It’s not every day theatre students get to produce an original play in collaboration with the playwright, but Pellissippi State Community College students have that rare opportunity this November.
Pellissippi State will present the world premiere of “Soft Animals,” a new play written by Erin Mallon for Pellissippi State in collaboration with The Farm Theater in New York.
The play, a comedy that explores the perceptions we have about people’s physical appearances and our relationships with our bodies, will be performed Nov. 9-11 and 16-18, with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday performances at 2 p.m.
All performances will be held in the Clayton Performing Arts Center on the College’s Hardin Valley Campus, 10915 Hardin Valley Road.
“We are the first production of this play, and we really wanted to be the first,” said director Grechen Lynne Wingerter, associate professor of theatre at Pellissippi State. “This experience allows students to know what it’s like to build a play from the ground up.”
The Farm Theater commissioned Mallon – a writer, actor and voice artist – to write the play, which will be produced at Pellissippi State in November and at Arkansas State University in February. As the name College Collaboration Project indicates, the entire process has been collaborative.
“I had to pitch the idea, as the play had not been written yet,” explained Mallon, the playwright. “We discussed a question that has been swirling in my brain for a long time: Does the mind create the body? I felt like that was a worthy theme to explore in a play because I truly don’t know the answer, but the question fascinates me.”
The collaboration with Pellissippi State began in the spring, Wingerter noted, with a Skype meeting with Mallon.
“She took what the students had to say on the topic of body image and incorporated that into her writing,” Wingerter said. “It’s a funny play, but it also has some depth, in that it deals with the imperfections/quirks we all have and learning what we can and cannot control.”
In August Wingerter traveled to New York to attend a workshop reading of the play by professional actors and to meet the playwright in person. Rehearsals started at Pellissippi State in September. Wingerter “double cast” the play so that more students could participate, she noted, with the two casts alternating performances – and Mallon traveled to Knoxville to work with the students in mid-October.
“This team of actors is brave and game to try anything,” Mallon said of the Pellissippi State students. “The play is an absurd-ish comedy that carries some darker themes, but it is definitely comedy forward. The actors have to be bold and willing to try some weird stuff. This is a very funny and talented group.”
Wingerter stressed how special this opportunity has been for Pellissippi State.
“This is unique for our students, to be the very first to bring a play to life,” she explained. “When you do the classics – say, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Death of a Salesman’ – there are preconceived notions of how those plays are supposed to be done, and there always will be comparisons. With a new play, our actors are allowed to experiment, to explore character development, and they’re focusing on applying what they’re learning in the classroom to the stage.”
Wingerter is hopeful that the relationship the students are forming with Mallon also may serve them well later on.
“She’ll remember these guys because this is the first time ‘Soft Animals’ has been produced,” Wingerter said. “Maybe she will think of one of them in the future. Theatre is a lot of networking, and I want our students to have meaningful opportunities.”
Audiences at the Nov. 10 performance of “Soft Animals” will have a unique opportunity as well: to participate in a “talk back session” with the playwright after the play.
“I’ve noticed lately that what I seem to be writing over and over again are characters who are learning to love and accept themselves,” Mallon said. “That is incredibly hard for a lot of us to do, but I hope audiences will come away from the play with a little more kindness toward themselves – and enjoy a lot of laughter along the way.”