“I’d never thought about writing a play because I’m mostly interested in poetry,” Joseph Messer ’21 revealed when asked about his recent playwriting debut in the annual Purple Valley Plays. While it may come as a surprise that Messer had never written a play prior to being selected as one of five students whose works would be featured this year, it is less so when we consider that this is exactly what the Purple Valley Plays seeks to do: incubate new works and cultivate the next generation of theatre artists.
This Theatre Department tradition offers a platform for the College’s aspiring playwrights — even those who have never written before — to have their works given full production support by companies of artists. These works, written, directed, designed and performed by students, thus transform the CenterStage at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance and the Adams Memorial Theatre (AMT) into adaptable venues for vastly different theatrical works. Performances lasted three days, beginning last Thursday evening and running through Saturday.
The production as a whole consisted of two programs. Program One, performed each night at 7 p.m. in the AMT, was comprised of two plays: Phaedra / Hippolytus / by Mia Georgina Hull ’17 and River Spirits by Terah Ehigiator ’18. Program Two, taking place at 8:30 p.m. on the CenterStage, featured three plays: Majesty in the Middle Realm by Chanel Palmer ’19, Chastens and Hastens by Tom Robertshaw ’19 and What If We Loved with our Radiated Bodies? by Joseph Messer ’21. The production was unique in its makeup; attendees could choose to either see all five plays in one evening or attend the two programs on separate nights.
Though the performances lasted only three days, the road to Purple Valley Plays began way back in October, when student writers with theatrical inclinations submitted original works. Messer explained how this process began for him. “My process is that I always just write every time I read, so I’m always trying to use the material I read to make something,” he said. “I just have a document full of random writings, and when I saw they were going to have a playwriting competition thing, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll use this document I have and turn it into a play.’”
The five plays performed in Purple Valley Plays explored a vast array of topics, from Greek mythology to boyhood to Thanksgiving. One source of inspiration for Messer was contemporary poetry, which he fell in love with when he attended Deep Springs, an isolated two-year, all-men’s college in the California desert. “I like Fred Moten, who’s a jazz theorist and poet. He writes a lot about the sonic elements of language,” Messer said. “I [also] like Louise Glück – she used to teach here – I always think of her as a poet who’s really interested in memory, in the ways in which past, present and future are all this one moment of time instead of being seen in a line with past before present and future after present.”
In response to the question of whether his playwriting process is influenced by real life experiences, Messer explained, “I think when I start writing, it’s like I have an experience, and I really want to record the sensations of it, or I feel like I start writing with an emotion that needs to take some form, but then once it takes a form, it’s obviously very different from the original experience. [There are] layers built upon it.”
Purple Valley Plays offered emerging artists such as Messer an unparalleled opportunity to bring these written ideas to life. And with the conglomeration of efforts from student performers, playwrights, directors and designers, the resulting production was a shining tribute to student talent.