“Decision Height” Revival Celebrates Ten Years of the Award-Winning Drama

“Oh my God, what am I going to write?”

This was the question nagging then-junior Meredith Dayna Levy ’12, M.F.A. ’18 while she was studying abroad in London during the spring of 2011. For her senior honors thesis, the theatre major knew she wanted to write a play, one with an all-female cast that would allow her “to practically use the actors I knew on campus and also speak to my experience as a college student.” What she didn’t know was, what exactly was the play going to be about?

“I was beating myself up about it,” Levy recalls.

All that changed when Levy learned that in 2009, President Barack Obama had signed into law a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the group known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first women ever to fly American military aircraft. Created in World War II to fly noncombat military missions in the United States so that male pilots could take on combat missions in Europe and Asia, the WASP program logged more than 60 million miles and flew virtually every kind of aircraft operated by the Army Air Force.

Levy was astounded. She had never heard of the WASP program and was determined to learn more. She found a newspaper article about one of the pilots after she had flown her first solo flight. “All of her friends had dumped her into this wishing well per tradition. I thought, ‘This is something Hollins students are going to understand. We’re all about wacky traditions.’” But on a more profound level, Levy’s initial research told her that “even though I knew nothing at all about planes, the military, or physics, I decided this was an environment and a community that I could understand, and more importantly, my audience of students could understand.”Decision Height Flyer

Thus began Levy’s work on what would become the play Decision Height. The drama would have its Hollins Theatre Main Stage premiere in the fall of 2012, subsequently capture honors from the prestigious Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, and go on to be produced at high schools, colleges, and community theatres around the country. Hollins Theatre is now giving Decision Height its first revival in a virtual staging April 1-3 at 7:30 p.m.; April 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m.; and April 11 at 2 p.m. (Admission is free and open to the public, but tickets are required; visit Brown Paper Tickets to request the Zoom link.)

Decision Height follows six women upon their arrival at a base in Sweetwater, Texas, for nine months of training before moving on to active duty. “We witness how their relationships develop and the ways in which they learn new things about themselves and each other, what motivates them and what gives them purpose and strength,” Levy explains. “By the end of the play, every character is sort of on a different path, but we know they’re united forever in friendship.”

Artistic Director and Chair of the Hollins Theatre Department Ernie Zulia, who was Levy’s advisor when she was an undergraduate, remembers when she first approached him prior to the 2011-12 academic year about writing a play as her honors thesis. “An honors thesis is a yearlong process, and I figured, ‘Terrific, that’s enough to occupy any new playwright for a year.’ But then she added, ‘I would like to design, produce, and direct the play.’ And I thought, ‘Sure, if anyone can take on that kind of effort, Meredith can.’ Not only was it sitting down and creating characters and dialogue, it also required intense research in order to do it authentically.”

WASPs Awarded Congressional Gold Medal
Deanie Parrish accepts the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of her fellow WASPs at the Capitol March 10, 2010. More than 200 WASPs attended the event, many of them wearing their World War II-era uniforms. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski)

Levy devoured every piece of background information she could find. A crucial discovery was an online collection of primary research materials compiled by Nancy Parrish, whose mother, Odean “Deanie” Bishop Parrish, was part of the WASP program. “Nancy has made it her life’s mission to document WASP, and I spent the entirety of the summer after I came back from London just eating this stuff up. I even got to talk to Nancy and Deanie. So many of the events in the play came out of that research and brought those stories to life. It can be intimidating when you’re faced with so many real people. How do you fictionalize it? You want to get every detail right and memorialize it perfectly.”

So, Levy devoted the fall of 2011 to “doing draft after draft after draft.” Friends took part in readings of the play “just trying to get the words out so that I could hear the play and determine what was missing or confusing. With each draft I was able to take a further step away from the history and lean more on my own lived experience, my friendships, and putting my own emotional truth into the play and amongst all the historical framework.”

Levy eventually invited Zulia and Todd Ristau, director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, to attend those readings and offer feedback. “It needed more work, but it was a beautiful script,” Zulia says. “When you get a play to that point, it’s important to get it up on its feet so the playwright can see the play they’ve written.”

