The list of plays approved for UIL One Act Play productions is about a mile long. And Scott Johnson Middle School Advanced Drama teacher Angi Burns has pretty much seen them all—many times over in some cases. So, when the time came to consider scripts for this year’s competition, Burns knew that she wanted something different for her students.
“I don’t like to do shows that are performed a lot because I’ve been in theatre since I was four, so I’ve seen almost every one on the list,” said Burns. “So, I try to pick something that is fresh and new and relevant and the kids connect to.”
This year, that play turned out to be “The Shape of the Grave” by Laura Lundgren Smith, and last Friday, Burns’ students had the rare opportunity to meet with a playwright whose work they are currently preparing to take to the stage.
Smith, who lives in Fort Worth, has written three plays specifically for school productions that fit within the UIL contest rules—“Sending Down the Sparrows,” “Digging up the Boys” and, most recently, “The Shape of the Grave.”
“All my plays are historical fiction,” said Smith, “and I do that on purpose because they are written specifically for UIL One Act Play. [The subject of each play is] something that maybe [the students] don’t know a lot about, and maybe the excitement of doing the play will spur them on to do research on their own. Definitely it’s as much a learning experience as it is an experience for the theatre.”
“The Shape of the Grave” tells the story of Colleen, a teenager growing up in 1970‘s era Northern Ireland during the height of the conflict between the IRA and British army. Colleen struggles with the desire to carry on the revolutionist work of her father and brother, both of whom died in service to the IRA. To complicate matters, she becomes romantically entangled with a young British soldier named Covey, a relationship that could alienate her from the very people she seeks to defend.
The timing of Smith’s visit was ideal for the SJMS cast who are only a few weeks into production.
“We’re trying to get it in the beginning,” said Burns, “so they can really develop from what [Smith] gives them instead of waiting until the end when they already have a mindset of who their character is—and then [the playwright] comes in goes, ‘Oh no, that’s not what I meant!’ Which sometimes can happen.”
So, over the course of two hours, Smith and the cast discussed the historical background of the play, her writing process, her journey as a playwright, questions about character motivation and interaction, unfamiliar Irish colloquialisms—and how to pull off an Irish accent convincingly.
“Listen to One Direction!” offered one student, eliciting a groan from Burns.
“Listen to dialect CD’s,” suggested Smith, a practice the kids have, in fact, been putting to use from the beginning.
The cast were curious about Smith’s writing process. “I start with the research,” she said. “I did three months of research for the first play. For me, it’s a very organic process. I don’t have an outline, which most theatre professors who teach play writing would flip out over. But, for me it’s very organic and starts with a person and putting them into a story, and it just sort of grows organically from there.”
Smith was curious about the appeal of the script.
“I like the fact that it is a really dramatic story and has historical value,” said one student.
“I like how real the characters seemed,” offered another. “To me Cole had an edginess that you can see in some people these days who are more rebellious, and Brigid had more motherly qualities. All of these realistic people seemed like people that you could connect to.”
Burns initially connected with Smith through a Facebook page for UIL directors. “She’s a member of that group because she’s local,” said Burns, “and she has a lot of people in the area who produce her plays. When I was tossing around the idea about which script to pick, she said, ‘Hey, take a look at this one. It seems to fit the number of kids you have and what you’re looking for.’ And it did.”
So, Burns included the “The Shape of the Grave” with about 20 other plays for her students to consider, and began circulating them around the class with specific criteria to keep in mind: make sure the characters have depth; look for a clear conflict, something the character is truly fighting for and (perhaps most importantly), “You need to love it because you’re going to be stuck with it and eat, sleep and breathe the show for almost three months.”
As students read and carefully weighed the merit of script after script, two titles consistently rose to the top of everyone’s list of favorites: “The Shape of the Grave” and “Sending Down the Sparrows,” both Smith titles.
The final decision came down to practicality. “Sending Down the Sparrows” required more male actors than Burns had available, so “The Shape of the Grave” was the choice. Because it was not on the UIL list, Burns submitted the play to UIL for approval and received permission to perform it in the One Act Play Contest.
“With this [play], they’ve made a lot of modern day connections to it,” said Burns. “It wasn’t very long ago that it took place. It was the 1970’s, but once we started getting into the research of it, they started really diving in. And, once they realized it was a true story, and it actually happened and U2 wrote a song about it and all that, they got really excited.”
Discussing the play with Smith, the pressing question on most of the students’ minds was, “What was your vision for this particular scene?” or “How do you imagine that scene should look?”
But, on that point, Smith’s philosophy departs somewhat from their expectations. Where some playwrights and publishing companies are extremely rigid concerning the implementation of their work, Smith is quite open to different interpretations.
“To me it’s much more interesting because it’s like a gift that I get to open each time there’s a show because you brought your own thing to the table,” she said. “And, I feel like the play is very malleable. It’s a material. And, I give it to you, and you use it like a piece of clay to make something totally different. That’s the joy for me because every show is different. I’ve never been disappointed.”
Smith will have the opportunity to see the play in action on February 26 at McKinney Boyd High School when the SJMS kids perform it officially for the UIL One Act Play Contest.
For 8th grader Isabel Thierry, who has taken on the lead role of Colleen, the time in class with Smith was well spent. “This confirmed our research, and it was really fun learning about all of the [historical] people who weren’t in the play.”
And her Irish accent?
“Not good,” she said with a laugh. “I can’t do it.”
Well, the good news is that there is still time to break out the One Direction.
Story submitted by Shane Mauldin, MISD
Photo at top: Playwright Laura Lundgren Smith (center) with drama teacher Angi Burns (second row, far right) and the students of SJMS Advanced Drama.