Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"The Play's the Thing" in this Summer Research project

When Grace Gardiner ’15 puts pen to paper, she usually writes poetry that focuses on an image. But when English professor Gary Dop asked if she would like to write plays with him and another experienced playwright this summer, she jumped at the opportunity.

Gardiner is working on several plays for a Randolph College Summer Research Program project titled “The Play’s the Thing: A Communal Creative Jaunt through Dramatic Structure.” She and Dop began the summer by examining the dramatic structure in existing plays, then they set out to craft their own.

When Dop was interviewing for a position on the faculty, he taught a practice class on the opening image of a play. “That stuck with me,” Gardiner said.

Dop and Gardiner are meeting regularly with Jim Peterson, a Randolph English professor who retired last year, to read and discuss the plays that they are writing.

Gardiner’s play is about a college student who is accused of rape but has no idea whether he is guilty because he had blacked out on the night of the alleged assault. The play portrays him searching his soul and wondering whether he really is capable of harming someone. At the end of the play, the audience may have opinions, but not a definite answer, about his guilt or innocence. “It’s more about his journey,” Gardiner said.

Dop said handling the question in this way requires mastery of complex storytelling, and Gardiner is doing it well.  “We don’t know how to feel about the protagonist. He is, at moments, an unlikeable character, and that makes the journey more interesting to watch,” he said. “We’re wrestling with his guilt or innocence as well.”

Dop described the play he is writing this summer as a “postmodern magical realist surrealist absurdist play” as well as an over-the-top comedy that tells the story of a character looking for a job. “It’s certainly a non-traditional kind of drama,” he said. “I’ve played with conventions in some of my scripts, but never this much.”

Gardiner said the project has helped her expand her knowledge of how to structure and tell a story. “In a play, you can’t just take a step back and describe an image. It focuses on the dialogue and the characters’ actions,” she said. “That has been added to my arsenal of writing skills.”

Later this summer, they will send their plays to the National Playwright Center for critical feedback. They also will participate in a high school summer playwriting class that Dop has taught for a couple of years. Gardiner also hopes to organize a reading so people can experience a small performance of her play.