By | Adrianna Jereb ’18

“Students are realizing, one: they have a lot more potential than they knew, and two: they have a lot of work to do.”
— Marlon James

Music plays as students begin to arrive to the black box theater—some up to half an hour early. When class begins at 7 p.m., everyone gathers in a circle to discuss their weekends.

In some classes, this sort of meandering conversation might appear unproductive. But because Writing Performance relies heavily on building closeness among students—with course members expected to write and perform personal monologues for one another—they need to trust their peers. “As with all performance, there’s some danger in exposing and being vulnerable on stage in order to tell difficult stories,” says co-instructor Professor Harry Waters Jr. of the Theatre and Dance Department, who is also a noted actor and director.

Waters Jr. and his co-instructor, award-winning novelist and English professor Marlon James, had long discussed team-teaching a class that would combine their disciplines. When James realized he wanted to expand the monologue-focused section of another English course, Writing Performance was born. “There hasn’t been anything quite like it before, which is one of the reasons we wanted to do it,” says James.

The class involves three sections, each of which requires students to write and perform a different kind of monologue. The first is a strongly emotional story about their personal life; the second is a monologue written from the perspective of a historical character; and the third is a monologue based on an interview with a fellow student, which that student must then perform.

In writing their first monologue, students are expected to discuss whichever topics come up naturally, whether they’re hilarious or horrifying. An even greater challenge is staying objective about themselves, examining their own flaws, quirks, and strengths as if viewing them from the outside. “This class is very much like a rabbit-hole, in that we’re diving down and we’re not sure what we’re diving into,” says Marissa Kurtz ’15 (Arlington, Va.). Adds John Stark ‘16 (Grinnell, Iowa), “Each person has the words to tell their own story. It’s just about being open and willing to tell your story as effectively as possible.”

Writing and performing monologues is a new experience for many class members, given that most of them have previously focused on just one aspect of that process. Stark, a theater major, appreciates having classmates with writing backgrounds. “The way that writers craft their narratives informs the way that I perform,” he says.   

As students balance both aspects of creating monologues, they have their professors for guidance, as well as the rich artistic community of the Twin Cities. The class recently attended a performance of the History Theatre play God Girl, written by Macalester alumnus Kristine Holmgren ’75. Professors Waters and James are planning to invite to the class other professional actors and writers, who will present their own materials. “We want the students to be a part of the world of working writers, the world of working performers, not just locked in academia with no idea of the real dynamics of a stage,” says James.

Looking toward the remaining weeks of the semester, both professors remain optimistic about the progress of their class. “Students are realizing, one: they have a lot more potential than they knew, and two: they have a lot of work to do,” says James.

Adds Waters Jr., “They’ve just begun to touch the surface.”

March 13 2015

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