MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — A pair of MTSU Theatre professors, four students, a new graduate and a nationally recognized playwright want Midstate audiences to emerge from their isolation this weekend, Aug. 14-15, for a rare — and free — in-person opportunity.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 15, in MTSU’s Tucker Theatre at 615 Champion Way, audiences can get an exclusive look at writer Sharyn Rothstein’s new work, “Assisted Living,” and give her feedback.
The project began when Department of Theatre and Dance professors Kate Goodwin and Lauren Shouse decided to use their pre-MTSU experience with “workshopping” new plays to give students more professional training and local audiences more chances to see live theater.
They dubbed it “PlaySpace” and intend it to become an annual series to help MTSU become an “incubator” of new American theater work.
The students — senior Cassidy Woodall of Murfreesboro, senior Gavin Strawn of Johnson City, Tennessee; sophomore Anna Grace Gragg of Knoxville; Ollie Callaghan of Crossville, Tennessee; and May graduate Layla Bahmanziari of Murfreesboro — were eager to help.
The professors connected with Rothstein, an award-winning playwright and writer for TV, most recently for “Suits.” She prepared an original script focusing on a woman struggling with loneliness, friendship and aging in the middle of the pandemic.
Instead of the simple staged reading that new plays usually need before production begins, “Assisted Living” is getting a more extensive run-through, complete with set design, lighting, costumes and four professional actors: Ruth Cordell, Sejal Mehta, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva and Cheryl White.
“We’ll do some rough blocking, (and) we have all these designers that’ll be crafting a design landscape,” explains Shouse, who teaches theatre directing. “The actors will have scripts in hand because there may be new pages that literally come in 30 minutes before they go on stage.
“The exciting thing is that we'll be able to play with some movement, with how design affects the script, and all of that gives the playwright a whole other set of information of what's working and what's not working, whereas a staged reading is really just about hearing the words aloud for the first time with some great actors. This actually incorporates design and blocking, too.”
Funding for the production, including the playwright’s commission and travel and the actors’ stipends, has come from the Tennessee Arts Commission and from faculty and student research grants in MTSU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.
Bahmanziari is assistant director, Woodall is assistant stage manager, and Gragg is handling set design. Strawn is the lighting design expert, and Callaghan is the costume guru. MTSU theatre instructor Kevin O’Donnell is providing sound design.
The group has been collaborating since early summer, first through Zoom and this month with in-person rehearsals and discussions. They’ve been pleased to find the humor and positivity in a story that could easily be as depressing as a locked-down nursing home, the professors say.
“At one point Sharyn said, ‘When you don’t have many years left, to spend one, or more than one, in isolation like this, there has to be SOME sort of toll there,’” adds Goodwin, who teaches stage management and theatre education.
“She addresses that question but … has such a wonderful way of approaching it that makes these characters very likable and human and funny, and they all have very interesting personalities.”
Doors will open 30 minutes before each performance. No reservations are needed, but all guests must wear masks to follow MTSU’s newly reinstated health safety mandate.
For more information about the production, visit https://www.mtsu.edu/tuckertheatre.