a brief performance of the third scene of “Kingdom City” directed by Assistant Professor of Drama Brendon Fox featuring WC students and Lecturer in Drama Polly Sommerfeld.
“Kingdom City” was “inspired by a news article that Wilner first read in the New York Times in 2006 about a high school production of “Grease” which inspired a so called culture war in a town of Fulton, Mo. A proposed production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” was preemptively shuttered, a decision as Wilner described as “troubling,” said Dr. Dubrow.
Wilner had read about many plays getting cancelled in high schools and colleges before. “This one felt the most surprising because other plays that I’d heard of being cancelled were things like… ‘Rent’ and ‘Vagina Monologues’ which I personally don’t see a reason why they’d be cancelled, but it wasn’t a big surprise that they were given the controversial material they dealt with,” Wilner said. When she learned that a play like “The Crucible” could get canceled, she said, “then couldn’t any play get canceled?” This prompted her to write “Kingdom City” in response.
According to Lajolla Playhouse’s website, “Kingdom city” is about Miriam, a New York director who moves to Kingdom City, Mo. and “she reluctantly agrees to direct a high school production of “The Crucible.” As the play unlocks the students’ repressed desires, a local youth minster threatens to cancel the play, creating a firestorm in this small conservative town.”
The play ends up tackling several ideas including teenage sexuality, what is right and wrong for children, cultural wars, and marriage.
In an interview with Director of New Play Developments at Lajolla Playhouse, “Wilner explains how important it was to find a sympathetic reason why someone might close a production of ‘The Crucible,’ one of the great masterpieces of American theatre,” said Dr. Dubrow. “She says, ‘I didn’t want to condemn or criticize anyone. I really wanted to understand what fears led to that decision.’ In this way, we see how playwright can be essential purveyor of empathy, of building three dimensional characters out of opposing ideologies and ways of making sense of the world.”
Wilner said, “If you feel really, really strong emotions from something that you read, I can guarantee you there’s some personal reason why you identify with it.”
“As you read the newspaper…start keeping track of the stories that really created some strong emotional response in you,” she said. “I think that if we were to just read those stories and have these intense emotions, and then go onto the next story…we’re missing this huge, huge opportunity that’s there for us writers.”