In February 2012, Decision Height went into rehearsals for its production that spring in the Upstairs Studio Theatre at Hollins, a venue designed for trying out new works. The staging “was received with such enthusiasm,” Zulia says. “People were in tears and talking about what an impact this play had on them. I’d seen plays through many incarnations and I knew some of the problems she’d need to fix as she continued to work on it, but I heard it loud and clear from the audience that something in this play was profoundly moving.”

After graduating in the spring of 2012, Levy moved into Hollins’ M.F.A. in Playwriting program. Zulia offered her a deal: If she spent that summer working on rewrites, he would put Decision Height on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage. She continued adding new elements to the play with support from Zulia, Ristau, and Bob Moss, a member of the Playwright’s Lab faculty who has been called a “living legend of Off-Off Broadway.”

For Decision Height’s Main Stage production that October, Zulia invited representatives from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region IV, a program dedicated to improving the quality of college theatre in the United States. “The feedback we got was phenomenal,” Zulia notes, and in January 2013, KCACTF’s Region IV awarded its top playwriting honor to Levy.

A year later, Hollins and Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre hosted the 2014 Region IV KCATCF and featured Decision Height as the opening event. “There were spontaneous standing ovations, people were so impressed by the work Meredith and the whole company had created,” Zulia says. “It definitely told us something good was happening. At this festival, national representatives from across the country for the Kennedy Center were in attendance. They selected Decision Height as the top new play of the year, and the top production of a play that season.”

Subsequently published by Samuel French, one of the world’s leading publishers and licensors of plays and musicals, Decision Height over the past seven years has reached broader audiences regionally and nationally. Levy got special satisfaction from seeing it staged at colleges and universities. “I’m always amazed when I go to a school and see students do the show. If it’s a single-sex environment, the actors are so excited – ‘This play feels like our school. This is me and my friends, this is our community.’ I expected that, but I’m also so delighted when I go to big state schools and the women say, ‘There are so few parts for us in so many of the main stage productions. I’ve never viewed any of my peers as friends when we’re competing for the same five parts. To do an all-female production, I feel like I’ve built a new family.’ Hearing these students talk about how they had discovered this whole new way of being in community with women, that it didn’t have to be adversarial or competitive, was huge. I didn’t set out to write a play that would do that, but it was gratifying to know the play was having such an impact.”

Decision Height Stage Scene
A scene from the original production of “Decision Height” on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage in October 2012.

Zulia sees the Decision Height revival as a logical continuation of Hollins Theatre’s Legacy Series, which began a decade ago as a way to bring literary pieces by Hollins writers to the stage. Beginning with the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown ‘32, the Legacy Series has included A Woman of Independent Means (Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey ’60), Belloq’s Ophelia (Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard ’67, M.A. ’68), and Good Ol’ Girls (Lee Smith ’67 and Jill McCorkle M.A. ’81).

“Along comes Decision Height, and we thought, ‘Our playwriting program is a big part of our legacy along with our creative writing program,’” Zulia explains. “Some students came to me last year and asked, ‘When do we get to perform Decision Height?’, and it seemed like a good idea – let’s bring this play back and give our current students the opportunity to be a part of it. Its historical setting and themes are timeless.”

Levy believes Decision Height is the perfect title for the play and underscores why it continues to resonate with audiences of all ages, particularly the college demographic. “‘Decision Height’ is the flight term that was used for the critical moment where you have to decide if you’re going to land the plane or keep going. I thought that was such a great metaphor for what it feels like to graduate college and be at this point where you have to decide, what path you’re going to take with your life.

“Looking back after ten years, there’s no decision that you can’t change. But as a senior, I thought whatever I do next is going to define my life. It felt so huge, and this metaphor was really helpful to me to put my hands around that feeling and fear.”

 

 


“I Know What I Want Things to Sound Like”: Hollins Senior Earns Design Honors From Prestigious Theatre Conferences

When theatre audiences immerse themselves in a live drama, musical, or comedy, they delight in the playwright’s words and the director’s vision coming to life through a talented cast of actors. They marvel at the visual look and quality of the sets. Yet there’s one crucial aspect of a stage production where curiously enough, the better it’s executed, the less it’s noticed.

