As a wedding ceremony takes place, guests sit quietly and listen to the happy couple exchange vows. Meanwhile, another couple in the audience argues over the state of their union. The couple, who can get married now that legislation isn’t holding them back, still hasn’t, and one partner wants to know why. As the ceremony for the family member they aren’t close with drones on, the couple tries to keep their conversation under wraps. This plot is the basis of senior sociology major Rose Nealon’s play “Collateral Damage,” which was recently selected to be read at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre’s National Playwriting Program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania held Jan. 16 through 20.
The 26-year-old senior from Lacey Spring, Virginia, originally came to JMU straight out of high school, but ended up taking time off after her first year due to financial aid and her diagnosis with Lyme disease. After a few years, Rose came back to JMU to pursue her degree.
This past fall, Rose took playwriting as a part of her creative writing minor. The class — taught by Ingrid DeSanctis, an assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance — focuses on the basics of how to write a play. As a part of the class, DeSanctis requires her students to submit a 10-minute play to the festival for a grade so they “understand the complications of being a playwright.”
“Your conflict needs to be big enough to sustain 30 to 40 pages, and then when they get into advanced playwriting, their conflict and their primary action, [the]dramatic action needs to sustain 70 to 100 pages,” DeSanctis said. “And so when they take basic [playwriting], I just want to put them into the impossible you know, like what is going to be impossible, what are you going to learn the most from? So they take one of their shorter plays and decide on expanding it into something more.”
Rose’s play is from an assignment she had in class. The goal was for students to write a play based on a ritual, such as a wedding or funeral. Titled “Collateral Damage,” the play tells the tale of two middle-aged lesbians quietly arguing during a 2:00 a.m. wedding ceremony for a family member they don’t know well. Set in 2017, one of them asks the other why they haven’t gotten married yet, especially because it’s legal now, and the other is reluctant because of the historical and emotional baggage marriage carries.
This year, Rose was one of two JMU students to have their play selected for the festival, which was held Jan. 16-20. While the other student was unable to make the trip, Rose was able to attend.
As a sociology major, Rose says being thrown into the mix of a bunch of theatre majors was a different experience.
“There may have been other people who weren’t theatre majors, but if they were, they were at least heavily involved in theater stuff and I haven’t been here,” Rose said. “I just took a playwriting class.”
At the festival, auditions were held for all the plays selected to be read on stage. Rose said auditions lasted six hours and were a marathon of a process. Each of the 157 auditionees had two minutes to do a cold reading of an audition side they were given five minutes to prepare for. While playwrights don’t usually have a say in the process after their play is put into publication, Rose was there to mediate the process. She loved watching her play be read and seeing the actors step into the roles she created.
“It was just fun to watch because the play I wrote — it’s a comedy — and so seeing the actors really, I guess, lean into how ridiculous the setting is,” Rose said. “I had one guy, it’s set at a wedding, and the guy playing the marriage officiant was so funny. He just overplayed his part ridiculously.”
While Rose’s play didn’t end up moving forward in the festival, she says she’s ecstatic she was selected to go.
Andi Nealon, Rose’s younger sister and a theatre major at William & Mary, was especially proud to see her sister be selected for the festival. As kids, her, Rose and her other sister, Ginger, used storytelling as a bonding activity.
“We’ve all written plays and written stories our whole lives,” Andi said. “That’s one of … me and my sisters’ favorite things to do with each other and the fact that she wrote this really cool play that touched on a really important subject and got selected for a play festival in Pennsylvania ... that was really exciting, especially because I know — being a theatre major — I know how prestigious ... [it is] to get your writing stuff out there.”
Rose enjoyed her introductory playwriting class so much, she’s taking the advanced version next semester. Citing her love for dialogue, Rose says playwriting has been her favorite class thus far out of her writing classes. DeSanctis has also enjoyed having Rose in her class.
“She really understands the foolishness of human behavior,” DeSanctis said. “To write comedy is really hard, but she’s just very funny, she’s very witty, she’s very clever, but her clever choices are still connected to the humanity of the character. So you really like her characters and can laugh with them versus at them, and I think that’s very sophisticated.”
Out of all the things she learned at the festival, the most important thing Rose stepped away with was the importance of awareness within the play.
“There was one thing they said that was really important, which was, ‘You have to know why and what everything is happening in your play,” Rose said. “You can’t just be like, ‘Yeah, kind of, that will work,’ … Know what you’re doing.”
Contact Abby Church at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.