The Artist’s Corner: Emily Atkinson MFA ’17

Miranda Catsambas ’19
Contributing Writer

This week, I interviewed Emily Atkinson, an MFA playwriting student whose new play will be read as part of the New Playreading Series on April 7 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in Mendenhall’s TV Studio.

What is your play about?

My play is loosely based on a true story that I heard while I was attending graduate school at Cambridge. At Corpus Christi College, the Master of the College … used to live in a space that is now student housing … In 1630, [he] stayed to help Cambridge through the plague when everyone else fled and was later accused of being a necromancer … Eventually he hanged himself on Easter morning in 1632 … Sightings of his ghost were reported ever since. Centuries later, in the early 20th century, a group of students tried to exorcise the ghost … [but] the Master of the College at that time forbade anyone to mention the ghost at all. I thought there had to be more to both of those stories … so I started to create characters and figure out a fictional version of something like that situation. We have no evidence to suggest that any of these real people were queer … but these characters [in my play] are, and they’re grappling with what that means in 1632 and in 1913.

How did your time as a Smith undergraduate influence your decision to pursue an MFA in playwriting?

I actually graduated Smith planning to become an anthropologist or a lawyer. I went straight from Smith to Cambridge and earned an MPhil in biological anthropology, and even though I loved my time there, I knew fairly quickly that I didn’t want to do a PhD in anthropology and wished I were working in English literature or writing. I had decided to apply to law school, but I spent a lot of time in England writing — I finished a novel and wrote my first play — and acting. I hadn’t done a lot of theatre at Smith until my senior year, but I did a lot of acting at Cambridge and started to fall in love with the theatre. I felt I would always regret it if I didn’t try to make a go of writing, so after working and writing for a year, I applied to MFA programs.

Why did you choose Smith’s playwriting program?

I looked at a lot of programs on the East Coast and ended up choosing Smith. I was somewhat concerned about going back to where I’d gone to undergrad, but I wasn’t a theatre major at Smith, so I actually never had class with Len or Andrea, and a lot of the department is new to me — but I did have the benefit of knowing a lot of theatre majors, all of whom loved the faculty and the undergrad program. The program is also very self-directed, and there’s a lot of autonomy and room to go in any direction you feel like exploring.

In what settings do you find it easiest to write?

When I’m first starting out, sometimes it’s easier to write in a library or coffee shop than sitting in my home with all the distractions there. But once I get going, it’s often better to be at home, since people get a little weird if you start acting out scenes with yourself in public.

Where do you get your inspiration?

It varies. Right now I’m working on a lot of things that are historically based, but another is really fantastical and weird and is based on a comment my girlfriend made about a certain genre of plays. I’m also working on one that’s going to be about historical magic and something more contemporary is starting to percolate. I find a lot of inspiration in historical incidents because sometimes you read a story that either seems to require a lot more explanation than exists, or historical figures start to jump out at you as really quirky, fascinating people or people a lot like the people you know, and it’s really interesting to explore who they were at home and with their friends and as really fully-fledged humans as opposed to the official traces that have come down to us. Having spent a while doing very academic research, it’s a wonderful outlet to be able to speculate and invent and explore and create alternative sources.

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