Embracing the Limelight

Mary Tuomanen '03 was looking forward to Alaska in June, with its twenty-one hours of daylight. But while in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Tuomanen spent much of her time sequestered in a darkened theater amid a select group of promising playwrights who saw their work performed at the eleventh annual Edward Albee Last Frontier Theater Conference.

Based in Valdez, the festival features almost nonstop writing and acting workshops, as well as readings and performances by theater companies from across the United States. Tuomanen's play, a one-act entitled Kelly Um, was performed before an enthusiastic audience that included theater luminaries Edward Albee, Romulus Linney, Paula Vogel, and Emily Mann.

"After the play, they called me up on stage and I had Albee on one side of me and Linney on the other telling me they really liked my play," Tuomanen said. "How great is that?"

Tuomanen wrote Kelly Um during a semester of her junior year spent off campus at the Eugene O'Neill National Theater Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. The play's cast included Kenyon students Tom Coiner '04 and Andrew Vaught '05, as well as recent graduate Catherine Ward. Ward and Tuomanen shared the College's 2003 Joanne Woodward Prize, awarded to the drama department's most outstanding female actor. Kelly Um had its premiere on the opening night of Kenyon's new black-box theater in the fall of 2002.

Tuomanen and her Kenyon cast attended the Albee festival thanks to a generous gift from Paul Newman '49, through his company, Newman's Own, and chair of the Kenyon Board of Trustees, David Horvitz '74.

Not only does Kelly Um boast a Kenyon playwright and original cast, but its story was inspired by Tuomanen's friend and classmate Dean Simakis, for whom the play's main character is named. Simakis, who had a short piece of his own dramatic writing accepted in the "ten-minute scene" category, went to the Albee Conference as well.

Kenyon's James Michael Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod '81, author of the cult-movie favorite The House of Yes, urged Tuomanen and Simakis to send out their writing and gave them the Dramatists Sourcebook, a directory of opportunities for playwrights, in which they discovered the listing for the Albee Conference. "Wendy MacLeod is a great encourager of all young playwrights and a ruthless editor," says Tuomanen of her professor. "It was her instruction that allowed us to become playwrights."

At the Alaskan conference, Tuomanen got the chance to talk shop with one of her heroes, Romulus Linney, after she sat in on a reading of a play he's completing. "He asked me what I thought of the play, and I was able to sit down and actually tell him what I thought in an intelligent manner," she said. "That's all from my training at Kenyon. I have no doubt whatsoever that Kenyon offers the best under­graduate program for anyone interested in being a playwright."

The Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, native is a talented actor as well as a writer. This year she holds a competitive acting internship at the prestigious Actors Theater of Louisville, working in the Humana Festival. "I've wanted to be at the Actors Theater of Louisville since I was fourteen and went to the Humana Festival of New American Plays," says Tuomanen. The yearly festival held in Louisville features the work of new writers and has included three plays that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and many others that have garnered major awards and critical praise.

The intellectual rigor of Kenyon's program helped Tuomanen to master the foundations of playwrighting. "In Introduction to Drama, [Professor] Harlene Marley makes you study and really understand Aristotle's Poetics," she said. "The result is that Kenyon students write profoundly well-structured plays."

Professor Wendy MacLeod, for her part, attributes Tuomanen's success to certain intangibles. "Mary has that thing you can't teach--an original voice," MacLeod said. "She is the real thing."

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