August 22, 2007

Playwriting students to present dramatic reading

by Andrea Hahn


CARBONDALE, Ill. — David Rush's course on ensemble plays isn't the only one at Southern Illinois University Carbondale to require a finished product – one that is ready for public display – from the enrolled students. It isn't the only one asking students to be creative. It isn't the only one to require a collaborative effort from the students. But it might be the only one to expect all those things at the same time.

Six students enrolled in Rush's ensemble playwriting class during the summer semester to learn not just how to write a play, but how to write it with other people. The group presents the play as a dramatic reading at noon on Monday, Aug. 27, in the Christian H. Moe Laboratory Theater in the Communications Building.

As part of the initial assignment, each student each came to class with a monster story from Greek mythology and a narrative about a saint's life. The idea was to re-write the story in modern terms, said Rush, an associate professor and head of the theater department's playwriting program.

Paige Saliba, a student from Herrin, brought the story of St. Ludwina, who lived in the 14th century. She said the story's ironic tone gave it re-telling potential. "She's the patron saint of ice skating," Saliba explained. According to the story, Saliba said, Ludwina was injured when another female skater knocked her down. She later developed a reputation as a miraculous healer. The irony that Ludwina became patron saint of ice skaters, and other elements of the story that seem odd to modern readers, were enough to bring the ensemble story into focus.

Michael A. Rose, a graduate student from Minot, N.D., said once the group agreed on Ludwina, the rest became much easier.

"The difficult part was getting a focus as a group," he said. "It took awhile for us all to get on the same page. Once we had the frame story, though, it all fell together."

Each person was responsible for several scenes, written individually or with a partner, and then submitted to the group – a technique Rush referred to as "making it up as we go along."

However, it seemed to work. The group gave the entire play its first complete read-through at the end of the semester and declared it better than expected with smooth transitions and consistent characterization. To summarize briefly, the story relates the metamorphosis of Ludwina, reluctant charlatan in a sort of carnival, to Ludwina, acerbic saint with the ability to see the real truth behind people's "problems" and to mete out justice rather than physical healing.

Mary Hughes, a student from Carbondale, said she had more experience acting than writing before this class. Trying her hand at writing not only gave her new perspective on theater productions, it was also fun. "I had all these ideas," she said. "It was fun to let the rest of the class look at them and hear what they think about them."

The play dips into serious topics such as fraud, the psychology of healing, mania, serial homicide, abduction and revenge. "I'm not sure she's a nice saint," Rose said. "But all the things we wanted to address in the story, we did."

Other members of the class were: Kiri Palm, Normal; Neal Ryan Shaw, Rantoul; and Randall Colburn, from Rochester Hills, Mich.