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Writing and Staging: Behind the Scenes of Emily Cutler’s "The Road Trip"

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Writing and Staging: Behind the Scenes of Emily Cutler’s "The Road Trip"

Interview by Penn Art and Culture

Penn Theatre Arts Program presents The One Act Play Festival on April 4th and 5th at Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The Festival features two plays written by Penn students. The Road Trip, by College sophomore Emily Sheera Cutler, follows two friends, Kim and Julie, as they drive away from their high school in search of adventure. Emily won the 2013 Judy Lee Award for Dramatic Writing, an award presented to an undergraduate or graduate for the best script. Princess, by College senior Kate Herzlin, tackles the traditional fairytale narrative in a modern setting. Kate was the winner of the 2013-2014 Penn Plays Fellowship, which is cosponsored by the Kelly Writers House and the Theatre Arts Program. 

When did you write your first play? Why did you write a play (as opposed to a story, song or poem)?

I wrote my first play during the summer after my tenth grade year of high school, when I attended the Sewanee Young Writers Conference. Before that conference, I'd mainly written fiction. My favorite part of writing fiction has always been dialogue. For me, dialogue is the element that reveals the most about the characters. I chose to explore playwriting at the conference to try my hand at telling a story primarily through dialogue. I became fascinated by the different ways people communicate with each other; what each character chooses to say, as well as everything that goes unsaid, can give so much insight into the characters and their relationships to one another. During that summer, playwriting became my favorite type of writing. 

Do you write for yourself? Do you write for others?

Finley Peter Dunne once said that the purpose of journalism is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. This is also my purpose as a playwright. This applies to both myself and others. I wrote The Road Trip both to challenge myself to think about the social issues present in the play in new ways, and to come to terms with events in my own past by incorporating my emotional memory into the play. I also wrote The Road Trip for those company members and audience members who may not have experienced any of the social issues in the play; I hope that the play will allow them to have a new perspective by empathizing with Julie and Kim. Finally, I wrote The Road Trip for anyone who has experienced those issues. I hope the play is a comfort.

As modern culture is constantly immersed in and exposed to changing media in the arts and new methods of electronic and virtual communication, is it important that people still write plays for the stage and see plays on the stage? Why?

Yes, it is incredibly important that people still write plays and see plays. Because theater tends to be smaller scale than other media, it allows the company and audience to focus primarily on the text of the play. Also, as a communication major, I've had the chance to research the effect of theater on social change. I found that theater has an advantage over other media because it combines the strengths of mass media (reaching large numbers of people efficiently) with the strengths of interpersonal communication. The live, in-person aspect of theater can lead audience members to be more personally involved with the story and characters and therefore think more deeply about the social issues presented. I think it's important that the theater community focus on our potential to influence social change. 

You have referenced the social issues in the play. Could you elaborate on what they are?

The Road Trip is a feminist play in many ways. One reason that I wrote it is that I don't think there are enough plays portraying strong, supportive friendships between women. The two young women in my play have an unconditional friendship, and they support each other through issues including domestic abuse and anxiety. The play also deals with the shame surrounding female sexuality. 

You won the Judy Lee Prize for Dramatic Writing for The Road Trip and have taken the play to a writer's workshop in New York. Can you tell more about these experiences? What does public exposure to your work do for/to you as a playwright? How did the workshops not only change this play, but also impact your process as a writer. 

Over winter break, I had the chance to attend the Young Playwrights Inc. National Conference, which included a staged reading. The rehearsals for this reading, as well as the reading itself, allowed me to see what worked and what didn't work in the play. Some of the changes I made were developing Kim's family background, showing the characters' motives in each moment more clearly, and raising the stakes in the ending. In general, I've learned to think more carefully about my characters' motivations in all future plays I write.

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    • Technical rehearsal for The Road Trip. Front: Emily Sheera Cutler.

How does it feel to have other people interpret your work through stage direction, design or in performance?

It has been fantastic to see others' interpretations of my work. I've learned so much about the play and about what in it stands out to different people. The actors' discoveries about the characters' backstories continue to surprise me, and it's always interesting to hear new perspectives on the subtext of different moments from director Sam Bellomo

You mentioned the benefits of having student and faculty involvement in staging this play. Have there been specific moments when someone else taught you something new about The Road Trip?  

Definitely. At the beginning of the rehearsal process, Sam assigned Casey Smith and Jeanette Elstein to read through the script and write down everything that the two characters, Julie and Kim, say about themselves and say about each other. While I had originally thought of Julie and Kim as very different from one another, hearing Casey and Jeanette's responses helped me realize just how similar the two characters are and what shared values led them to become best friends. In a later rehearsal, Sam explained my punctuation style to the cast, emphasizing the difference between the subtext behind hyphens, ellipses, and periods. I actually had never thought about the meaning of my punctuation, as it's always been a pretty automatic part of my writing process. Thinking about the differences between types of pauses and the characters' reasons for pausing at various moments gave me a lot of insight.

When you wrote the play, did you have a vision in your mind of how it would be staged? Is this staging different from what you imagined? What do you think about a hypothetical departure from the writers imagined version of the play? Is that good, bad, essential, usually part of the deal, rare?

The staging of the play is pretty much exactly what I imagined. Originally, I had envisioned an even more minimalist set than the one that Eric Baratta designed, but I think the additions contribute a lot to the play. In general, I think a departure from the writer's imagined version of the play can go either way. I'm glad that The Road Trip is very similar to what I had imagined. On the other hand, this summer, I wrote a play that was meant to be set in a theater, and the setting was crucial to the plot. It ended up being produced at an outdoor festival, so it was not in a theater. Surprisingly, this added a lot to the play and helped me think about the issues it dealt with in new ways. So as a playwright I am always open to considering new ideas for the staging of my work. 

Are you looking forward to a public audience seeing your work performed? 

I'm a little bit nervous — like most playwrights, I don't always enjoy hearing my own work. In general, though, I'm very excited for the play. Casey and Jeanette have been working so hard throughout the rehearsal process, and I have no doubt that their performance will leave an impact on the audience. 

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Do you have any playwriting heroes?

My playwriting hero is Larry Kramer. When I was seventeen, I saw his play The Normal Heart, which deals with issues such as the AIDS crisis and discrimination against gay men, [when it showed in] my hometown, Birmingham, Alabama. Growing up Jewish in Birmingham, a city where only one percent of the population is Jewish, I experienced prejudice and bullying throughout high school. Seeing The Normal Heart was empowering for me. Here was Ned Weeks, a character who was seen as different for many reasons. He was gay, HIV positive, and struggled with his body image. And still, every member of the audience was rooting for him. Although he was seen as different, we identified with him. We saw his fear, vulnerability, and humanity. In a city that has sometimes been known to be hostile toward those who are different, it was incredible to see that kind of effect on an audience. The Normal Heart was the first play that really showed me how powerful playwriting could be in effecting social change. I strive to not only create compelling characters and stories with my plays, but also to change the way people think about social issues. 

Emily Cutler is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She has stage-managed two plays for Penn's Theatre Arts Program, and her short play The Road Trip is being produced as part of the program's One Act Play Festival. Emily also serves on the board of the Reform Jewish Community at Hillel. In her free time, Emily enjoys writing, volunteering, and exploring Philadelphia.

Edited by Naomi Shavin.