“People usually only notice the sound design when it’s bad,” laughs Anna Johnson ’21. “You can’t do it for the praise.”

Nevertheless, the senior from Asheville, North Carolina, “just fell in love immediately” with sound design when she served as the audio board operator for a production during Fall Term of her first year at Hollins. “Getting to see the impact theatre had on both the cast and the campus was just really incredible.” Johnson had enrolled at Hollins intending to study chemistry, but “from that moment I knew that I was going to be a theatre major.”

From the Black Box Theatre and new works from Hollins playwrights to Main Stage productions, Johnson has honed her craft through 26 shows. She recently earned coveted recognition from two of the nation’s premier college theatre conferences: The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region IV and the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) both honored her with first place awards for her sound design work on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, presented virtually by Hollins Theatre in October 2020.

“It has this beautiful, natural rhythm,” Johnson says of the Tony Award-winning drama. “I was trying to honor that by breathing life into it, which especially in a static environment such as Zoom was really important.”

Johnson got to lead sound design on a production shortly after her initial experience as a board operator. Wanting to learn more about sound, she worked closely with Hollins Theatre Technical Director John Forsman and a senior who trained her in QLab, a sound design software program. At the end of Fall Term her first year, Johnson was approached by Todd Ristau, director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, who was planning for the annual Hollins-Mill Mountain Winter Festival of New Works.

“Todd said, ‘Our sound designer can’t be here for Winter Festival, do you want to come design?’ I had never designed a play before, but he had full faith in me.” Johnson wasn’t exactly pleased with her debut design (“It sucked. It was not good.”). Still, she recognized she was building a foundation for subsequent success. “I formed relationships with my peers and the faculty, and I was willing to give it my all, even if I wasn’t very talented at that point.”

Despite the challenging start, the Winter Festival of New Works would ultimately become “my favorite thing that Hollins does,” Johnson says. “I’ve done seven shows with Winter Festival and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the playwrights. They’re truly incredible and it’s been fun to form those connections.”

Johnson discovered that she was especially passionate about working on new plays. “You get to be one of the collaborators in the room trying to bring the show to life, and that first production of a show is so important. Letting the playwright see their work on stage, fully produced for the first time, really informs them of how they want to proceed with their next draft.”

Johnson says sound design is unique from other areas of theatre design because “there’s not really a vocabulary for it. I’ve had directors say, ‘Oh, I want it to sound purple.’ That really doesn’t mean anything, so design is certainly a process.”

The sound designer’s work starts coming into focus even before the first production meeting. “Sound design is a lot of paperwork, so I create these cue sheets for my initial meeting with the director. It has every possible sound cue we could have in the show,” Johnson explains. “You come in with a statement for what you think the design is going to be for the show, and what’s going to help it. From there, you start collecting sound files and meeting weekly with the director.”

Preparations for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time began early in 2020 as the show was scheduled to be Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage spring production. All of Johnson’s work had been completed for what she describes as “one of the most technically complicated shows you can do” when Hollins announced in March that students would be sent home and all campus activities and events canceled because of the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson was hopeful her plans could still be put into action for a fall production, but the public health crisis was ongoing and large gatherings remained off-limits. With an actual stage production of Curious Incident on hold indefinitely, the decision was made to present the show virtually last fall via Zoom livestream. That meant the production company members, none of whom had ever done a Zoom show before, had to start from scratch.

“It was kind of wild. We only had a month and a half to put Curious Incident up for the fall and we had no idea what we were doing.” Johnson says it was initially heartbreaking to realize most of the original technical planning had to be cut, “but I just had to keep in mind that everybody was dealing with it. With this production, somebody was in Missouri, somebody was in California, somebody was in Pennsylvania. John Forsman and Kiah Kayser (McDonnell Visiting Faculty with the theatre department and video designer for Curious Incident) had to send every actor a box with costumes, props, and a green screen, which many people ended up duct taping to their living room walls.”

