Susan Donovan, author of New York Times bestselling romance novels, and her daughter, senior Shenandoah Conservatory acting student Kathleen Reed, share a mantra, which propels them forward into new creative territory:
“Somebody’s gonna do it; why not me?”
Donovan kept it in mind as she began launching her writing career, even as people said she’d never be published. “I proved them wrong,” she said. She taught her daughter that “the only failure is not trying,” and advised her, as she considered pursuing an acting career, to ask the question that inspired her: “Somebody’s gonna do it; why not me?”
The lingering effect of asking that question could also be why Donovan, a novelist and former journalist, whose previous forays into script writing included some short films and a TV pilot, took a chance and decided to write her first stage play for her daughter’s acting class’s senior showcase, which will be staged Off-Broadway in New York City at The Studio Theatre at 410 W. 42nd St., on April 13 and April 14.
“This is the first time we’ve EVER done anything like this,” Reed said of the class’s decision to perform a full-length show, instead of a night of scenes or monologues. “We wanted something that would draw more attention than just a night of scenes. We felt like it was too typical for us. We wanted to do something different than all the other acting students in the country. We discussed performing an already existing show, but it was just impossible to find a play with nine characters, all with equal-sized parts, that we felt we connected with. Class members brought up the idea of having an original show written for us but time and money became a huge problem. I was complaining to my mom on the phone after a meeting about it, and she just said, ‘What if I write it?’ I brought it up casually in the next meeting, and everyone seemed to love the idea. I didn’t have to do any persuading. Goes to show that if you complain enough, your mom will fix all your problems.”
Still, working with her mom did feel kind of different, even though they “have the same brain,” Reed said. “Like, this woman taught me how to tie my shoes, now she’s putting together the final performance of my academic career. It’s bizarre. But she can do anything. She’s superwoman.”
I offered to write the play for a couple reasons. First, I heard from Kathleen that the class was having a difficult time finding a vehicle for their senior showcase, a play that would offer students an opportunity to highlight their particular strengths as actors. Kathleen said they were searching for a one-act play. Since I had written several short films and a TV pilot—and had seen most of the senior actors in other productions—I figured I could write something that would fit the cast. I thought to myself …how hard can it be to write a one-act play? Snort! I had no idea just how hard it would be, and by the time I figured it out, I’d already volunteered for the job. As with all daunting writing projects, all I could do was sit down and start writing. After a few weeks, I started enjoying it and knew I had something the actors could work with. —Susan Donovan
What Donovan produced is the dark comedy piece “Royal Flush,” about a group of disparate people trapped in a Kansas City, Missouri, convention center men’s room, while taking shelter from tornadoes. The characters both interact and step out, to perform monologues that reveal more about their true natures. The students gave a Shenandoah audience a sneak peek of the piece at a Friday, Feb. 9, staged reading in the Glaize Studio Theatre on campus, at the end of a weeklong residency with Donovan, which began with the students reading the play for the first time that Monday. “It’s such a thrill for me to see my words come to life with these actors,” she said in the moments before the staged reading started. “I’m amazed at how far they’ve come with their characters,” she added, during a question-and-answer session following the staged reading. “I’m in awe of their talents.”
Donovan approached the creation of the roles from a place of unique understanding. “As I said, I’d seen many of these actors in other Shenandoah productions and had a feel for what kinds of characters would showcase their strengths. I took into consideration their physical appearance, facial expressions and voices. I read their parts out loud to myself, thinking of how the actors might sound. It was easy to envision Kathleen in her part, of course, since she’s my kid, and I’ve been watching her perform since she was three. It was also easy for me to write a part for Makayla Lepley, because Makayla and Kathleen lived with me last summer in New Mexico, and I got to know Makayla well. In fact, before the summer ended, Kathleen, Makayla, and I started batting around some ideas for the play.”
Doing so wasn’t unusual for the mother-daughter duo. “Kathleen and I often throw ideas around for comedy skits, scripts and books. I am in awe of how funny she is – she really makes me laugh,” Donovan said. “I enjoyed brainstorming with her to create the storyline of the play and look forward to many opportunities to collaborate with her in the future.”
Their work paid off. “It was a great relief to me that the students felt comfortable in the roles I wrote for them,” Donovan said. Through the play, she wanted “to show the world what they can do.”
The process of writing a play took Donovan out of her comfort zone, which was a good thing. “It was totally new, and I loved it,” she said. Donovan, who is now hooked on playwriting, said she hopes to have the play published for use in other university acting programs.
She continues to forge new paths for herself, as her daughter prepares to graduate and follow her dreams in comedy and acting (Reed is also a member of Shenandoah’s improv troupe, The Loaf).
“Because of the wide variety of creative opportunities at Shenandoah and the partnerships she’s formed with her fellow acting students, I’ve seen Kathleen blossom into an accomplished, hard-working actor, writer and producer,” Donovan said.
“In addition to acting in several Shenandoah stage productions, Kathleen has had roles in a cable movie, a commercial, and a short film. Also, with The Loaf, Shenandoah’s improv troupe, (with her partner-in-crime Emma Benson) she had the opportunity to perform, write, direct and organize special guest performances and master classes. Kathleen’s time at Shenandoah has done nothing but reinforce her commitment to her craft and her decision to pursue performing and writing as a career.”
While Donovan said she herself has no immediate plans to write more plays, that’s not a given. “If I’ve learned anything in my eighteen years as a creative professional, it’s that you never know what’s around the corner and what opportunity might present itself. Think about it…a big-name New York theater producer might see my little one-act play and commission me to write the next big Broadway hit! (This kind of make-believe thinking is why I’ve had a successful fiction writing career.)”
The success of her career, and Kathleen’s willingness to follow her acting dream – both might have roots in the simple idea that Donovan shared after the staged reading of a play she never imagined she’d write: “You never give up on yourself.”
Or said another way: “Somebody’s gonna do it; why not me?”