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Valerie Muensterman ‘20: Writing the One-Actor Play

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2020

I wrote a full-length play titled God's Last Name, a piece written for one actor and a series of recorded voices. The play tells the story of Huck and Amy, two sisters who find themselves driving a mysterious (and possibly dangerous?) hitchhiker to St. Louis.

About the Project

I received funding to write a full-length play over the summer. The support of the Benenson allowed me to devote time, which I otherwise would have spent on a part-time job, solely to the completion of this play. As a result, I had the opportunity to complete a new piece, which I then brought to workshop in my first year of graduate school at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

Given the changes within the theater world due to COVID-19—the necessity of social distancing, the physical absence of audiences—I set out to write a play that could possibly be staged during these times. What would that mean? First, social distancing among actors. I conceived, as a result, to write a play for one person. The idea then developed to include recorded voices; the actor might interact with these voices in such a way that amplifies their physical absence.

The next question I asked myself: what does a monologue do? In the absence of other characters, I considered, the audience must rely on the character speaking to tell the truth, given there are no other characters to confirm or refute the account. But what if the character speaking does not tell the truth? The audience, in this sense, becomes dependent on the speaker. I’m illustrating, of course, the unreliable narrator; yet I came to ponder how much power bears this narrator. In a monologue, there is no reality; the narrator compels us to see the world as she sees it. I began to wonder, when a character consciously realizes how she can seduce the audience into her own worldview, how does she choose to use that power?

These reflections led me to write a play called God’s Last Name, in which a character named Huck speaks to the audience on a bare stage, accompanied by recorded voices. Given the empty set, Huck’s heightened visual language compels the audience to imagine the world exactly as she imagines it. The play tells the story of Huck and Amy, who, on their way home from work, accidentally pick up a hitchhiker, having mistaken him for an old friend. The stranger tells them to drive to St. Louis. As the sisters drive, grappling with the stranger’s identity – Huck fears he might be a killer; Amy fears he might be an angel – they too grapple with their own sense of identity.

Thanks to the generous support of the Benenson, I completed a first draft of this play over the summer. I received a workshop of the play at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop this fall, and I look forward to revising it further as I prepare it—I hope!—for a reading here at Iowa in the spring.

Reflecting on Art Amidst COVID-19

While the Benenson provided me the financial support to spend the summer writing, this grant moreover encouraged me to think about playwriting in the present moment. Rather than ignoring the current challenges in theater—and the fact, of course, that live theater has essentially come to a halt—I wrote, thinking about the restrictions of the present moment as openings for new types of storytelling, and, likewise, opportunities to imagine theatrical storytelling anew.