Working closely with Kayser, Johnson often put in 17-hour days. The show’s original stage manager graduated from Hollins in the spring of 2020, which necessitated Johnson and Kayser calling their own cues during the tech rehearsals and performances. “Usually you have maybe 30 sound cues, but our Zoom show had 200 official cues and over 1,100 internal cues, which doesn’t include the video cues. You have to gain a rhythm in order for it to be seamless. I would go to Kiah’s office every day and we would sit there and talk about the cues for hours: ‘This needs to coordinate here, this is how we should do this.’ You don’t always have the opportunity to do that in theatre, to collaborate with somebody that closely.”

Johnson cites one act of Curious Incident as an example of how their work came to fruition successfully. Christopher, the play’s main character, is a teenager on the autism spectrum who spends the entire second act of the play on a journey to London via his first trip on a train, even though he hates loud noises. “It’s beautifully written how he experiences things for the first time and you get to see him live those moments through. I had to create the entire world through soundscapes because in Zoom, you don’t have the benefit of a set. You don’t have a clear idea of where the actors are. Kiah’s video design really helped with that.”

The recognition from KCACTF and SETC has been gratifying for Johnson, but the enduring benefit she sees from her “incredible experience” working on Curious Incident has been the ability to step back and see the ways she has grown as a designer, paving the way for her to pursue an M.F.A. in sound design at the University of Memphis this fall. “As a sound designer, I know I have weaknesses, but I have a fairly clear artistic voice and I know what I want things to sound like,” she says. She’s incredibly busy this spring, submitting her work to festivals to build her portfolio, sound designing and acting in Hollins Theatre’s virtual production of Decision Height in April, sound designing another show, and writing a musical for her honors thesis, all while holding down a full-time job at a local Staples.

Over the past four years, she also believes she has grown profoundly on a personal level, thanks in large part to the support she’s received from the entire theatre department. “I suffer from bipolar disorder, and the theatre faculty have helped me through some difficult times in my life. I can take control of some things in ways I didn’t realize I could. Todd Ristau, Ernie Zulia, Kiah Kayser, John Forsman, Lauren Ellis, Anna Goodwin, Susie Young, and Rachel Nelson all saw potential in me when I didn’t see potential in me.”

Johnson holds dear Zulia’s description of Hollins Theatre not as just an academic department but as an artistic home where alumnae are always cherished. “Alumnae have gone out into the world and done incredible work, and then they get to come back and bring that love of Hollins and love of theatre. For students, that truly has an impact. I hope one day they’ll bring me back as a sound designer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


2021 Hollins-Mill Mountain Winter Festival of New Works Goes Virtual

The Hollins-Mill Mountain Winter Festival of New Works, which each January showcases compelling new plays by students from the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, is headed online for 2021.

“Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we will be producing and performing the entire Winter Festival of New Works through the magic of Zoom,” said Ernie Zulia, artistic director and chair of the Hollins theatre department. Along with Playwright’s Lab Director Todd Ristau, he co-leads the Hollins Theatre Institute, which produces the Winter Festival annually in partnership with Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre.

Taking place January 21 – 31, this year’s event is featuring two fully produced plays and two thesis play readings by Hollins playwrights. Each Zoom livestream is free and open to the public, but advanced reservations are encouraged as audience capacity is limited.

The 2021 schedule includes:Missing Red Girls

Missing Red Girls, written and directed by Max Bidasha

January 21-23, 7:30 p.m.
January 24, 2 p.m.

Based on true stories about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and inspired by activist, storyteller, and mother Jennifer James, the play follows two families on their journeys to find their loved ones who were stolen from them. The families endure racism, many obstacles, and very few resources. Reserve tickets at BrownPaperTickets.com.

 

Saturday Fringe Spotlight: The Care Taker, written by Stephanie Goldman and directed by Michelle LoRicco

January 23, 2 p.m.

The complicated relationship of a mother and daughter gets even more complicated in this twisted love story when what is hidden in the closet is forced to come out. A wound that is hidden can never be healed. Reserve tickets at BrownPaperTickets.com.

 

The Shadow of the SonShadow of the Son, written by Kate Leslie and directed by Lauren Brooke Ellis

January 28-30, 7:30 p.m.
January 31, 2 p.m.

