This past weekend Morgan McGuire’s IN THE COTTON was performed, by a team made up of students from Howard, Prince George, and Carroll Community Colleges in Maryland, as part of the The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival at Indiana University in Indiana, PA.
I am thrilled.
This project started about three years ago when Bill Gillet reached out to me about the Maryland schools participating in The Farm Theater’s College Collaboration Project. At the KCACTF Region II in 2014 Bill talked with Scott Hudson about the program. Scott shared with him the experience he and his Ashland University students had working with The Farm. Ashland was our first school to participate. We had a second year of the program lined up. But it was very new. Bill reached out to me and wanted to see if we’d be willing to alter the model. Instead of the play being developed by three different schools independently – he offered three schools in Maryland collaborating together to develop the play. By working together, the vision was that the cast would come from all three schools, the design elements would stay the same; like the text and performances they would evolve with each production. The schools individually may not be able produce a production on their own that would be invited to present at the Festival. However, if the three schools combined their resources they could create something that would be of a caliber that could warrant an invitation.
Another shift in the program was suggested. Instead of having the writer picked the theme of the play, Bill brought a theme to the Farm: Race. It was right after the protests in Baltimore immediately following the death of Freddie Gray. Most of this is written about in an article in the Baltimore Sun.
However, what was not discussed in the article is that initially there was a different writer for the program. It was someone that was involved with social advocacy thru theater – participating in protests and working with arts groups that actively seeking change and discourse regarding issues of race. They were being workshopped a lot but had not been produced. After being asked to participate in this program they were then offered multiple opportunities: a production, a writing mentorship, and graduate school acceptance. The writer declared that they wanted to and were committed to this project.
When the first draft of the play arrived it was an interesting intellectual investigation of class, capitalism, and art with an ethnically diverse cast of characters. However, the ethnicity of the roles excluded some students from the schools from being able to participate as actors and included ethnicities that were not represented on the campuses in the theater department and would make it incredibly difficult to cast. The play did not take place or have any geographical reference to Maryland. Not a requirement but the students did not feel like their experience was reflected in the script. To the schools credit, they committed fully to trying to be able to achieve the play.
What I enjoy the most about this program is that through the development of the script, the process benefits everyone involved: writer, departments, students, and communities. As the process progressed it became clear, as everyone worked to make this experiment work, that the only one that was going to fully benefit from this process was the writer. And honestly, not really because the play couldn’t be fully achieved.
A decision had to be made.
We decided to find a different writer. To develop a new play.
Morgan was on my radar because of a her play, The Red Room, that was presented in a very exciting production that summer. A mutual friend of ours told me that Morgan was writing a play about race. I read the draft. It was fascinating. I asked Morgan if we could meet to talk about her writing a new play for this program. In our meeting Morgan, without hesitation, rattled off her knowledge and thoughts on the issue, including referencing a book that specifically speaks to the history of race issues in Baltimore. It was clear she was the right person for the project.
I am so grateful that the schools still had trust in The Farm to make this recommendation and for our mutual commitment to make the project valuable for everyone involved.
Morgan went down for three days to work with students that were cast and begin to write a draft that would begin rehearsals for a production in…thirteen days. Thirteen days – and there was a draft that reflected the students experience with the issue at hand, their voices could be heard in the characters, and Morgan had created a context for the story that was in line with her interests and could create opportunities for growth and education for the students as they began to work on the play.
The choice to make the change was not about creating a production that was strong enough to be able to present at the KCACTF. The decision was to create a process that would be beneficial and exciting for all involved. It was clear immediately that it was the right decision. The students’ enthusiasm for the play and Morgan was palpable when I visited Carroll Community Campus to see the first production. With each production: the cast got stronger, the design elements were refined, the script got tighter. After the Howard production – the production was invited to be presented at the KCACTF.
Morgan was invited to attend the KCACTF to be a respondent to students participating in the playwriting program. After the performance at Festival Morgan was invited on stage and was acknowledged with a standing ovation from the seven hundred students in the audience. Most importantly, the schools were recognized for their excellent work, their vision, and the value of collaboration.
I am so proud of everyone and grateful for their commitment to the process! Congratulations on the product you created!
Talk with you soon.