Talk about a homecoming! Wendy-Marie Martin, who earned both an M.F.A. (2014) and a Certificate in Directing New Work (2017) from the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, returned to her alma mater earlier this year to become chair of Hollins’ theatre department.
“I love this place—I was very excited to come back,” said Martin, a successful playwright, educator, and current Ph.D. candidate in interdisciplinary arts/theatre at Ohio University. “The students at Hollins are great,” Martin said. “They’re interested in things that aren’t necessarily mainstream, which aligns really well with my aesthetic.”
Martin took over for Ernie Zulia, who stepped down last spring after helming the department for 17 years. She recalled that one of the big takeaways from her time as a Hollins grad student was the program’s encouragement to try new things and learn from failure. “We live in a very perfectionist society,” said Martin. “It’s difficult to give yourself permission to go outside of what you know will be right or successful. We’re in the process of adopting the same attitude in the undergraduate program so that process is seen as equally important to product/performance because we can’t know what’s possible until we give it a shot, and there’s always risk involved.”
Although Martin officially became the new chair this fall, she guest taught a couple of classes in the spring as a part of a gradual transition into her new role. Because of this, Martin had the opportunity to meet with students one-on-one and hear what they were hoping to get out of their time in the program. “One of the things that came up often was more demand for women playwrights,” said Martin. “They also wanted more contemporary work, which is great. That’s right up my alley.”
Martin isn’t exaggerating, either. In her doctoral work at Ohio University, she is focusing on feminist theatre and 20th and 21st century women playwrights, and all theatre productions at Hollins this year will be by non-binary or female-identifying writers.
Speaking of those plays, this semester’s season kicked off back in September with a staged reading of The Orphan Sea by Cardid Svich, which was directed by undergraduate resident professional teaching artist Michelle LoRicco. The next performance to catch will be The Skriker, which will be performed on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage October 21-24. This 1994 play by Caryl Churchill, which tells the story of the titular fairy Skriker, begins with several pages of nonsensical language. “I was very concerned that the students weren’t going to get through the first three pages because it’s challenging,” said Martin. “But they were all ridiculously excited about it. The students have just been on top of it with offers and ideas on what they want to suggest for the play, which is really exciting.”
Looking even further ahead, Martin’s hoping to expand the theatre program in two different areas. First, she wants to develop a scholarship arm of the department, i.e., getting students to write analytical/critical papers that can be potentially published or presented at conferences for financial aid or scholarships. Second, Martin is seeking to embrace more original work. She plans on doing this by commissioning a play from the Playwright’s Lab and developing it with undergraduates over the course of two years all the way to live production. “That’s one thing that we’re going to try to start doing next year: developing new work over a long period of time,” said Martin. “We have the structure here to do something ambitious like that.”
Martin’s also heavily focused on diversifying the theatre department. That means more diversity training and inclusion as well as an eclectic lineup of guest artists to expand the cultural perspective of the program and better serve its students of color. “Right now that’s where most of my energy is,” said Martin. “It’s a very exciting group of students here who are willing to try new things, and I love that.”
Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.