Artemis is the goddess of the moon, and her brother, Apollo, is the god of the sun. Expected to live up to the ideals of the immortals, Artemis longs for freedom and the opportunity to chart her own path. But when she builds her own world away from that of her father, has she simply traded one set of impossible expectations for another? Reserve tickets at BrownPaperTickets.com.

 

Saturday Fringe Spotlight: The Magic Stick, written by Erica Zephir and directed by Breana Venable

January 30, 2 p.m.

In this memory play, narrator Mary tells the story about returning home to her mother to escape spousal abuse. As she searches for happiness and fulfillment, she encounters many adversaries, and the aura of her husband haunts her. Reserve tickets at BrownPaperTickets.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Nationally Ranked Hollins Theatre Institute Announces Online Events for 2020-21 Season

Even though it is not able currently to present before in-person public audiences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hollins Theatre Institute (HTI) will be offering fans of the stage the opportunity to attend a number of special virtual productions during the 2020-21 season.

This season’s schedule comes as HTI celebrates its recent ranking by The Princeton Review as the eighth-best college theatre program in the country.

“We are proud to be in the company of some of the best theatre schools in higher education and recognize what an honor it is for a program our size to be in the top ten,” said Ernie Zulia, HTI director. “We may be a small campus, but our vision is mighty and our sights are high.”

The 2020-21 public season begins with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which will be reformatted as a Zoom presentation and performed on October 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m., and on October 18 at 2 p.m. Originally scheduled for production last spring, the drama is the winner of seven Olivier Awards and five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and is based on the bestselling novel by Mark Hadden.The Curious Incident

The Curious Incident is the story of Christopher, a tenacious and intelligent teenager on the autistic spectrum who is better at solving equations than navigating a world that’s stubbornly out of sync with how his mind works. After being wrongly accused of murdering his neighbor’s dog, he resolves to find the real culprit. But, when his investigation uncovers painful truths about his family, he dares to strike out on his own, embarking on an adventure that upturns his whole world.

The Curious Incident is a thrilling, heartwarming, and uplifting story,” said Zulia. It’s recommend for ages 12 and up due to strong language throughout the production.

Admission to this online event is free and open to the public. Visit BrownPaperTickets.com or email agoodwin@hollins.edu to request the livestream link.

Produced through the partnership between HTI and Mill Mountain Theatre, the 2021 Hollins-Mill Mountain Virtual Winter Festival of New Works will feature never-before-seen plays penned by playwrights from the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University.

Written and directed by Max Bidasha, Missing Red Girls is based on true stories about missing and murdered indigenous women and follows two families on their journeys to find loved ones who were stolen from them. The families endure many obstacles, including racism and a lack of resources. A livestream of the play will be presented via Zoom, January 21-23 at 7:30 p.m., and January 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 general admission and will go on sale through BrownPaperTickets.com on December 1, 2020.

The Care Taker, written by Stephanie Goldman and directed by Clinton Johnston, looks at the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter and how a wound that is hidden can never be healed. The livestream via Zoom will take place January 23 at 2 p.m., and admission is free and open to the public. Tickets will be available through BrownPaperTickets.com on December 1, 2020.

In Kate Leslie’s Shadow of the Sun, directed by Daimien Matherson, Artemis is the goddess of the moon, and her brother, Apollo, is the god of the sun. Expected to live up to the ideals of the immortals, Artemis longs for freedom and the opportunity to chart her own path. But when she builds her own world, has she simply traded one set of impossible expectations for another? A Zoom livestream will be held January 28-30 at 7:30 p.m., and January 31 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 general admission and will go on sale through BrownPaperTickets.com on December 1, 2020.

Zulia said that the extent of COVID-19 restrictions on campus next semester will determine if and how HTI presents a Main Stage production in Spring 2021. Nevertheless, he stressed that “plans are under way for a dynamic production next April that will excite audiences online or in person. Stay tuned for more details as spring approaches.”

 


Hollins Theatre Presents Natasha Trethewey’s Acclaimed “Native Guard,” March 8

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Hollins University alumna and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is coming to Hollins Theatre.

