In high school, playwright Samantha Macher staged a revolt.
“We got a new drama teacher my senior year who canceled the spring musical because he just couldn’t figure out how to use any of us,” says the self-proclaimed theater nerd. “I wound up writing, directing and producing the spring musical. I was like, ‘Screw this.’”
That surge of defiance resurfaced in college when, as an undergraduate at UVA, Macher found herself suffering through a slew of pre-med classes. “I thought I might be a doctor, but I was failing and miserable and I hated everybody,” she says.
“I remember looking at the course catalog, seeing playwriting and thinking, ‘Oh, remember when you wrote that play in high school? Maybe it would make you happy to do something like that.’”
Macher recalls one professor in particular who helped her launch her creative career: Doug Grissom. “I don’t think I was the best writer he had taught,” she says. “Not by any stretch of the imagination. But he was like, ‘Okay, I guess we got to start looking for grad schools for you.’”
She went on to receive her master’s degree and was the youngest graduate ever from the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University. Since then, she’s had more than 20 productions, both in the U.S. and abroad, including those of her monologue, “To the New Girl,” which benefited domestic abuse and family service centers in Virginia, and WAR BRIDE, which won the StageSceneLA Best World Premiere Play award in 2012.
The playwright-in-residence for the SkyPilot Theatre Company in Los Angeles credits her progress to the support of mentors like Grissom. “In pre-med there was no ambiguity,” she says. “There was no space to fail. Whereas I always felt safe and comfortable bringing something crazy into Doug’s class. You didn’t have to worry about being embarrassed or if it was right. It just was, and he helped you tell the story you wanted to tell.”
And now her one-time professor has become her director: Grissom leads the UVA drama department’s production of Macher’s play, The Arctic Circle (and a recipe for Swedish pancakes).
“I wrote the first draft when I was 23, for a course at [Hollins] where you had to write a new play every single week,” she says. “With the help of Doug, it’s grown about 30 pages and it’s gotten a lot funnier. That’s what a good director will do for you.”
A good director helps a playwright hone in on what matters most, sharpening intention and desire to anchor characters that otherwise exist merely to further a plot.
“Especially when you’re writing something quickly, you have a tendency to skim over the parts that make [characters] human,” says Macher. “Over the course of workshops and productions, you figure out what the humanity is of each of those characters. You want the actors to feel like they have something fun to do, a whole narrative to explore.”
In the case of Arctic Circle, Macher explains this maturity gap by way of her main character, Ellen.
At first writing, Ellen moved from being a teenager to a college student to a 40-year-old married adult. Working with Grissom and the actors at UVA, Macher was able to fill in a missing piece.
“I wound up writing a bunch of scenes where she explores career passions and failed relationships with online dates and speed dates, a lot of these things that happen in your mid-20s,” she says. “At the time I wrote it, I hadn’t experienced that. Now that I’m 30, I’ve actually lived a little bit more and have more insight into what that’s like.”
This development was critical for Arctic Circle, which tells the story of a woman who is in a troubled marriage and travels through time, space and Sweden to figure out what went wrong.
Ellen’s exploration of previous relationships (and how that is contributing to the downfall of her marriage) “doesn’t sound like an especially funny topic,” Macher says, “but it’s got a lot of humor.”
In fact, the playwright says she never intended the show to be a comedy. “I’m about to admit how painfully un-self-aware I am, but I wrote it as a drama,” she says. “I had no idea it wasn’t a drama until I had a first reading in Roanoke a year after I wrote it. Everyone was laughing hysterically, and I’m like, ‘oops.’”
Apparently, the humor wasn’t lost on UVA’s drama department, which selected it as a part of its 2015-2016 season. For Macher, though, it was a show like many others—the dramatic telling of stories she calls “truthful,” but it’s not autobiographical.
“When you write, you draw from—not the experiences exactly. You just try to find moments where the feelings are real, where you can feel something breaking apart,” says Macher, who experienced her own divorce while writing the show.
Of course, that’s the point of theater, the force that unites pre-med hopefuls, seasoned professors and audience members together in darkened playhouses.
“You’re taking a big risk exposing the honest parts of your life,” Macher says. “It’s scary, but it allows the audience to explore those moments in their lives, too. Your stories intertwine for a time.”