Inside the Hotchner Festival: Holly Gabelmann

Aspiring playwrights (virtually) debut new work Oct. 16 and 17

Holly Gabelmann in Edison Theatre. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“You need to stay here until I am done robbing this bank. Do you people not understand the concept of a robbery?”
— From “Cheryl Robs a Bank”

Cheryl is charming and vivacious. Cheryl is selfish and unreliable. Cheryl innocently riffles through safety deposit boxes. When the boss calls, she noisily fans paperwork toward the phone.

In her new comedy “Cheryl Robs a Bank: An Evening of Dramatic Entertainment Presented in Play Form by Cheryl Pryor,” Holly Gabelmann explores questions of identity, self-presentation, anti-heroism and who gets to tell the story. This weekend, the play will receive its world-premiere staged reading at Washington University in St. Louis as part of the annual A.E. Hotchner New Play Festival.

In this Q&A, Gabelmann, a graduate student in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, discusses “Cheryl Robs a Bank,” the writing process and the importance of clear directions.

What’s your background in drama?

Like many theater-makers, I came to love drama first as an actor before I discovered the variety of roles required to create performances. After many middle and high school plays, I earned my bachelor’s degree in theater and tried my hand at directing, playwriting and designing. Theater excites me because of its dependence on collaboration and creativity. There’s always a new project to work on or problem to solve.

For me, the most difficult part of making theater has been choosing what role I want to fill. I enjoy so much of it that it has been hard to specialize.

Tell us about “Cheryl Robs a Bank.” What’s the play about?

 “Cheryl Robs a Bank” started as a six-line playwriting assignment on conflict. After I turned it in, I couldn’t get the characters out of my head. After a few years of tinkering with the play, I decided to sit down and finish it to submit to the Hotchner Festival.

“Cheryl Robs a Bank” is about a bank teller named Cheryl who sends a bank robber’s plans sideways when she asks to come along for the ride. The pair take a hostage and go on the run, only to find themselves back where they started.

As a playwright, what do you learn from hearing the work aloud? How does writing drama differ from writing prose or poetry?

I always write plays to be spoken and performed. It’s so great to hear actors work with the text I’ve written because it shows me what sounds right. There are some lines that look great on the page but sound a little silly when spoken aloud.

One big lesson I learned from this process was how to write clearer stage directions. This is Cheryl’s story, and I want the mechanisms of how she’s constructing that story to be as visible as possible. So writing stage directions that could be read aloud and flow with the rest of the play, rather than functioning as unspoken actions, was a fun challenge.

About the Hotchner Festival

The A.E. Hotchner New Play Festival will begin at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, with Gabelmann’s “Cheryl Robs a Bank,” directed by William Whitaker, professor of the practice in drama.

The festival will continue at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, with Elizabeth Phelan’s short play “Women Eating Cake,” directed by Andrea Urice, teaching professor of drama and director of undergraduate studies of drama. It will be immediately followed by Ike Butler’s “The Five-Year Reunion,” directed by Henry I. Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature.

The festival will conclude at 7 p.m. that evening with Sophie Tegenu’s “Grand,” directed by Paige McGinley, associate professor and director of graduate studies for theater and performance studies.

Sponsored by the Performing Arts Department, the festival is named for alumnus A.E. Hotchner, who famously bested Tennessee Williams in a campus playwriting competition. The festival is coordinated by Carter W. Lewis, playwright-in-residence. Guest dramaturgs are playwright Quinn D. Eli, a co-founder of Jouska PlayWorks and resident dramaturg for Philadelphia’s Irish Heritage Theater, and Michele Volanksy, a past president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.

All readings will be held virtually but are free and open to the public.  Register here. For more information, call 314-935-5858, visit or follow the department on Facebook and Twitter.

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