Trethewey’s Native Guard, which received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007, will be presented in a theatrical reading with stunning visuals and live music on Sunday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. on the theatre’s Main Stage. Admission is free with seating on a first-come, first-served basis. A conversation with Trethewey, who earned her M.A. from Hollins in 1991, will immediately follow the performance.

Native Guard juxtaposes the deeply personal experiences of Trethewey, a child of a then-illegal marriage between her African American mother and Caucasian father living in 1960s Mississippi, with the experience of a soldier in the Native Guard, the first African American Union troop in the Civil War. Years after her mother’s tragic death, Trethewey reclaims her memory, just as she reclaims the voices of the black soldiers whose service has been all but forgotten.

The evening of poetry and theatricality stars January LaVoy, an Atlanta-based actress best known for her role as Noelle Ortiz-Stubbs on the ABC daytime drama One Life to Live.  She has appeared on Broadway and guest starred on several prime time network series, including Elementary, Blue Bloods, and N0S4A2. The cast also features Dominic Taylor, a writer, director, and scholar of African American theatre who is currently the resident professional teaching artist at Hollins Theatre, and Roanoke’s own Shawn Spencer, a renowned jazz and blues vocalist.

Native Guard is the second volume of poetry by Trethewey that Hollins Theatre has adapted for the stage. Bellocq’s Ophelia premiered in 2012 and the following year was one of five full productions from the southeastern United States chosen for performance at the Region IV Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.


Hollins Theatre Presents Revival of “Goodnight Moon: The Magical Musical,” Oct. 19-26

The musical version of a beloved children’s story that has sold millions of copies around the world is coming back to Hollins University this fall.

Goodnight Moon: The Magical Musical returns to Hollins Theatre, October 19 – 26. Based on the 1945 book by Margaret Wise Brown, a member Hollins’ class of 1932, the tale of the bunny who won’t go to sleep was adapted for the stage by Chad Henry. It was first presented in 2011 as the inaugural production of the Hollins Legacy Series, which was created to reimagine the work of Hollins writers as plays, musicals, and original theatre pieces. Hollins Theatre featured a revival of Goodnight Moon in 2015.

“We are working to make this show a great tradition here in Roanoke and a wonderful gift from Hollins to the community,” says Ernie Zulia, director of the Hollins Theatre Institute. “Along with six public performances, we are scheduling four performances for schoolchildren and are expecting as many as 2,000 kids to arrive here on buses throughout the run of the show.”

Goodnight Moon comes to the stage with whimsical costumes designed by California designer Amanda Quivey, lighting by Hollins resident designer Ann Courtney, and scenery by Disney artist Ryan Wineinger. Zulia describes the stage set as “a wondrous room filled with toys and pictures that comes to life before your eyes. The kittens, the mittens, the red balloon, and the cow jumping over the moon are all there, along with a few surprises. Goodnight Moon really is for children of all ages – we are proud that thousands of people have already seen the show over the years, and now it’s here for a new generation to enjoy.”

Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage will host the public performances of Goodnight Moon: The Magical Musical on Saturday, October 19, at 11 a.m.; Sunday, October 20, at 2 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, October 24 and 25, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, October 26, at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children under 12. For ticket sales and more information, visit www.hollins.edu/theatre or call the Hollins Theatre Box Office at (540) 362-6517.


Hollins Enjoys Double Presence at Women’s Theatre Festival

The works of two Hollins playwrights were recently showcased at an event that champions gender parity, diversity, and inclusion in the American theatre.

She Made Space, written and performed by Meredith Cope-Levy ’12, M.F.A. ’18, and And Then the Moon Swallowed the Sky by Rachel Nelson ’07 were featured at the 2019 Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF), held July 12 – 14 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The WTF stages productions and readings that are written and directed by women and feature casts and crews that are at least 50 percent women.

She Made Space is an honest and touching story spotlighting a twenty-something intellectual American lesbian tourist who arrives in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. “The play traces the steps she has taken to get there in consideration of the occupation of space – both inside, and outside, of herself,” Cope-Levy explains.

