Meeting the playwright of a show while it is in production is a unique experience for any actor. Students at UW-Fond du Lac, a UW Oshkosh campus, recently had the rare opportunity to meet and work directly with the man who wrote the script for their fall production.
Playwright J. Merrill Motz spent a day at UW-Fond du Lac in October working with acting class students and the cast and crew producing his play “The Roommate.” He also participated in an interdisciplinary discussion about the play which brought together 100 students and faculty from psychology, communication arts, history, women's studies, art, education, health sciences, religion and English courses. There were 11 classes that used the play as part of their coursework this semester; studying it from the perspective of the specific discipline.
It is the second time UW-Fond du Lac theater, under the direction of Professor Richard Gustin, has done the play. The first performance of “The Roommate” at UW-Fond du Lac was in 2008 and Gustin recalls a 12-page re-write from Motz during rehearsals, which challenged the actors at that time. With a span of ten years between performances, Motz took the opportunity to make changes again in 2018.
“It’s been amazing to have a ten-year remount,” Motz said. “I wanted to tweak some of the character stuff. And, cut some of those jokes that didn’t work.”
Motz also updated the script to reflect today's use of technology. From a director’s perspective, the characters in “The Roommate” are challenging according to Gustin.
“There are a lot of words on the page, that’s a tremendous challenge for an undergraduate actor,” he said. “I am so grateful to Jeremy for taking time out of his schedule to interact with students. To have the artist with us here, that’s a whole different level.”
With the playwright in the theater, students are able to ask questions about the script, but Motz said they are often frustrated when he doesn’t give an answer. “I tell them, ‘I’m not going to answer that; it might change how you perform it,'" Motz said, adding that he doesn't want to change how they approach the show.
Just prior to a performance in the Prairie Theater, Motz wasn’t sure how he would feel about attending the show in person. “I haven’t done it (attend a performance) in a lot of years,” he said. “I’m probably going to be pretty nervous and probably crinkle my program.”
Motz asks if the audience laughs during the show. Gustin assures him they do.
“We work on clarity,” said Gustin. “Clarity. Precision. Timing. If the audience doesn’t understand the line, it’s pretty hard to get a laugh.”
Where does Motz find inspiration for his scripts?
“I love to find ridiculous characters out in the world, usually through YouTube videos or old VHS tapes,” Motz said. “And, I approach it as a real person; show the layers under that ridiculous character to get to the gooey center. I always start with character and the story comes from there.”
Motz added that he loves working with students. “I hope they see that they can do it themselves,” he said. “There’s nothing standing in their way. Everyone has a story to tell. If you want to tell your story, tell it.”
Appearing in the Minnesota Fringe each year, Motz has been putting his own spin on solo shows as Paper Soul since 2013. He earned a master’s degree from Ohio University’s Professional Playwriting Program and a bachelor’s degree in acting from Central Michigan University.
Top photo by Richard Gustin: Playwright J. Merrill Motz participates in a workshop session with UW-Fond du Lac acting students.
Bottom photo by Laurie Krasin: Professor Richard Gustin (left) and Playwright J. Merrill Motz at UW-Fond du Lac prior to performance of Motz's play "The Roommate" at UW-Fond du Lac.