For the last 22 of its 25 years, Parkland College’s theater program has included a student production in its season of plays and musicals. The plays themselves can range from well-known works by famous playwrights to more obscure works; the one common denominator, every season, is that the production must be directed by a current Parkland College student. This year’s student show, Merely Players, has the distinction of being written and directed by a student, Stefanie Senior. I had the opportunity to pick Stefanie’s brain a bit about her play, her process, and what it’s like to direct her own script.
Smile Politely: First off, thanks for chatting with me. We met last summer when you appeared in RENT at the Station Theatre, but we never really got to talk. I know you act and sing, but how long have you been writing?
Stefanie Senior: I’ve only had one other play produced. During my junior year at Uni High I wrote and directed a short one-act. I’ve actually been doing creative writing in some form for quite a while. When I was younger, I would write and perform short plays with my cousins, and I’ve been writing short stories since I was at least ten. I’ve got quite the collection of notebooks and Word documents of all of my old writings.
SP: What is Merely Players about? You don’t have to give any spoilers about plot, but set the stage for me, so to speak.
Senior: The play is structured around the performance of a retrospective of the last 24 seasons of Parkland Theatre. The only problem is that the play is a disaster. Anything and everything that could go wrong has or will go wrong. Everyone is at each other’s throats; they can barely stand to be around each other; nothing is going right, etc. When it is discovered that one of their number has been killed, the rest of the group has to figure out who in the world might have done such a thing.
I guess I should also mention that it’s a comedy. It’s very farcical — in the vein of Neil Simon’s Rumors — so there’s lots of yelling and fighting and quippy lines and some visual gags that sort of heighten the level of reality of the play.
SP: How long have you been working on this play? What has the experience been like for you?
Senior: I think I’ve been working on it since early August. Right around the time RENT closed. I had been coordinating the content of the play with Joi Hoffsommer, the theatre program director at Parkland, and she mentioned that the department wanted the play to have something to do with the 25th anniversary of Parkland Theatre. We were initially looking at a more traditional murder-mystery that would be easy to adapt to what we wanted. It was hard to find a story we liked, and I realized that it would probably be easier for me to direct from an original script. I asked Joi what she thought of my writing a play, and she liked the idea and agreed that we should give it a try.
Overall, the experience has been great. I’ve been working closely with one of our faculty members, Kerry Bean, who has written, directed, acted in, and even written a book about murder mysteries. He was incredibly helpful in giving me ideas about the storyline and helping me ‘chop out’ some of the dialogue and relationships. Everyone else in the theatre department was really supportive as well, so I have very few complaints about the experience overall, except that there isn’t enough time in a day.
SP: Other than the Uni High experience, have you directed previously? What is it like to direct your own script?
Senior: I was an assistant director in high school for a play called Wild Oats, and more recently for Parkland’s production of Steel Magnolias, directed by Amy Stoch.
Directing something I’ve written comes with its own set of challenges. The hardest thing to do is, as Kerry put it, ‘let go’ of the play and the characters. As the director, you have to direct what’s in the book that’s right in front of you, which is easy to do with a play written by someone else, because that’s the only resource you have. When you’re the writer of the play, it’s harder to make the transition, because you have all these previous drafts in your head which feature different endings, different relationships, different plotlines, and you know the characters really well. I’ve had a couple times where one of my actors asks me a question and I have an answer that comes from a previous draft of the play, or that I always thought and never wrote about the character, and I have to just let them make the choice to do it a certain way, because the way I wanted is not communicated in the script.
SP: What are your plans after Merely Players? Any other shows coming up?
Senior: After this show closes, I’ll be backstage for J.W. Morrissette’s show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. After that, I’m also looking forward to auditions for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Station and You Can’t Take It With You and The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Parkland in the Spring. And I also have to prepare auditions and finish applying to colleges so I can transfer after I finish my second semester at Parkland.
SP: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Merely Players?
Senior: We run for one weekend, November 1–4. As part of the 25th anniversary celebration, we’re serving dinner one night (Nov. 2), which I believe is now sold out, and on the other three nights we will be serving dessert and coffee. We’ve got tables set up on stage so the audience will be right next to the action. My cast is doing a spectacular job bringing the characters to life, and I really can’t wait for this show to open so I can share this awesomeness with the rest of Champaign-Urbana.