The first moments of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival in New York City will have a Shenandoah University presence, via “Singularity,” a short piece written by conservatory alumna Alex Flanigan ’16.
Flanigan’s play, which kicks off the festival’s opening semifinal round on Aug. 8 at the East 13th St. Theater, is directed by Joanna Whicker ’17 and produced by Sami Pyne ’17, both of whom were acting majors. The two characters in the piece are played by acting majors Emma Norville ’19 and Tyler Clarke ’18. “We’re the very first play of the entire festival,” said Flanigan, who graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in University Interdisciplinary Studies. She plays bassoon and jazz saxophone, and performed as a student with the conservatory’s Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra. She now lives in the Winchester area and works as local substitute teacher. She also continues to write and is a freelance musician, marketing designer and podcaster. Whicker and Pyne will soon move to New York to live with other Shenandoah alumni. Whicker is seeking an acting career, and Pyne will attend Columbia University, studying theatre management and producing at the graduate level.
The play was first performed within the student-run Playwrights’ performance group, which calls upon a student producer (in this case, Pyne) to find a director for a student-penned play, who then casts the show and guides it through performance within a week’s time.
Flanigan’s two-person play about a robot approaching “singularity,” or self-awareness, reflects her long-lasting love of science fiction. However, although she did theatre most of her life, “Singularity” is the first play she’s ever written. For some strange reason, she said, it never occurred to her to write a play. But, she said, the work of brilliant student playwrights at Shenandoah inspired her to write her own piece.
“Singularity” generated great feedback at the Playwrights’ performance, and Flanigan said a friend told her to hold on to the work for the Samuel French competition, which Flanigan was unfamiliar with previously. She investigated it, though, and when the submission window opened, she sent “Singularity” for consideration. Her play was one of only 30 chosen for the semifinals, from a pool of around 1,000 submissions. Ultimately, judges will select six plays, from the 30, to be published by Samuel French.
Each performance of “Singularity” is singular, as well, said Norville, who plays the observing robot, Charlie. Whenever the other character in the play, known only as “Sir,” expresses themselves in a new way, Charlie responds in a new way, too.
Issues of race, gender and civil rights are all built into the short piece, allowing each actor to approach the play differently. Clarke said there are certain lines to which she, as a black woman portraying “Sir,” reacts to in a certain way, such as when Charlie asks if robots are “separate but equal” to humans. Flanigan said her goal, when writing the play, was for it to be able to change and adapt when performed by different casts.
There are also some immutable elements to the play, such as the power struggle between Charlie and Sir, which is meant to reflect the parent-child relationship. Charlie, much as a child does, asks very simple questions that prove to be difficult to answer from a logical perspective, revealing how much of what his makers’ believe is based in emotion, not logic, Whicker said. The questions also lead to Charlie’s self-awareness, which is a powerful thing. “That’s something you can’t take back,” she said.
But the self-awareness of another entity isn’t always desirable to others. “Thinking freely has always caused discomfort,” Clarke said. That issue, which ultimately is one of civil rights, is central to the piece, according to Flanigan.
While Flanigan’s play uses science fiction to address some very real-world concerns, she said that in the days leading up to “Singularity’s” New York debut, the play’s success and inclusion in the Samuel French competition was “still a little bit surreal and abstract.”
Tickets for “Singularity” are available via Samuel French at http://www.oobfestival.com/?page_id=15835.