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McNickle '10: Healing the iPod nation with theater

First-years may find it strange to learn that they have an award-winning playwright and an accomplished female director among their ranks. But for those who know Kato McNickle '10, it isn't a surprise that she would choose to be the author and arbiter of her own education as a student in the Resumed Undergraduate Education program at Brown.

McNickle is new to Brown, but she has been actively involved in the theater community since the early 1990s. Having written over 18 plays and directed some 14 theatrical productions, she has been an important cultural voice, someone who has sought to create theater that has a direct and lasting impact on her audience.

Though her resume reflects years of experience in theater - playwriting, directing and producing - McNickle doesn't dwell on her accomplishments. Seeking to create a more immediate theater experience, the first-year says she is most concerned with human interaction and communication.

Her most recent work, "In Search of a Better Elvis," earned her this year's first prize in the Baldwin New Play Festival Playwriting Competition sponsored by the University of California, San Diego. In the play, McNickle expresses how the misunderstanding of the past threatens the experience of the present and explores misdirection and miscommunication from the perspective of a young black girl struggling to come to grips with her African heritage.

"Plays have a conversation with an audience" that no other artistic medium possesses, McNickle said. For her, good theater lies in establishing the immediacy of that dialogue with the audience.

McNickle said she wants "to infuse what she learns (at Brown) into her art," especially cognitive science. She said she has taken to that field to learn how to overcome the filtering mechanisms of the brain - in understanding how the brain functions, she hopes to find new methods that can more directly affect her audience.

Aspiring to build a new theater experience, McNickle said she wishes to bridge what she calls the "void" that separates the audience from the performance. In a contemporary iPod-oriented culture where people alienate themselves from each other and from life through the soundtracks of their solitary existences, McNickle said she wants to create an unmediated experience that will directly connect the audience to her productions through the powerful experience of theater.

Through her work with the Second Step Players, a sketch comedy group that aimed to inform audiences about mental disorders, McNickle came to believe that theater has the power to both illuminate and delight the audience. As many of her actors lived with or experienced mental illnesses themselves, McNickle said she learned that "creativity heals."

McNickle has achieved success with "The Planning Stage," a new theater company she helped develop that stages works in non-traditional spaces. By performing in spaces "like art galleries or yoga studios," the company creates a more "alive" experience for its audience where art engages life in a new and provocative manner, she said.

By choosing theatrical venues like these that lack a formal stage, McNickle breaks down the barriers that normally separate the audience from the action, and by eschewing the speakers and surround sound employed in cinema and Broadway productions, McNickle attempts to create an intimate theatrical environment that encourages her audiences to attentively listen to and engage with the performance. With this challenge to contemporary iPod culture, McNickle is an emerging voice in the theater community at Brown.


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