“There was something incredibly gratifying about performing She Made Space, a show that celebrates queer communities and identity, in a queer-centric space,” she says. “The intimacy of it allowed the audience to interact with me in a way that has never really happened before. This is the first time I think this show has ever seen a predominantly female and queer audience. Having not performed the show myself since we workshopped it in 2016, it was also meaningful for me personally to put this character back on and share my words in such a physically personal way.”

And Then the Moon Swallowed the Sky
Actors perform “And Then the Moon Swallowed the Sky” at the Women’s Theatre Festival.

A powerfully poignant play, And Then the Moon Swallowed the Sky explores moving through grief, together and alone. “On the eve of a total eclipse of the sun, three women throughout history each contemplate the things and people they have lost,” Nelson says. “As the light begins to fade, their stories become deeply intertwined in unexpected ways.”

She adds that crucial work was done with the production last winter in order to prepare it for venues such as the WTF. “This show was in residence at Hollins in January of this year, and that residency gave us incredible clarity about rewrites, which really paid off in this production. It also generated support with the students – after having seen it through multiple drafts, they really care about this show and have a vested interest in where it goes next.”

The staging of each play was made possible by all-Hollins casts and crews. She Made Space was directed by Lauren B. Ellis M.F.A. ’20 and stage managed by Shelby Love M.F.A. ’20. “Lauren has done such a brilliant job directing this production and this show is a true labor of love for us both,” Cope-Levy says. “We are hoping to take it back on the road to other fringe festivals.”

And because of the efforts of Susie Young ’10, Natalie Pendergast ’17, Kendall Comolli ’20, and Megan Gilbert ‘20, the production of And Then the Moon Swallowed the Sky persevered despite a significant setback.

“I had to evacuate my home in New Orleans due to Hurricane Barry the day before the festival, so I could only contribute long distance,” Nelson says, “and the team really had to rally at the last second. Susie stepped up as a director and performer, and her genius and fortitude really made this happen. She and I have been working on this play for three years now, and even though I wrote it, it’s based on a lot of conversations and explorations that we did together into grief. In so many ways she’s the heart of this project.

“I also want to thank Natalie for her performance; Kendall (the show’s original stage manager), who filled in as an actor; and Megan, who took over as stage manager. I am incredibly proud of all of them.”

“Of course we were bummed to not have Rachel with us,” Cope-Levy adds, “but her team demonstrated how important it is for theatre artists to be interdisciplinary – and how well Hollins prepares us for that.”

The Artistic Home, an entity designed by Nelson and Hollins Theatre Chair Ernie Zulia, is a major force behind the success of the two plays. “It supports recent Hollins grads through their first years in the professional theatre community by offering them connections with more established alumnae and current students. At the same time, they make exciting new theatre,” Nelson explains. “The WTF is a perfect example of the kind of work The Artistic Home does. There were several generations of Hollins family in collaboration – current Hollins students worked alongside Hollins professors and alumnae of the theatre program. This kind of cross-generation pollinating creates a team that mutually supports the growth of our young professional alumnae and enriches the education and professional experience of current Hollins students.”

“I physically felt my heart burst in witnessing The Artistic Home’s manifestation in these two back-to-back productions,” Cope-Levy says. “I also want to acknowledge the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins for its ardent support of She Made Space from our early workshops all the way through to this fringe festival tour.”

Nelson notes that “writing a play is often an isolating experience,” but her ties to Hollins ensure she doesn’t feel alone during the process. “I know I have the support of a community, and that I’m not writing into a vacuum. Events like this festival always remind me that the Hollins community is so much bigger than just the campus. It really does stretch around the world.”

 

Top Photo: Meredith Cope-Levy ’12, M.F.A. ’18 performs She Made Space, which she wrote. 


Hollins Honored For Best Undergraduate Theatre Program in Virginia

One of the world’s most-read theatre websites has named Hollins Theatre as the top undergraduate theatre program in Virginia.

OnStage Blog, which covers theatre on an international level, features Hollins in the 2019 edition of “The Best Undergraduate Theatre Programs in Each State.”

