Semicolon Theatre Offers Young Artists a Stage

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Kamil and Cornell in rehearsal.

It’s a great privilege to be present at the beginning of a long term personal and professional relationship. In the summer of 2012, I was one of the staff dramaturgs working with Young Playwrights, Inc. (YPI)’s Urban Retreat program in NYC when participating high school writers Miranda Cornell from Brooklyn met Zoe Kamil from San Francisco. In this nine-day intensive summer program for young people aged 14 to 21, I was paired with Cornell to serve as dramaturg for the short play she generated. The program (currently on hiatus) builds artists, and in Kamil and Cornell it built mentors who then create opportunities for other theater makers who are barely voting age. We recently reconnected by phone to discuss their original collaboration, their latest producing experiences (including their show in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival, called #BLESSED (“hashtag blessed”) and what lies ahead.

2-2012-ypi-urban-retreat-reading-event-poster“We sort of clicked right away, on the same plane artistically and as people,” recalled Kamil about her first meeting with Cornell at the Urban Retreat program. Kamil’s then-new interest in playwriting was validated. “Everybody made me feel like it was something I could do and that I should be doing.” She returned to her San Francisco private high school’s strong theater department, ready to work.

Cornell grew up acting in places like the New Victory Theater, yet by eighth grade started exploring non-acting theater roles. She found YPI’s program geared toward playwriting — one of the few non-acting youth programs available to a 14-year-old — and decided to give writing a whirl. Directing was always in the background. “I always had very strong ideas about staging, and I’d write very specific stage directions,” she recalled, which led her to take on an assistant director role when she returned to school.

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Young people can pretty much do anything.

Not yet out of high school, Cornell and Kamil founded Semicolon Theater Company in 2013. Cornell pitched her vision in a long-distance phone call: a company geared toward giving professional opportunities for young people in production, writing and directing. Her initial inspiration was anger with a touch of spite, inspired by an employer who didn’t hire her for an internship, for which she was fully qualified, because of her age. “We didn’t want to have the adults help any more, thinking we could do all this on our own,” Kamil recalled. “We’ve learned since then that we can’t do it all on our own, but given the right support and belief and the right resources, young people can pretty much do anything.”

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Semicolon, explained Cornell, now has a production history of “four one acts, three readings and one workshop.” The one acts were staged at the Access Theater in NYC in 2014, a space rental arranged by 16-year-old Cornell and co-signed by her father). One of the plays staged was The Road Trip by Emily Sheera Cutler and starring Anna Robinson, later one of the actors in #BLESSED, and both alums of the 2012 Urban Retreat. As Kamil underscored, “I think [that] really speaks to the fact that we’re interested in cultivating relationships that last.”

new-york-fringe-blessedNow, four years after they first met, Cornell is beginning her sophomore year at Vassar College, Kamil is beginning her junior year at Marymount Manhattan College, and for #BLESSED, Cornell served as the youngest director in Fringe history. All production personnel were 21 and under at the time of hire, and were 90 percent female, with one male-identifying person on the team.

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#BLESSED team [L-R] Sabine Decator (stage manager), Miranda Cornell (director), Zoe Kamil (playwright), Alexa Derman (producer).
The play is about faith, rape culture, and what it means to be a young person today, Kamil says. “It’s a coming-of-age story and a loss of innocence — about what a young woman carries over the threshold after this horrible thing that pushes her into the adult world before she was ready.” The characters as well as the play as a whole developed through layers of rewriting, partly to address Kamil’s interest in incorporating “fantastical or religious or spiritual elements in the play, and to subvert the structure.”

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#BLESSED cast. Photo: Miranda Cornell.

Cornell and Kamil know that when their schedules permit they’ll go back into #BLESSED with things they’ve learned with the 2016 cast and Fringe performances. “I’m not done,” Kamil said. “I feel like I learned a lot from listening to people talk and write about this production, and have very strong feelings one way or another.” Cornell is already proposing an intense work session to rework the script, maybe a “retreat into the mountains one day, in a couple of months.”

Similarly for Kamil, the team’s future is both committed and unspecific. “Miranda and I align in terms of what we believe and how we interpret text and stories,” she says. “Whatever we do, we’re doing it together.”

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Martha Steketee
Martha Wade Steketee has worked as a court researcher, policy analyst, editor, theater critic, and dramaturg. Voting member of theater awards committees (Jeff in Chicago, Drama Desk in New York), and dramaturg who reviews scripts for theaters and festivals and collaborates with playwrights and authors on new works. Member of American Theatre Critics Association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and League of Professional Theatre Women. Contributor to a range of theater publications including HowlRound, TDF Stages, Theater Pizzazz, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Her site Urban Excavations focuses on live and filmed performance. Steketee lives in New York City.