Theater Notes

Undergrad Playwright Explores Identity and Mental Health in First Semester: A Musical

Credit: Clay Chastain

On the UGA Theatre’s spring schedule is First Semester: A Musical, an original work written and co-directed by undergraduate Wyn Alyse Thomas. Exploring themes of identity and mental health while navigating a new life absent of old support systems, the musical follows the anxious chronic overachiever Alicia through the ups and downs of her first semester of college.

The production will be the first of the theater program’s New Work Spotlight, which is dedicated to showcasing original student-written, student-produced work supported by the New Georgia Group Grant. The grant is fulfilled by the New Georgia Group fund, established in 2009 by an association of alumni, and is awarded to those who meet the criteria of demonstrating “artistic risk-taking and new approaches in concept and expression, while maintaining an appreciative audience.” Last spring UGA’s department of theater and film studies honors and awards committee selected Thomas, now a second-year theater major, as the grant’s recipient.

Before coming to UGA, Thomas grew up in Lincolnshire, IL. Since her senior year of high school, Thomas has published the original playscripts Write Their Wrongs, stand. Up. HIT! and Commitment Issues. Write Their Wrongs won the national ENOUGH! Plays to End Gun Violence competition, and was produced in about 40 locations, with a flagship reading at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Stand. Up. HIT! was a winner of The Blank Theatre’s 30th Annual Young Playwrights Festival, and Commitment Issues won an award at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

“I have been writing longer than I’ve been doing theater,” says Thomas. “In middle school is when Hamilton came out. I’ve always liked writing stories, and I’ve always liked music. Then when I heard Hamilton, I was like, oh, you can do both. So that’s when I started trying to write musicals, then also started writing just plays without music as well.”

The evolution of how Thomas wrote First Semester ended up being different from any of her previous endeavors. Originally she set out to write a one-act play about two people in a relationship, but as she added characters, the friendships became more interesting than the main plot—turning the story into a full-length, two-hour-plus production.

“Pretty much everything I write starts out with this thing that happened to me today [and asking] what would happen if I changed this and this… So even though the inception point was this character is feeling the way I feel today, I then start asking questions about why is this?” explains Thomas. “That’s kind of how it stops becoming about me. It’s when I start asking these bigger questions, and having characters make different decisions than I’ve made.”

Clay Chastain (l-r) Co-director Sydney Rainwater with co-director and writer Wyn Alyse Thomas. Credit: Clay Chastain

Although the plot and characters are based on the college experience, there are more universal themes that anyone can relate to. The main character processes feelings of being lost and having to make new friends, in addition to losing support systems that had previously been in place and discovering the foundations of their identity have changed. These are experiences that affect people of all ages and backgrounds.

Stepping into the co-director role with fellow director Sydney Rainwater, Thomas says that she’s enjoyed letting the “really wonderful” cast improvise during rehearsals. The cast members end up understanding their characters better than she does, Thomas says, and it’s shaped the script into something new. Their voices and perceptions more fully flesh out the characters.

“That’s a really cool part of the process. I like that. The final product becomes a collaboration between what you’ve written and how the actors and actresses bring that to life,” says Thomas.

Performances will be held this week Mar. 21–24 in the Cellar Theatre of the Fine Arts Building, free and open to the public. However, a donation of $10 is suggested to benefit the Thalian Blackfriars, a student theater troupe co-producing the play.

WHO: First Semester: A Musical
WHEN: Mar. 21–23, 8 p.m. Mar. 24, 2 p.m.
WHERE: UGA Cellar Theatre