Theatre Students Work with Playwright

Theatre Students Work with Playwright Bill Downs | April 9, 2013

Many have faced that towering hurdle in the high school English curriculum—navigating the work of a great playwright. From Shakespeare to Arthur Miller, many of the greatest storytellers make their readers question—what did the author really mean?

For the Graceland Theatre students navigating The Exit Interview, the answer is obvious. Why? Because playwright William “Bill” Missouri Downs dropped in on early rehearsals to help the students navigate the text.

“This is a really rare opportunity for students to have the chance to work with the playwright and to have him comment on the relationship between what they’re attempting to convey and what he was attempting to convey,” said Gary Heisserer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean. “This is really special.”

March 27-30, Downs was on campus, helping with rehearsals, visiting with faculty and guest-lecturing in a variety of classes, including an introductory freshman course, upper division theatre courses and Digital Filmmaking.

Downs is both an accomplished writer and educator. He is a professor at the University of Wyoming, teaching courses in both Playwriting and Religious Studies. His writing resume includes many things: from educational materials about screenplay and theatre to television writing for shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

With Masters degrees in Screenwriting and Acting, Downs’ talent led him to an early career in Hollywood; however, in the 90s, Downs decided to leave the television industry, seeking greater freedom and ownership over his work. He established himself as a playwright with his first work, appropriately titled Leaving Hollywood. Today, Downs has written more than 20 plays, most of which are comedies. Many of his works have been honored by organizations, including The National New Play Network.

Downs’ most recent work, The Exit Interview, is currently in production around the country. Graceland is the first university to produce the play. The Exit Interview is a dark comedy and tells the story of a college professor being fired from his university.

“This is the story of [the professor’s] exit interview from the university,” said Downs. “The play uses what’s called Brechtian alienation devices, which interrupt the play by putting on other plays and doing crazy things so the audience wakes up and thinks about this particular professor’s existential journey.”

Downs was born in Iowa City and calls himself an “Iowan at heart.” Returning to his home state, he sees Lamoni as relaxing and peaceful and considers Graceland a “hidden gem.”

“This is a marvelous university. It’s so unexpected to come upon; and the facilities, this is what you don’t expect,” said Downs, gesturing to the Shaw Center around him. “There are schools with ten times as many students that don’t have facilities like this; it’s amazing.”

With just 13 Graceland actors and actresses working on The Exit Interview, Downs has had time to give each student individual attention.

“The students here have been very perceptive; I’ve enjoyed watching rehearsals. And the students are mature,” said Downs. He noted that students elsewhere are often intimidated by the presence of a playwright, clamming up with fear. “The students at Graceland haven’t been that way. They’ve had an attitude like, ‘Okay; the playwright is here—let’s go.’”

As the students continue rehearsals, Heisserer notes that Downs’ direction early in the process has been essential to the production.

“Bill has been so helpful for me as a director. In some cases, he validated the direction I was going and in others, he helped me find key pieces that were missing,” said Heisserer.

The Exit Interview will be performed in JR Theatre April 25-27 at 7:30 p.m., with a final performance April 28 at 2 p.m. Downs will return to campus to watch the production and give an artist chat, where audience members can visit with him and the cast members.

The Exit Interview is a provocative play, intended for mature audiences. All tickets are general admission and cost $5.

You can order by phone or purchase in person from the Ticket Office. For phone reservations, call Kathy Templeton, Ticket Office Manager at 641-784-5270. Be sure to leave your name, phone number and number of tickets you wish to purchase. Phone orders will be honored in the order received.

The Ticket Office is located in the lobby of the main campus entrance of the newly renovated Shaw Center.

Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m.

The Ticket Office is also open one hour prior to a performance.