Playwright Meredith Dayna Levy ’12 has scaled the heights and gone underground to connect stories with an audience.
By Beth JoJack ’98
All across the country, actors are bringing the words of Meredith Levy to life.
Sixteen productions of Levy’s full-length drama Decision Height have been staged since the play won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg National Student Playwriting Award in 2014. “It’s being done all over the place by other colleges and high schools,” said Levy, who works as alumnae events coordinator at Hollins and is a student in the M.F.A. program in playwriting,
Levy wrote the play as her thesis for her senior year. She first sat down to write without much of a plan, other than she knew she wanted to create strong female characters.
“I wanted to write for my friends,” Levy said. “I sort of took it as a challenge to write an all-female play and make characters that are interesting and dynamic and not stereotypes.”
In that early stage, Levy had firm ideas about what she didn’t want the play to be.
“I didn’t want to write a family drama,” she said. “I wasn’t interested in writing a play about sisters or mothers and daughters. I also wasn’t interested in writing a play about college because that was too on the nose.”
While searching for a group of women in history to use as inspiration, Levy read about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, women trained to pilot aircraft during World War II. “I was so ashamed I had never heard of them before,” Levy said. [Decision height is an aviation term referring to the altitude that determines whether the pilot is able to land using visual references or must abandon the effort and try again.]
As she read about the women’s training, Levy immediately saw parallels between what she had experienced during four years at a single-sex school. She felt certain a Hollins audience would identify with their story.
“I honestly didn’t think it would go anywhere beyond Hollins,” Levy said. “It’s such a wonderful sort of accident that the play resonates with people beyond single-sex institutions.”
Decision Height went on to win numerous honors from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF), including recognition in the categories of Outstanding Production of a New Work and Distinguished Director of a New Work for Ernie Zulia, director of the Hollins Theatre Institute.
After experiencing so much success with her first play, Levy found it “extremely daunting” to tackle her next project. Luckily, she had to write a new full-length work for a course in the M.F.A. program, which gave her the push she needed.
Partly inspired by the spring semester she spent on the Hollins Abroad-London program her junior year, Levy wrote about the lives of the occupants of a car on the London Underground. “It was very long and very wordy and not great,” Levy said of that first draft.
Todd Ristau, director of Hollins’ Playwright’s Lab, staged a reading of the play, then called Cut and Cover, in 2013. Afterward, Levy made some edits. “But it didn’t seem that much better,” she said, “so I sort of put it in a drawer.”
By the spring of 2015, Levy was ready to try again with fresh eyes. She submitted it to the New Voices Playfest put on by Atlantic Stage in Myrtle Beach South Carolina, which staged a reading. That summer, Levy worked closely on further revisions with Robert Moss, a visiting faculty member in the Playwright’s Lab. Moss founded Playwrights Horizons in New York City, which produced more than 150 new plays during his tenure. “[The play] ended up being 50 pages shorter and much improved,” Levy said.
Ristau directed a production of the revised play, now called Coupler: A Whimsical Underground Comedy, as part of the Hollins-Mill Mountain Theatre Winter Festival of New Works in January in Roanoke and another reading at the Robert Moss Theater in New York City in March.
“Each of the characters Meredith has so carefully created are wonderfully flawed,” Ristau said, “but in the process of becoming better by figuring out what’s real, what’s worth pursuing, and what’s worth giving up.”
Levy now describes the play—which won the 2016 KCACTF David L. Shelton Playwriting Project award and the organization’s 2016 designation of Distinguished Production of a New Work—as having “arrived,” a feat she isn’t sure she would have completed if she hadn’t had so many opportunities to work with actors and other professionals.
“It’s hard to get into a room with a play,” Levy said. “They usually want the play to be good before they commit to it. I feel really blessed to have such wonderful collaborators with the Hollins playwriting program.”
Beth JoJack is a Roanoke writer who contributes frequently to Hollins magazine.