Naylor’s Playwriting Thesis “All-One!” Complete with Comedy, Existential Dread, and Sheep

Sophia Naylor ’13 describes her playwriting style as aspiring to “[Samuel] Beckett, but with a plot.” She certainly echoes the existential themes of Beckett’s absurdist work with her honors playwriting thesis, All-One!, a comedic yet soul-searching tale about what it means to matter, in the context of three friends camping in rural Ireland. There are sheep, fear of sheep, and hilarity of all sorts. But the characters in All-One! fear more than wide-eyed, slow-chewing bleaters. And this deeper fear, of death and disappearance, grounds their journey and keeps the comedy honest.

Throughout the playwriting process thus far, Naylor has been working with Visiting Assistant Professor of Production Dramaturgy James Magruder, who offers advising from a dramaturgical perspective, and Assistant Professor and Acting Department Chair Elizabeth Stevens, who serves as her department advisor. Guest artist Jill Harrison was brought in to direct the piece, and professional actors from Philadelphia read for every character with the exception of Frederick, played by Nate Cheek ’15. Nathan Siegel ’15, reads the stage directions. Cheek describes Frederick as a “goofy, sincere sidekick,” and sees himself in his character in that they both use humor to diffuse tense situations. Naylor, Cheek and Siegel are members of Boy Meets Tractor, Swarthmore’s sketch comedy group. All-One!, however, contains a balance of gravity and comedy.

“You have to balance being serious in the moment…but you have to keep a light energy about it,” Cheek said.

“I think comedy is a great thing to have in anything,” Naylor said. It’s a “way to have biting social commentary” but then “lighten the mood, switch it up.”

The energy and relief that comedy provides helps to balance out Naylor’s ponderous themes. “She has a great sense for when to drop the self-importance,” Stevens said, who also notes that Naylor manages to keep the piece down-to-earth by keeping it “human-sized,” ensuring that it “doesn’t get lost in the abstractness of the themes.”

Naylor acknowledges that she has “always been into big questions,” and describes herself as having her “head in the clouds.” She thinks theater provides her with a good way to encourage but temper these tendencies. “What I really like about theatre…is that you have your head in the clouds…but you have to shut up and work.” Although All-One! confronts a variety of big issues, it does so in a way that is accessible, by necessity.

The themes themselves center around what Naylor describes as her own sense of morbidity. She is “super into mummies” and fascinated by morticians and others who deal intimately with death. She is also a self-described “religion buff.” While searching the internet for various theology-related inquiries, she came across a list of 11 “unanswerable” questions for atheists, questions that essentially challenged the meaning of mortal life in a world without God, including “What does research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships mean anything if it all ultimately comes to naught anyway?”

These questions form the basis of the play’s searching core. Naylor believes that the response to such doubts is that we must learn to live in the present. “You have to be in the moment because this moment won’t matter to anyone else in the end…this moment belongs to you,” she said.

In some ways, theater creates an extended present, a manipulation of time that draws out a moment on stage and suspends us, out of our normal forward-motion, for a few hours. In this way, All-One! provides its audience with a solution to existential angst, both in its clever confrontation of such themes, but also through its inherent form.

This week’s staged readings are just another step for All-One! Naylor will continue to edit next semester, then submit a future version to her honors examiner, and hopefully on to theaters. As Stevens explains, plays, as opposed to other varieties of writing, tend to go “through the wringer…a million people weigh in on it,” including peers, dramaturgs, directors and actors. Naylor said will seriously welcome the feedback given after each show by audience members as well.

“Theater is a communal art, and it’s a collaborative art,” Stevens said. No theater production is ever created independently. “You make this precious baby and then you throw it to the wolves,” Stevens said. Even if the wolves are supportive and helpful, it is still a trying process, and one that is never truly over.

There will be a staged reading of the play today and Sunday at 7 p.m. in the Frear Ensemble Theater, followed by a post-show feedback session both nights.

Photos by Abigail Starr/The Daily Gazette.


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