By Curtis Russell, Guest Blogger
Curtis Russell joined the U of U Theatre Department in January 2012 and is a member of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) and works at the Salt Lake Film Society. We asked him to share his experience and what he learned when he decided to turn his Honors Thesis into a full production on campus.
I knew I wanted to write a play for my Honors Thesis, but was coming up short on ideas until I learned about Anna Deavere Smith’s pioneering work in the verbatim theatre genre in Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell’s “Theatre and Theory” course, almost a year ago exactly. Verbatim theatre creates works using the words, rhythm, and inflection of real people, taken from interviews by the playwright. I had an “aha!” moment upon remembering that I had transcriptions of hours and hours of footage for a never-completed documentary film about the Mormon church. In one of those rare moments of convergence, my needs and my resources/capacity were in sync, and I suddenly had a play.
But plays are meant to be performed, not read. A play on the page is like a corpse just after getting bitten by a zombie; until it gets up on its feet, you have no idea what kind of monster you’re dealing with. So, even though the text of the play was sufficient for Honors Thesis purposes (and because I tend to the masochistic), I decided to put this particular monster on its feet with a full production on campus.
Photos Courtesy of Curtis Russell
The trouble was that I was a fairly new student on campus and hardly knew anybody. Having no directing experience, I asked faculty members for recommendations and thus was able to find a director from the film department with theatre experience. I needed designers, so I asked around. I needed a performance space, so I asked. And this is the point I want to make to my fellow CFA students: it really is that easy to get projects done. Don’t get me wrong; when I say “ask” it’s more like “ask and ask and ask and ask and ask and ask and ask and ask.” Getting the show together was a draining, yet exhilarating process; I heard easily 50 times as many “noes” as “yesses.” But it really was just a matter of asking. If you don’t know where to start, ask. Ask a professor, ask an advisor, ask a classmate. If you don’t have the funds, ask. If you need help, ask. If you need ideas, ask. If you want help advertising, ask. If you’re worried about bothering your teachers and advisors, DON’T WORRY. Bother them! That’s what they’re there for!
Following a few name changes, cutting about 1/3 of the play, and many hours of hard work by cast and crew alike, “The Zion Curtain” premiered in Studio 115 on January 2; I’ve begun submitting the play to theaters around the U.S. and U.K. Yes, it was a small, free show over Winter break, but it was the first step in my journey as a playwright, and I don’t plan on stopping. This summer I will be shadowing Juan Radrigán, Chile’s foremost playwright, as he teaches classes and workshops and possibly mounts a production. Know how I got that opportunity? I asked.
Take steps. Knock on doors. Ask questions. It really is that easy.