To many aspiring playwrights, having the opportunity to write a play under the tutelage of a playwright with over 20 years of experience would be a dream come true. For aspiring playwrights in the Boston College theatre and arts departments, that dream is set to happen, with theatre veteran Sheri Wilner coming to Boston College next semester as the latest Monan Professor of Theatre Arts.
The Monan professorship is a semester-long visitation that is aimed at bringing an individual with knowledge of the professional theatre scene to come and share his or her experience.
Past visiting professors have come from all facets of theatre life, including directors, actresses, singers, and designers. With over 20 separate works under her belt, Wilner more than fits the bill.
“Sheri is a very accomplished and rising playwright in our contemporary world,” said Crystal Tiala, chair of the theatre department. “We like to catch artists when they’re starting to take off.”
Having already taught at Vanderbilt University and Florida State, along with numerous workshops on the craft of playwriting, Wilner enters BC with plenty of classroom experience. Wilner is teaching a class entitled Writing Wrongs: Creating the Issue-Based Play. Students who take the class will have the opportunity to voice issues in society that they’re passionate about, with Wilner directing them to plays that focus on the topic. The class culminates with the student writing his or her own play tackling the issue.
“The idea of the class is how can you take an idea that you’re super passionate about and super opinionated about and make it into a night of theater that’s going to be interesting to an audience,” Wilner said.
Coupled with teaching, Wilner will be advising the spring production of her most recent play, Kingdom City. Set to open in March, Kingdom City centers around a high school production of The Crucible in Kingdom City, Mo. and the conflicts that arise when a local youth minister tries to cancel the production.
Wilner was inspired to write the play after reading a New York Times article about a similar situation happening in Fulton, Mo.
While she appreciated the irony in censoring an Arthur Miller play, Wilner was driven to write Kingdom City as a response to what she sees as the censorship of theatre, an issue she cares about deeply.
“I find when I write on clever ideas, I’ll run out of steam,” Wilner said. “But if it’s something that’s so important to me, then not only does it fuel me through the whole writing process, which can be quite long and arduous, but then those are the plays that people respond to because the audience can just feel the passion, energy, and urgency in them.”
With many of the students taking on the role as members of a high school drama club in Kingdom City, Wilner is set to be reunited with two of her high school drama compadres, faculty members Larry Sousa and Luke Jorgensen.
Sousa, who served as stage director for the production of Kingdom City, was the set designer for the trio’s drama club, often staying long after school to work on painting and constructing the sets.
The fact that the person who once designed the sets for her high school productions is now designing the set for her own play is a surreal experience for Wilner.
“In addition to having this fabulous job, I get to relive the most joyful days of high school,” Wilner said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have the past, present, and future converge in such a delightful way.”
Influenced by playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Wilner stuck to writing plays until last year, when she adapted one of her short plays, Bake Off, into a full-length musical entitled Cake Off. Focused on a man and woman participating in a Pillsbury baking contest, the musical premiered in Arlington, Va., to rave reviews.
With the theme of theatre productions this year focusing on gender parity and how there is often an imbalance between the sexes within the theatre world, Wilner’s arrival at BC couldn’t have had better timing.
According to Wilner, despite the commonly held belief that women are the most involved behind the scenes in the realm of theatre, in reality only 12 to 20 percent of plays in the United States are written by women. Coupled with the fact that 70 percent of ticket buyers are women, this makes for a huge disparity.
A veteran member of the theatre community, Wilner has had her share of experience with the issue and is eager to share her experiences with the BC theatre community.
“Systemic sexism in the theatre industry is to blame, as up until very recently, a lot of the people that ran theaters were men,” Wilner said. “People tend to pick what they relate to and what their tastes are.”
Photo Courtesy of Sheri Wilner