“Every year, OnStage Blog deep dives into college theatre programs to find what we feel are some of the best in the nation,” the website explains. “While the perfect program is the one that fits best with the student, schools can become that fit with fantastic facilities, strong faculty, [and] multiple performance opportunities, among other things. In truth, there are some schools that do that better than others and should be recognized for it.”

“There are some really terrific programs in our state, so this is quite an honor,” said Ernie Zulia, artistic director and chair of the Hollins theatre department. “I thank our incredible theatre faculty and staff for their brilliance and hard work. They are what makes us shine.”

In its review, OnStage Blog touts Hollins for the internship opportunities it offers “at some of the country’s most prestigious professional theatres, including: Cleveland Play House, Houston’s Alley Theatre, Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, New York’s Amas Musical Theatre, and Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre. Other internships are being arranged at theatres around the country on a regular basis.”


Hollins Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Brings Immersive Experience to Shakespeare’s Crowd-Pleaser, Nov. 28 – Dec. 1

Hollins Theatre is presenting a lively and novel production of one of William Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream…in Motion!, a 60-minute express version of the play that has been charming audiences for more than 420 years, will be staged as an immersive theatre experience in multiple locations throughout the Hollins campus, November 28 – December 1.

“If you think you might enjoy running through the library stacks as if you were in the woods outside Athens chasing fairies, mechanicals, and young lovers, you may want to grab a ticket for this unique theatrical experience,” says Ernie Zulia, chair of the Hollins University theatre department, referencing the final two evenings of the show’s run at Hollins’ Wyndham Robertson Library. “Shakespeare holds a very sacred place on the Hollins campus.”

Jim Warren, distinguished visiting faculty and founding artistic director of the renowned American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., adapted and directs the production “Getting to work with these remarkable Hollins women has been a delight for me. Together we navigated the pleasure of Tinker Day, Ring Night, and a million other commitments that make college life at Hollins such enchanting chaos. Getting to work on this play, with this cast, in this place, and making it a movable feast of the imagination has been an honor and a privilege.”

“What a joy it has been to host this terrific Shakespearean artist here at Hollins,” Zulia adds.

Midsummer will be performed at campus locations on the following dates and times:

Wednesday, November 28, 7:30 p.m.: Upstairs Studio Theatre (must be able to climb stairs)

Thursday, November 29, 7:30 p.m.: Botetourt Reading Room

Friday, November 30, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.: Wyndham Robertson Library (SOLD OUT)

Saturday, December 1, 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.: Wyndham Robertson Library (SOLD OUT)

Admission is $10 general public, and Hollins students, faculty, and staff can obtain one free ticket each. For more information, call the Hollins Theatre Box Office at 362-6517.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hollins Connections Highlight Special Stage Event at Mill Mt. Theatre

Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre (MMT) is paying tribute to a member of the Hollins University graduate program faculty by staging one of her acclaimed works for a special fundraising event.

On Saturday, November 10, MMT is presenting the play A Simple Gift by Nancy Ruth Patterson, who teaches in Hollins’ M.F.A. program in children’s book writing and illustrating and is celebrated for her creativity and devotion to her community. The goal of the fundraiser is to supplement generous grants from the Fishburn Foundation and the Helen S. and Charles G. Patterson, Jr. Charitable Foundation Trust to renovate MMT’s Waldron Stage into a “green space” venue. Tickets are $100 per person and can only be purchased in advance by contacting events@millmountain.org. A portion of the ticket price will be a tax-exempt charitable gift to MMT.

A Simple Gift earned recognition as “A love song to the theatre…a love song to life” when it was first produced at MMT nearly a decade ago. The play is the story of two former residents of fictional Brownsville, North Carolina – one who found fame on Broadway and the other who became a children’s writer – who accept an invitation from an old teacher to return to their hometown to put on a performance as a gift to the place that raised them both.

Hollins President Emerita Nancy Gray is among the prominent Roanoke citizens who will be appearing in the play alongside some of MMT’s top veteran actors and several young local actors who are starting their careers.

The one-night-only performance of A Simple Gift will be preceded by a supper of favorites from Chanticleer Catering and an open bar beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Atrium of Center in the Square.