National curtain call: New playwriting major builds on success
theatre program is now drawing notice for contributions that reverberate far beyond the stage.Long known for its artistry, the Carthage
For its work on “Memento Mori,” an original play examining human mortality, the College earned two significant national accolades in the Kennedy Center’s 2023 American College Theater Festival: the Citizen Artist Award and the newest honor, for Facilitation of a Brave Rehearsal Space.
This feature story first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of The Carthaginian magazine.
“These particular awards show something more than the excellent work we’re doing,” said Professor Neil Scharnick ’99, who directed the play. “They show we’re doing work that matters.”
“Memento Mori” is the latest work to emerge from Carthage’s New Play Initiative. Each year, the College commissions an original play, partnering with award-winning playwrights and theatre artists to develop and produce it.
These professional collaborations are a major bonus for Carthage students who plan to pursue the new playwriting major. The Theatre and English departments joined forces to offer students the interdisciplinary option beginning this fall.
The Citizen Artist Award recognizes collegiate programs that employ theatre “to promote long-term societal impact through an artistic lens, to encourage empathetic exploration of the complex cultural and physical world, and to advocate for justice” everywhere.
“Memento Mori” became the third original Carthage production to win the award in the six years it’s been given out. The national committee previously honored “A Seat at the Table,” a historical voting rights account written by Regina Taylor, in 2018 and the addiction-themed “Up and Away” by Eric Simonson the following year.
An even newer category honors the vital groundwork that’s laid behind the scenes. The inaugural Brave Rehearsal Space award “celebrates teaching artists who create a rehearsal room community that prioritizes the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of their student artists, empowering them to safely engage with challenging theatrical stories.”
That was essential in the making of “Memento Mori,” which is Latin for “Remember you must die.” The plot centers on Alice, a young musician who recently passed away. Mourning friends try to make sense of her death while Alice comes to terms with life beyond the grave.
Profoundly affected by past losses, cast member Rose Reichert ’23 dreaded going into a project with such heavy subject matter. This time, when the tears came, it wasn’t awkwardness she felt — but empathy and support.
“In a weird, kind of awful way, I have never felt so relieved. I never realized how badly I needed to talk about this out loud to my friends,” Rose said. “I knew this would be a healing journey for me, and it has been.”
Donal Courtney, one of Ireland’s leading acting instructors, signed on as a guest writer for the New Play Initiative. Both he and director Neil Scharnick ’99, a Carthage theatre professor, wanted the play to engage with life’s biggest questions.
Before it had moved beyond the earliest workshop stage, however, the project took a poignant turn. In May 2022, cancer took Mr. Courtney’s life at age 52.
Messages of grief and gratitude poured out from the theatre community. Even mega-star Michael Fassbender considered the man a mentor.
Dedicating the work to their Irish collaborator’s memory, Prof. Scharnick and his students wrote and developed “Memento Mori” over the next several months. After it premiered on campus in November, Carthage was invited to showcase the play at the Kennedy Center’s Region 3 festival in Flint, Michigan, in mid-January.
Traveling to Ireland later that month, the cast and crew also performed “Memento Mori” at the historic Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin and at West End House School of Arts in Killarney.
“We made something that lets people look at the subject of death in a way it is not often viewed: that of hope, community, grief, the unknown, and most importantly, in whatever way best fits their story,” said Emily Halfmann ’25.
Up to that point, Emily had found writing uncomfortable, but the atmosphere of openness filled her with creative inspiration. Calling it a “formative experience in my theatrical career,” she contributed extensively to the script.
That’s the kind of personal and professional growth Carthage tries to facilitate. Each award signifies to Corinne Ness, dean for the Division of Arts and Humanities, that it’s working.
“These honors recognize the community that we work hard to maintain: a space where student artists can fully realize their potential with the support of an exceptional faculty.”