Bringing a Play to Life with the Benenson Award

Each year, Duke University grants Benenson Awards in the Arts, which provide funding for fees, travel, and other educational expenses for arts-centered projects proposed by undergraduates (including graduating seniors). The deadline for 2024 Benenson Award applications is Monday, March 18!  We recently interviewed 2023 awardee Tess Redman ’24, a Psychology major with minors in Creative Writing and Spanish, about the development of her play, “Sugar at Four in the Morning.” The play delves into the journey of a type 1 diabetic who participates in an experimental therapy program that transports volunteers back in time to aid their younger selves in managing diabetes. In this interview, Redman shares her creative process, the trip she took to the Netherlands to collaborate with an experienced playwright and aspirations for creating theater productions on a larger scale.

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How did your creative process evolve throughout the summer?

I always had the end goal of producing and directing Sugar at Four in the Morning, but for the first two-thirds or so of the summer, my creative efforts were concentrated on finishing the actual script. Then, at the beginning of August, I transitioned out of my writer role and into director and producer roles: coordinating with Theater Studies to purchase costumes and props, running auditions, planning rehearsals. Implementing creative problem solving to realize a work of creative writing was an exciting challenge for me. One of the most difficult hurdles at this stage was making scene changes work; I had to make many compromises on my original vision of the play in order to have a performable product.

Cornelia (Mentor) and Tess Redman in Cornelia’s house in Utrecht, Netherlands.

You used your award to travel to the Netherlands to collaborate with a playwriting mentor. Can you tell us who they are?

My first memory of Cornelia is watching her bilingual play Picasso at the GALA Hispanic Theatre in DC in the spring of my junior year of high school, before I ever even dreamed of writing a full-length play myself. She was a friend of the family, so four years later, when I got it in my head to do just that, I reached out to my grandma for Cornelia’s contact, never expecting her to commit so completely to what was a very nebulous project at the beginning. I basically asked her, “Would you be interested in advising me on writing a play – plot, setting, and characters unknown?” and she said agreed without hesitation.

Company of “Sugar at Four in the Morning.”

In what ways do you see this project shaping the trajectory of your path after graduation?

Writing Sugar at Four in the Morning proved that I could write a full play; producing it proved that my work could have an audience. Granted, it’s relatively easy to put on a play at a university with departmental scaffolding for that sort of thing. Still, following through on this project showed me that I could do this in the future, possibly on a larger scale. The Awards Committee believed that my writing was worth funding, so maybe professional theater companies will too!


Are there any words of encouragement you’d like to share with students interested in applying for the Benenson Award?

The Benenson Award is such a special opportunity to reward students for their artistic endeavors. Don’t let any mental naysaying stop you from applying!

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