Semicolon Theatre Offers Young Artists a Stage

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[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, October 11, 2016.]

It’s a great privilege to be present at the beginning of a long term personal and professional relationship. In the summer of 2012, I was one of the staff dramaturgs working with Young Playwrights, Inc. (YPI)’s Urban Retreat program in New York City when participating high school writers Miranda Cornell from Brooklyn met Zoe Kamil from San Francisco. In this nine-day intensive summer program for young people aged 14-21, I was paired with Cornell to dramaturg the short play she generated during the program. The program (currently on hiatus) builds artists, and in Kamil and Cornell it built mentors who are in turn creating opportunities for other theater makers who are barely voting age. We recently reconnected by phone to discuss their original collaboration, their latest producing experiences including their 2016 Fringe show#BLESSED (pronounce it “hashtag blessed”) and what lies ahead.

“We sort of clicked right away, on the same plane artistically and as people,” recalled Kamil about their first meeting at the Urban Retreat program. Kamil’s then-new interest in playwriting was validated. “Everybody made me feel like it was something I could do and that I should be doing.” Kamil returned to her San Francisco private high school’s strong theater department, ready to work.

Cornell grew up acting in places like the New Victory Theater, yet by eighth grade started exploring non-acting theater roles. She found YPI’s program geared toward playwriting — one of the few non-acting youth programs available to a 14-year-old — and decided to give writing a whirl. Directing was always in the background. “I always had very strong ideas about staging, and I’d write very specific stage directions,” she recalled, which led her to take on an assistant director role when she returned to school.

Young people can pretty much do anything.

Not yet out of high school, in 2013 Cornell and Kamil founded Semicolon Theater Company. Cornell pitched her vision in a long distance phone call: a company geared toward giving professional opportunities for young people in production, writing, and directing. Cornell’s initial inspiration was anger with a touch of spite, inspired by an employer who didn’t hire her for an internship, for which she was fully qualified, because of her age. “We didn’t want to have the adults help any more, thinking we could do all this on our own,” Kamil recalled. “We’ve learned since then that we can’t do it all on our own but given the right support and belief and the right resources, young people can pretty much do anything.”

Now, four years after they first met, Miranda is beginning her sophomore year at Vassar College, Zoe is beginning her junior year at Marymount Manhattan College, and they staged Kamil’s play #BLESSED at the 2016 New York Fringe Festival, with Cornell serving as the youngest director in Fringe history. All production personnel were 21 and under at the time of hire, and were 90 percent female, with one male-identifying person on the team.

#BLESSED team [L-R] Sabine Decator (Stage Manager), Miranda Cornell (Director), Zoe Kamil (Playwright), Alexa Derman (Producer).
#BLESSED team [L-R] Sabine Decator (Stage Manager), Miranda Cornell (Director), Zoe Kamil (Playwright), Alexa Derman (Producer).
The play is about faith, rape culture, and what it means to be a young person today according to playwright Kamil. “A coming of age story and loss of innocence, about what a young woman carries over the threshold after this horrible thing that pushes her into the adult world before she was ready.” The play and characters developed layers in rewriting, addressing Kamil’s interests in incorporating “fantastical or religious or spiritual elements in the play and to subvert the structure.”

#BLESSED cast. Photo: Miranda Cornell.
#BLESSED cast. Photo: Miranda Cornell.

Cornell and Kamil know that when their schedules permit they’ll go back into the play with things they’ve learned with this cast and these performances. “I’m not done,” Kamil said of #BLESSED. “I feel like I learned a lot from listening to people talk and write about this production, and have very strong feelings one way or another.” Cornell proposes an intense work session to move the play forward, “a retreat into the mountains one day, in a couple of months,” to rework the script.

And for Kamil, the team’s future is committed and unspecific. “Miranda and I align in terms of what we believe and how we interpret text and stories. Whatever we do, we’re doing it together.”

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