Inside the Hotchner Festival: Sophie Tegenu

Aspiring playwrights debut new work Sept. 27 and 28

Senior Sophie Tegenu (right) chats Sept. 21 with director Paige McGinley at rehearsals for Tegenu’s new play, “Mrs. Kelley’s Igloo.” (All photos: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

Eleven-year-olds know a lot about love. First-generation immigrants know too much about discomfort. Husbands know too little about wives, but singers know everything about timing. And nobody knows anything about walking down the aisle.

With “Mrs. Kelley’s Igloo,” senior Sophie Tegenu explores themes of family, romantic love and the difficulties of saying “I do.”  This weekend, “Mrs. Kelley’s Igloo” will receive its world-premiere staged reading at Washington University in St. Louis as part of the annual A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival.

In this Q&A, Tegenu discusses “Mrs. Kelley’s Igloo,” the playwriting process and the pitfalls of romantic comedies.

What’s your background in drama? What do you find most rewarding about it? What’s most difficult?

Lewis

I was in the chorus of “Guys and Dolls” my freshman year of high school, but that was about the extent of my drama experience before WashU. I took Carter W. Lewis’ “Introduction to Playwriting” course the fall of my junior year and really fell in love with the class. I’m an English literature major and love writing, but I felt like I wasn’t doing any creative writing in my course load, so Carter’s class was a really wonderful way to get back into creative writing.

The most rewarding part of drama/playwriting for me is seeing the words that were in my head performed out loud. It’s just so exhilarating and it feels like the work takes on a life of its own. The most difficult part is probably the same thing. It’s intensely vulnerable to have something you’ve worked on, and care so much about, put out into the world in such a public way.

 Tell me about “Mrs. Kelley’s Igloo.” What’s the play about? What inspired you to write it?

“Mrs. Kelley’s Igloo” is the story of a woman who doesn’t believe in marriage but somehow finds herself engaged. She is Ethiopian and her fiancé is white, leading to the inevitable family drama and culture clash. Her 11-year-old brother, Nate, is in love with a girl from school, and his love story plays out alongside his sister’s.

I love romantic comedies, so I wanted to write one. But I think rom-coms often have tremendously negative effects on girls’ understanding/perception of love. They make romantic love the center of the world and reinforce the messaging that male attention should be the ultimate priority.

I wanted to write a rom-com about someone who is grappling with her desire for marriage and a conventionally happy life and with her deep-rooted suspicion of the institution. I also really wanted to see the type of representation that I never saw growing up, so it was important for me to write about people of color.

What’s been the biggest surprise or lesson about writing for the stage?

Writing drama is really structurally challenging for me, in a way that differs from writing prose or poetry. Hearing the work out loud begs the question “What’s the point?” Why does this scene exist in the order that it does, why is the character saying this thing rather than that thing?

With prose or poetry, sometimes you write to get some sense of meandering beauty. Which is not to say that drama can’t be meanderingly beautiful, but that it needs to be purposeful and timely. There’s also the anticipation of a live audience that affects the writing.

What sounds good is different from what reads well.

(From left) McGinley and Tegenu discuss the play with visiting dramaturg Jenni Werner.

About the Hotchner Festival

The A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival begins at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, with Elizabeth Brown’s “You Don’t Live Here Anymore,” directed by William Whitaker, professor of the practice in drama.

The festival continues at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, with Kelly Minster’s “This House,” directed by Henry I. Schvey, professor of drama and of comparative literature. The festival will conclude at 7 p.m. that evening with Tegenu’s “Mrs. Kelley’s Igloo,” directed by Paige McGinley, associate professor and director of graduate studies for theater and performance studies.

Sponsored by the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, the festival is named for alumnus A.E. Hotchner, who famously bested Tennessee Williams in a campus playwriting competition. The festival is coordinated by Lewis, senior playwright-in-residence. Guest dramaturg is Jenni Werner, literary director and resident dramaturg at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y.

All readings are free and open to the public and take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For more information, call 314-935-5858, visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu or follow the PAD on Facebook.

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