Taking center stage: SIU MFA playwrighting student from Metro East earns prestigious fellowship

young woman seated upon an ottoman, while on a theater stage
Emerging playwright: SIU MFA playwriting student Emily Klingensmith, who goes by the penname e.k. doolin, will have an upcoming play performed next year as part of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s Confluence Writers Project. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

Sitting in the audience section of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s McLeod Theater, Emily Klingensmith pointed to an area behind her and recalled attending a short play festival years earlier when she was an eighth-grade student of Ann Garrett in Mount Vernon, Illinois.

“I sat right up there and saw one of those formative moments on stage,” recalled Klingensmith, a second-year Master of Fine Arts in playwriting student who goes by the penname e.k. doolin. “They were doing a re-creation of an Edgar Allen Poe short story, and it was so riveting and I was so into it.”

Now, Klingensmith’s four-decade affection for the theater includes being honored as one of three emerging artists to earn a playwriting fellowship in the 2022 cohort of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s Confluence Writers Project. Her full-length play, “Titania and Oberon’s Road Trip,” conceptualized from Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is scheduled for public reading in the Big Muddy New Play Festival produced by SIU’s School of Theater and Dance March 23-26, with performances during the third Confluence New Play Festival in April.

‘A huge step’

Klingensmith, who lives in Edwardsville with her husband, Jon, and their two children, said she was honored with the selection, which draws from playwrights throughout Missouri and Illinois, particularly the St. Louis and Chicago areas, or hubs. She submitted entries twice to the competition, both times before entering  SIU’s MFA playwriting program in the fall of 2021.

“Knowing that I was competing against that hub up there in Chicago made me feel good,” she said. “And knowing that even regionally there is a ton of amazing writers in the St. Louis area. ‘Competing’ is a hard word, because some of the most amazing writers in St. Louis — their style would not fit this type of project; they have a different style. I try to think there is the right project for the right person or people.”

Long association with the theater

Klingensmith’s arrival to SIU’s playwriting program took many years to develop. Growing up, Klingensmith, a 1993 graduate of Mount Vernon Township High School, was involved in the Benton-based Pyramid Players community theater group starting when she was 7 years old. She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Ohio Northern University, and while she wrote, Klingensmith felt at the time she didn’t believe playwrighting was a path open to anyone unless they grew up in New York City and lived around the theater. After spending a yearlong internship with a theater in Lansing, Michigan, she moved to the administrative area within theater from 1998-2001 before she earned an MFA in acting from Case Western Reserve University in 2004.

After moving to California with her family, Klingensmith wrote “very basic skit structures” for various organizations she was involved in, and she and a friend, who was a creative director, wrote skit material for use in middle schools. When the family moved to Illinois in 2012, Klingensmith met Tress Kurzym, a theater educator who is also program coordinator in theater education at SIU Edwardsville. The two began writing scripts, including, “A Two-Person Christmas Carol” which is performed annually at the Edwardsville Public Library. The pair also collaborated for several years through the Edwardsville School District making content for fine arts days for each of the elementary schools.

Klingensmith knew she found her niche.

“I just didn’t know where I fit in theater until I started doing this,” she said. “This is where I fit; this is what I love to do.”

Expanding her work

Klingensmith also began writing more shows for adults, and while knowing how to cultivate children’s shows, at first she didn’t know how to get her work to other theaters. She started reaching out to “a lot of really kind, generous theater makers who helped gently direct me” in terms of format, script structure and even software to assist her in writing. She also became involved in readings in the St. Louis area and the Slightly Askew Theatre Company, where her plays have been produced.

Her work has been produced by Prison Performing Arts and the Center of Creative Arts, both in Missouri, and at York College, the Geneva Theatre Guild in New York, along with theaters in Florida, California and the United Kingdom. In October, the Prison Performing Arts Theatre Company presented an online performance of Klingensmith’s premiere of “Waiting for Hecate.” A one-act play “Running Uphill to Smooth Criminal” was a regional finalist at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and produced by the Heartland Theatre in Bloomington, Illinois, in July 2022.

Returning to school

Klingensmith decided to pursue her MFA in playwriting and returned to school in 2021. She knew Jacob Juntunen, an associate professor in dramatic theory, criticism and playwriting in SIU Carbondale’s School of Theater and Dance.  Juntunen’s writings and scholarship, along with the MFA program’s offerings and proximity to Edwardsville factored into her decision to attend SIU Carbondale.

Juntunen noted that “e.k. doolin is deft with comedy and creating fleshed-out characters that are a joy for actors to play, and she always does so with an intellectually rigorous foundation of deconstructing history and classic texts.” Juntunen also said, “I most admire her ability to take dead history and texts and make them breathe with life and humor.”

He added Klingensmith’s experience “as someone who already has an MFA in acting greatly informs her ability to write witty dialogue and scenes that are fun and challenging for actors.”

Klingensmith said part of the process is getting into a “zone” for writing.

“Sometimes you show up at the page and the page doesn’t show up for you. But if you keep showing up at the page, then eventually it will show up for you.”

She credits Juntunen with convincing her to apply again to the Confluence Writers Project. Another SIU graduate student in playwriting, Myah L. Gary, who is pursuing a doctorate in health education and playwriting, was selected in the project’s 2020 cohort.

“Professor Juntunen continues to get us to think about life after graduate school,” Klingensmith said. “He’s a great mentor. He’s kind of a walking encyclopedia of theater, theater makers and theater history. He’s very helpful for students. He’s a wonderful playwright. I was able to act in one of the plays he wrote that was a streaming production. That was fun.”

Splitting time between Edwardsville and Carbondale, Klingensmith joked that going through Nashville on Illinois 127 at times can feel like a time warp — one side of Nashville toward Interstate 64 being the mom of a 14- and a 16-year-old helping with band craft fairs and family outings; the other side, toward SIU Carbondale, returning as a graduate student.

In addition to her graduate work, Klingensmith was a teaching assistant in a freshman theater seminar class and will have another class next semester.

When she earns her MFA in May 2024, Klingensmith said she will continue to submit her work and would also like to be an instructor with a school that might want to offer a playwriting or basic theater class, along with continuing to work with the Prison Performing Arts Program. There also are other theaters, including a children’s theater in St. Louis, that she also admires.

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