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'Handled': Play on the wiles of social media debuts at Creighton, Oct. 31

An online persona, for most, is just that — an incomplete, if occasionally idealized version of oneself.

But what if that persona is wrested from your control and expected to become something you live into?

Handled, a new comedy by Chicago-based playwright and Creighton University alumna Shayne Kennedy, BA’94, will have its world premiere later this month on the mainstage at the Lied Education Center for the Arts and is examining just that possibility and what it means for 21st century lives, both real and virtual.

“Some young people, especially, are really good at social media,” said Kennedy, who also debuted a short play, Blood Harmony, at Creighton in 2015 and earned a Theatre Arts Guild Award for Best New Work. “They’re able to keep the balance, to market themselves, to understand what can get 15 likes versus 300 likes. But you also see some in this generation starting to back away from it, having seen what social media can do.”

In Kennedy’s play, a high-school student, Penny (played by senior Hailee Domagalski) returns home after a six-week stay in a mental health care facility to discover that her mother Melanie (junior Jill Zmolek) has created for her daughter a Twitter account and populated it with an entirely fictional account of the young woman’s life. Unsettled, the daughter must navigate the challenges of her relationship with her mother, this new life she’s been handed, and the wiles of her illness.

Handled is directed by Amy Lane, BFA’90, PhD, who has worked previously with Kennedy and who knew her during Kennedy’s undergraduate days at Creighton.

“Even in dealing with sensitive and provocative topics, this is still a comedy, a kind of ‘what-am-I-doing-here piece,” Lane said. “In that way, it’s been really fun for the actors to experiment with the script and in rehearsals. It’s not an opportunity we get every day, to have the playwright with us and to be engaging her with questions.”

The actors, Kennedy said, continue to surprise her with insights about the play and its multifarious themes.

“They’re teaching me,” she said. “I’ve written it and rewritten it, and to have an actor stop in the middle of rehearsal and say, ‘What am I doing here?’ And it’s a part of the play I haven’t thought of for a while, it’s given me a chance to stop and review where we want to take the play.”

Along with the student actors, another component of student participation is taking shape for the play.

Brian Kokensparger, BA’91, MFA’17, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing and himself a playwright who once taught Kennedy in a theatre class, is tasking his software engineering class with the creation of a digital extension of Handled.

The class has created three applications related to the show: a closed-circuit social media platform with which audiences can interact with the play’s performers and crew; a game-based app that addresses mental health care, a central theme in the play; and a relationship-based app that allows the audience to learn more about the play’s six characters.

Upon purchasing tickets, theatregoers can also log-in with a special URL that will give them more information about the play — sans spoilers — and unlock more interactive features after they’ve seen the show.

“I really do see the interactions between the arts and the digital world progressing and not regressing,” Kokensparger said. “For the software engineering students, it’s a good opportunity to see the intersections between theatre and the coding world. There are agents on screen, there is scenery, a backdrop. There are things we can write to make those agents do things. We call it scripting in code for a reason. The cyberworld continues to break down the world where theatre happens and it’s a good first step. But in the end, this is still a human show about human interaction. We’re just hoping to add some more opportunities for interaction to it.”

That human touch within even the most seemingly technological world remains at the heart of Kennedy’s play.

“The actors performing the play, the younger audience, they’ve grown up with social media,” Kennedy said. “It’s been around pretty much their whole lives, so they have a different relationship with it and they seem more capable of measuring its impact. Those of us who are learning it later in life, like the mother in the play, there’s an entirely different dynamic there.”

With an all-female cast of six exploring that dynamic, the show is also merging with the Department of Fine and Performing Arts’ initiative this year to hear more female and minority voices in the work coming to stages and galleries. Along with Domagalski and Zmolek, the cast includes Creighton students Marissa Galardi, Kathleen Watz, Allexys Johnson and Kalina Damfebo. Vivian Parr is assistant director and dramaturg and Kelsey Jones has designed costumes.

“It’s an all-female cast, an almost all-female crew,” Lane said. “That’s very rare. But theatre has skewed more toward men. So, for the female students involved, this has been a special moment. The actors have owned this, built it, fallen fiercely in love with it.”

Handled premieres Wednesday, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m. at the Lied Education Center. Evening performances at 7:30 p.m. run through Saturday, Nov. 3. A 2 p.m. matinee performance is slated for Sunday, Nov. 4. For tickets, call the Creighton Box Office at 402-280-1448, or visit this site.

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