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Playwriting Class Puts Mythology on Center Stage

February 27, 2023 Judy Hill
Students in playwriting class

Bryn Mawr’s Theater Department recently welcomed Visiting Assistant Professor Sibyl Kempson to campus to teach a playwriting course that explores the practice of adapting myth cycles for the stage.

The course, Playwriting I/II: Myth-to-Stage, is part of Greek Drama/Black Lives, a larger creative collaboration between Bryn Mawr College and Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) that will culminate in the April staging of Media/Medea, a play adapted from Euripides’ Medea by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright James Ijames. An associate professor of theatre at Villanova University, Ijames has re-envisioned the Greek tragedy to lift up questions of race and familial conflict.

Enrollment in Kempson’s course, which was conceived as an integral part of Greek Drama/Black Lives, was open to both Bryn Mawr students and students in CCP’s Honors Program. As Classics Professor Catherine Conybeare, who is principal investigator for the American Council of Learned Societies grant that is funding the project, explains, a key goal of Greek Drama/Black Lives is to "strengthen the connections between CCP and Bryn Mawr and also to shine a light on what we can learn today from the classics."

“We spend the first half of the semester on writing exercises designed to quiet/keep busy/confound the discursive mind and allow the creative mind to come forward,” says Kempson, who works with mythic themes in her own writing and taught playwriting for many years at Sarah Lawrence College. “For the second half of the class, students will read the first draft of their own plays together as a script-writing workshop.”

For CCP honors student Raquel Padin-Nicholas, the course offers a new way of thinking and writing. “I’m used to work being right or wrong,” says Padin-Nicholas, “but in this class there’s no one right answer.” One assignment that sticks in her mind gave her and her classmates 30 minutes to write a play that spanned 3,000 years. “In the first 10 minutes we couldn’t even write anything—we just had to think about it. And we also had to write everything with our non-dominant hand.” Though initially disorienting, Padin-Nicholas says she found the exercise rewarding and creatively liberating.

The enduring and intergenerational appeal of mythology, says Kempson, lies in how it “engages us with our beginning and with our end and with everything in between that is unseen but that affects our daily lives in a profound way.” These “big stories of big events and big figures,” she says, reconnect us with what we commonly hold sacred.

For their own plays, where they are asked to create their own myths or interpret myths that already exist, Kempson encourages her students to tap into the workings of their subconscious and of the collective unconscious. “This approach connects us to mythic thought,” she says, “for which I don't feel we have such a strong common framework in our industrialized technocratic society”

“There is something inherently mythic about going onstage and telling and retelling these stories through new embodied means,” says Regan Riehl ’24, an English major minoring in theater (pictured above, without mask). “There’s a magic to it.” Being able to explore that in a classroom setting, she says, is invaluable.  

In the fall semester, students heard their plays read aloud by students in the New Works Ensemble, led by co-PI and Associate Professor and Director of Theater Catharine Slusar. They were also tasked with reading and responding to drafts of Media/Medea“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to hear the words I write on the page,” says Riehl, who also took the class in the fall semester and wrote a play based on the Pandora's box myth. “Having the opportunity to ask questions, to talk with your peers about your ideas, it leads to a lot of growth as a writer and a theater maker.”


Media/Medea on Stage

James Ijames’ Media/Medea will be directed by internationally recognized director and founder of local Philadelphia company Azuka Theatre, Raelle Myrick-Hodges, and will feature Barrymore Award and Haas Award winning actor Akeem Davis working alongside student actors from Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Community College of Philadelphia.

Performances will take place:

April 13–16: Bryn Mawr College, Hepburn Teaching Theater
April 20–22: Location TBA

Community College of Philadelphia tickets coming soon?