Creating New Worlds — The Playwrights’ Experience

By Ashley Dillard

Hey internet land! I am back today to give you some insider information from our MFA playwrights. Here at IU theatre we love new work! As an actor, I love getting a script that has never been produced before. Not only do you get to create a character that has never been explored before, but you also get to work one on one with the playwrights. As they see the play on its feet for the first time, they begin to make changes and really shape the play and characters. It feels alive! I sat down to talk to our two MFA playwrights, 3rd year MFA Bruce Walsh and 1st year MFA Aaron Ricciardi to see what it is like creating new work for the At First Sight series. Bruce’s play, Prospect Hill, was this year’s AT FIRST SIGHT mainstage production in the Wells-Metz Theatre, and Aaron had a reading of his new play Nice Nails on April 1st as part of the just-launched festival of new works.

Playwright Aaron Ricciardi

Each playwright found inspiration from their physical surroundings, but in totally different parts of the country. Aaron explained, “There are so many nail salons in New York City. Actually in some parts of New York there are more nail salons than Starbucks. There was this nail salon near me that I would walk by all the time to get to the train, but I’d never go in there because it was kind of disgusting. Then one day I was walking by and there was a sign in the window that said “Bunny is back” with this Asian women, maybe in her 40s, just looking out the window really forlorn. And writer brain just starting going: Who is Bunny? Is that Bunny? Where did she go? Why is she back? Why are they putting that sign in the window? Who cares that she’s back?”

That was a few years ago and the idea often popped back into Aaron’s head. That combined with his interest in setting a play in an unexpected place and a New York Times article exposing labor abuses in the New York City area’s nail salons all came together as Aaron started his first semester in the MFA playwriting program here at IU. “Mostly I feel that the nail salon situation is such a hotbed for political stuff and that is what I’m really attracted to. My writing is about digging into political issues through how they affect actual human beings.” And thus Nice Nails was born.

Playwright Bruce Walsh

Bruce found his inspiration from a few different places, “I was in a Brethren in Christ church in Philadelphia. They are affiliated with the Mennonite church, sort of Menno-lights, you could say. The church was very left-of-center. There were young Mennonites from rural parts of Pennsylvania that were looking for something more progressive, but they could also please their parents by staying loosely in the fold. And there were A LOT of young people from deeply conservative backgrounds that were struggling to parse out what they wanted to keep from their traditions, and what they wanted to change. It seemed like everyone felt betwixt and between. I did, too, my whole life, for many reasons. Eventually, the church’s reluctance to address their conservative position on LGBT matters caused a painful split for me. It was devastating. So I knew I had a play in me that was going to emanate from this. But, because I’ve been here for the last three years, the theme came out in a distinctly Bloomingtonian way.”

Aaron is very upfront about how nervous he was when he began writing the play for the At First Sight Series. “I hadn’t started anything in a long time. I had just been working on old stuff for awhile. And a lot of the characters weren’t people I know or from a culture I know personally. Essentially my grandmother came into my head. So I just started writing an old Jewish woman with dyed blonde hair, getting her nails done, and just talking and talking and talking. And then the other characters started coming into my mind.” In a short amount of time, Aaron wrote an entire draft in the fall of 2016 and then took a break from it. Now he’s come back to it and started the detail work. “It’s a real mess. I’m moving stuff around in the timeline and just trying to make sense of it all. This is the fun. Generating ideas is the hardest part for me.”

Bruce also found this process to be difficult. “In many ways, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Or do you just feel that way when you’re so close to it? I think at some point we forget, and we redevelop the necessary foolishness to try again. Isn’t that why people continue to have children? Speaking of children, my last play for IU — Berserker — closed on April 2nd, 2016. My son was born on May 13, 2016. So this play didn’t get started until June. I worked on it every day. The first reading was in September. There is a chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird called, ‘Shitty First Drafts’. She encourages the writer to develop the courage to just get it down on paper — warts and all — so the real work can begin. I read this chapter about once a day. There was a 10-hr workshop of the play in December. I sort of tore the play up in that period. I had to take a few steps back from the initial draft in order to find the play’s heartbeat — what makes the thing tick? What keeps the audience leaning in?”

Bruce continues, “There were at least three different endings in this period. Sometimes I didn’t know if it was ever going to take a step forward. I was in despair often during this process. Then I wrote another draft before rehearsals. I scrapped one of the characters. I completely changed the second half of the play. I felt I was clawing my way to get my arms around the play. We went into rehearsals with this version.  I felt the play was quite rickety, unstable, but I felt the arch was basically there. I finally had a draft I could work with. I continued to rewrite during the first two weeks of rehearsals. I find any scene I write needs at least three rewrites to find its shape. I felt the play finding its shape here. This was exhilarating. Then — before you know it — the script is frozen. In a Equity production, with previews, a playwright is able to alter a play during a series of first performances with an audience. But that is not fair to the actors in a university situation. I’ve always felt it is better to give the actors time to work with the imperfect, than continually undercutting them by ‘perfecting.'”

Each script provided it’s own unique challenges along the way. “The casting of this show is really hard,” Aaron explained, “there are four Korean characters, one black character and a transgendered guy. And honestly, what has been pretty amazing, is that we’ve found every character but one.” Aaron also serves as the Assistant House Manager for the 2016-2017 season productions and has kept his eye open when meeting students and patrons. “I come across a lot of students who usher. I met a girl who is a freshman, she seemed really excited, she’s Asian, she told me she’s in acting class and so I asked her to do the reading.”

Bruce came up against challenges as well, some of it centered around home life versus work life. “The 10 hour workshop in December was one of the hardest moments of this experience. I rewrote the play completely during that process and I wasn’t even sure it was getting better. Plus, my wife and I were sleep training a seven-month-old right at that moment. It wasn’t pretty. But I think I’m forever changed for the better because of it. I know now — in my bones — that sometimes a play has to take a step back, to ultimately find itself. I had courage, and I feel now, watching the audience interact with the piece, that the play was served in the end.”

Despite the long hours, the countless rewrites and difficult moments, it’s all worth it when they see their words come to life. Bruce said something that really stuck with me that I will leave you with, “Having your play done is a surreal, magical, sacramental experience. Every single day of it. It’s easy to forget. You get too deep into creating the product, wanting it to be better, scribbling notes to the director. I have a little trick: Sometimes I adjust my gaze up toward the lights. When I don’t look at the stage directly, I can connect with the mystical experience of having your play before you. I suddenly go back to the place of the play being in me. What’s in me is also outside of me.”


Ashley Dillard is a 3rd year MFA actor at Indiana University. She has been seen most recently as Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa at IU, Katherine in Home at the BPP, Marianne in Sense and Sensibility and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream both for IU Summer Theater. Though she calls beautiful Bloomington home now, she originally hails from Highland, IN.

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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