A Tale Of Two Theses

Kari Olmon’s dramaturgy thesis, whose first reading was this past Friday, and Sophia Naylor’s playwriting thesis, whose first reading was Tuesday, have a few qualities in common. They are both plays. They both have dialogue. Neither is entirely realistic. Beyond these weak ties, however, the first readings of these theses could not have been more different.A staged reading, as either student would be quick to say, is very different from a final production, but an important step in the crafting of a fully fledged play because it provides an opportunity for the playwright to get a sense of how her piece works as a play.In a staged reading, the emphasis is on the written text, not on the directing, acting or design. This sort of emphasis makes sense when the honors project is on the actual writing or crafting of a play and not on the play itself. However, it does mean that Naylor’s reading consisted of a group of Philadelphia actors sitting in a circle, reading from their scripts, and that in Olmon’s slightly more choreographed piece, the readers wore their own clothing, and not something that their character would wear.

There is something nice about a staged-reading type of theater. Because there is no movement (in Naylor’s case) or limited movement (as in Olmon’s), a stage manager read aloud the stage directions as part of the text. Emily Melnick, Olmon’s stage manager, read in a clear voice statements like “she flung herself at her mother,” and I could clearly see the actress doing so without said actress actually moving. It makes for very believable action and invests the audience more deeply into the stagecraft. In this type of theater, the audience member must engage his imagination, or he will be lost.

Olmon’s play, “The Intense Fragility,” is “adapted from the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky and the theater of Tennessee Williams,” Olmon wrote in her invitation to her reading. Nijinsky (Samuel Swift Shuker-Haines ’14), a famous Russian dancer of the early 20th century, lived on one side of the stage with his wife and doctor. Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose (Danica Harvey ’15) lived on the other side of the stage with her mother and her doctors.

Rose, 26 and mentally unstable, was obsessed with Nijinsky and read his book nonstop. Her dream was to make love with him. Nijinsky, meanwhile, was unraveling, saying that he wanted to be like God, saying that God spoke to him, refusing to have sex. When Rose and Nijinsky finally meet at the play’s end, in a surreal world that is not quite Rose’s dream but certainly not reality, Nijinsky refuses to sleep with her, but does reveal her terrible future.

The staged reading is a draft, yet even in the draft Olmon’s superb dramaturgy work is apparent. For those who are very familiar with Tennessee Williams and Nijinsky, the play must be a brilliantly intricate braid of their lives and works. For people like me, who have read “The Glass Menagerie” and had never heard of Nijinsky, it is a play that shows what life is like when lived on the verge of insanity.

Perhaps that is the source of the title; Rose and Nijinsky feel as though they live suspended in air, just above a black hole that could at any moment drag them completely away from humankind. In that way, their lives are both intense and very fragile.

By contrast, Naylor’s “All One!” is, in her words, “a play about fairies, the end of the world, and magic soap.” Her play focuses not on the destruction of individuals, as Olmon’s does, but on the destruction of the world and the death of humankind.

Tackling the end of the world for a thesis project is a bold move, but Naylor obviously felt up for the task.

In her play, three friends camp on the plains of Ireland, complaining about having no batteries, about being tired, about this and that. They are mirrored by two fairies, who lament the imminent destruction of the earth and try to figure out how to save it.

Naylor’s staged reading was less staged than Olmon’s due to time constraints; the actors who read Naylor’s piece on Tuesday read it for the first time at 6, and for the second time at 8 for the official first reading. They did a fine job nevertheless; the bright enthusiasm and lightness of Iris (Kate Kennedy)  and the plodding adorableness of Frederick (Jarrod Markham) were particularly strong.

Also strong in this piece was the witty dialogue between the three friends. Their scenes were light and fun, even when their topic of discussion was heat death.

Naylor’s tendency towards dark humor was highlighted near the end of act one, when one of her sheep caught on fire and ran off a cliff to jump into the sea.

“Only Sophia,” some audience members whispered to each other, “would write a play with a suicidal sheep.”

Naylor’s play was fantastical; Olmon’s was surreal. Both were very enjoyable, and I left each ruminating about destruction—of the mind, or of the earth.

Olmon’s final thesis reading will be November 9-11.

Naylor’s final thesis reading will be November 16-18.

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