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New Reading Series Puts Graduate Writers’ Work on Stage

On stage at the Mussetter-Struble Theatre in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, the actors sat in a row of black chairs, reading their perspective parts in the pilot of an original new gangster series, complete with intrigue, betrayal, dark humor and, at the center, a street-smart hero struggling to find his way in a dangerous world even though he only stands less than four feet tall.

In the audience, MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage student Jake Polonus, the writer of the pilot, titled U, watched rapt as his work came to life for the first time before a live audience.

“It’s really surreal,” he said after the performance, the first of a series of seven on-campus live readings of MFA students’ work. “The first ten minutes of the performance was almost a little unnerving, but very exciting.”

Rebecca Gilman, a professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film who teaches in the MFA program, said the staged reading process can be invaluable to a writer.

“It’s a huge deal hearing your work performed before a live audience,” she said. “It lets you know the essential truth of your work: whether a scene is working or not or, say, whether a joke is funny,” she said. “After that, once you hear your work out loud, then the rewriting process begins.”

MFA Writing for Screen and Stage candidate Jake Polonus, second from left, stands with the undergraduate actors and others who took part in a staged reading of Polonus’ original pilot.

The pilot focuses on a character named Johnny U., a little person who has a unique talent for negotiating compromises between mobsters. Moreover, it grapples with discrimination as characters make assumptions about Johnny U.’s abilities based on his physical stature.

“I was thinking a lot about different types of people in today’s society and where the power lies,” said Polonus, who himself is a little person. “I kind of wanted to play with that dynamic and who we perceive as powerful based on looks alone. I wanted to change that narrative. That was a big thing, taking that idea … who was in power and playing with that.”

The reading also gives students a chance to work with directors and actors. The reading was performed entirely by undergraduate Northwestern students and directed by MFA in Directing candidate Danielle Roos.

“I love doing readings—it’s a fun way to hear your work without doing a ton of rehearsals,” said Roos. “And you just really get to focus on the script and what the writer intends. It’s also a great way to get involved, meet different playwrights and performers, and to support each other and connect.”

Jordan Moore, a senior Theatre major who played multiple supporting roles in the reading, said he thought the script was wonderful and found the opportunity to work with MFA students gratifying.

“I loved that this was the kind of collaboration that could be quick and involve people from all the disciplines,” said Moore, who said he wants to act in all mediums after he graduates. “I’ve never done TV work… and I noticed the tonal differences between a TV script and a film script, which on paper seems like the same thing, but thinking about it as its own medium is interesting.”

By Cara Lockwood