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Writing a Play with a Topic but No Script

Theatre students write and develop an original play for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

Scott Mackenzie (center) with the cast of '44 Days' during a warm-up.Scott Mackenzie (center) with the cast of '44 Days' during a warm-up.

It all started with an idea.

Scott Mackenzie, professor and director of theatre at Alma College, wanted to take a group of students to Scotland.

“When I interviewed at Alma and learned about spring terms, it struck me as a great opportunity,” he says.

Three years after his arrival at Alma, his dream has become a reality.

Mackenzie’s 2019 spring term class began with a topic but not a script. The students’ challenge was to write, develop and perform a play during the span of their three-week spring term course. The students then will perform the play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, the world’s largest arts festival, in August.

Scene from ’44 Days.'Scene from ’44 Days.'“We knew we could not take much to Scotland because of shipping costs, so we created a play that only needs five chairs, two coatracks and some costume pieces. We will get the furniture in Scotland and take all our costumes in our suitcases,” he says.

The play, 44 Days, is about the 1937 United Automobile Workers sit-down strike in Flint, Mich.

“Sometimes when devising a play, you simply start with playing games and improvising until an idea strikes,” he says. “That is great when you have all the time in the world, but with a spring term you only have three weeks, so I wanted to go in with a topic. It allows us to tell the world something about Flint that isn’t negative like the water crisis that is ongoing.”

‘An Interesting Challenge’

Mackenzie introduced the topic to his class at the start of spring term. The students did some research to try and understand the reasons behind the strike and the people involved.

“From there we played a lot of theatre games aimed at building an ensemble and letting us all feel comfortable with each other and feel safe contributing ideas and helping each other develop themes,” he says.

Daniel Chalice, a junior from Fennville who is pursuing a double major in theatre and marketing, is one of the five students in the performance.

Scene from ’44 Days.'Scene from ’44 Days.'“What interested me most about this spring term is seeing what goes on behind the scenes of making a show from the ground up,” says Chalice. “Having taken both technical and acting classes, I mostly understand what goes into any production, but trying to make a show from scratch in such a short amount of time seemed like an interesting challenge.”

The students spent six-to-eight hours a day working on the performance. They began writing scenes and creating characters, and each idea led to another. The class took much of their dialogue directly from digital recordings of interviews with strikers that were done in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Success in Theatre

By the end of the course, the students had finalized their production and performed it live for the Alma community. They are looking forward to performing the play again in Scotland.

While in Scotland, the students plan to see several shows, tour historical Scotland, visit Loch Lomond and a Sterling Castle, and attend the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle.

“I’m grateful that a small liberal arts college like Alma can pull off a project of this magnitude to give its students international experience,” says Chalice.

Mackenzie hopes that this trip will show students the many ways to be successful in theatre.

“A lot of students initially come to college with the idea that the only way to be successful in theatre is to be a Broadway star, when in reality, there are thousands of other ways to be a successful theatre artist. This trip will expose my students to some of those opportunities,” he says.

“It also will help them see more of the world. At Alma we strongly encourage study abroad and international experience. This fits in with that part of our mission.”

Story published on June 11, 2019