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General Information
We talk theatre education and puns with playwright Jim Peterson

Jim Peterson’s new play, The Importance of Being Ellie, is a teen-centric take on The Importance of Being Earnest with a Shakespearean twist. We talk with the playwright about the inspiration behind the play, the legacy of Oscar Wilde, the benefits of a theatre education, and puns.

the-importance-of-being-ellie_ps1What was the inspiration behind this The Importance of Being Ellie?

I have always been fan of Oscar Wilde, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest. Every once in a while, I’ll use it as a text to study acting in my high school classes, but recently, the students have not really been appreciating the humor or the absurdity. So, in the back of my mind, I had always wondered what it would be like if this happened to high school students.

While taking an advanced playwriting course one summer, I couldn’t decide whether to adapt Julius Caesar for a high school cast or The Importance of Being Earnest. After discussing with the class and the instructor, it was obvious that I was much more animated and excited by the prospect of adapting Earnest, so that’s what I chose. All those years of frustration getting students to enjoy the situational comedy came pouring into this script.

Oscar Wilde’s novels and plays are among the most adapted writing today. What do you think it is about his work that remains so appealing?

I have always been drawn to his wit and cleverness with words. Word play, bad puns, and clever insults are staple activities between me and my friends. We will often times try to outdo each other in clever word play or unbearable puns. The dialogue in The Importance of Being Ellie was sometimes taken from such ham sessions. Even Mrs. Bracknell’s speeches were often lines of dialogue that I have going through my head all the time.

It’s his cleverness that I think is so appealing. His satire of society is so delightful that often times, I don’t think the objects of his ridicule are even aware of his criticism. That is a remarkable skill. In a world of YouTube and broad situational comedies, there is an attractiveness to a well-crafted play or turn of phrase that is the anti-dote to the quick laugh or hit to the crotch.

How did you first get involved with theatre?

Easy. I was asked. I was a freshman in high school; she was a senior and the choreographer for the school’s musical. She was short a dance partner for one of the numbers, so she asked me if I was interested. When a beautiful girl asks you to dance with her, of course you agree. The next thing I knew, I was playing ten different characters in twelve different scenes with just as many costume changes. It was crazy and I was in love. Not with her, but with theatre. I was cast in eleven out of twelve plays in my high school career and it took me to college where I switched tracks to theatre education.

The Importance of Being EllieYou work as the the Director of Theatre and Film in the Performing Arts Department at Carmel High School. How do you feel your background as a teacher influences your writing?

In one way, teaching theatre for twenty-five years will teach you a lot about high school students. Writing for that age group is hard, but over time you begin to see patterns and similarities that don’t change. And not just in high school. We all want to belong; to fit in. Another way teaching high school has influenced me has been with dialogue. Words and phrases do not tend to have a long shelf-life. Technology has certainly accelerated that process. Having a good rapport with students and listening to their speech has been valuable in creating believable dialogue.

Ironically, one aspect of my teaching that I felt deficient in was in fact, playwriting. It was not something that I had really learned how to do. I had taken some creative writing classes for my Master’s Degree, but they did not focus on writing for the stage. So, I decided to change that. I took a beginning playwriting course from our local writer’s center which led to the advanced class where I developed The Importance of Being Ellie. It was a great experience and did a lot to quell my fear of teaching playwriting.

How do you think high school students benefit from their involvement in theatre?

There is a ton of research out there for the benefits of arts education. I won’t do that justice in my answer, but I can tell you what my alumni have told me. Confidence. That’s usually the first thing a student will comment on. Stories about how shy they were or how much they lacked confidence, but having theatre changed that. Multi-tasking or time management. So many times, students comment on how improved their grades are when they are in production. They are able to plan better when they know they are going to be in rehearsals. Abstract thinking. They may not phrase it with those particular words, but the concept is the same. By being involved in theatre, students are able to visualize, imagine and comprehend the big picture. Taking a production from the design phase to the performance phase is a valuable educational experience for any student.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

For me, personally, I got the most out of taking the class from the writer’s center. Being able to workshop a play is an extremely valuable experience. Plays are meant to be read aloud. If you can find a workshop or a support system that allows you to have that experience, you should really take advantage of it. If not, seek it out. There are ways to meet with other playwrights or actors if not locally, then digitally. But I’m old-school. I like the face-to-face meeting. It’s organic.

I have also heard a lot about writing what you know. This is true for me to a point. Obviously, I have never been a high school girl. But as a teacher, I have met over a thousand in my career. I have never disguised my identity, but I can imagine what would happen if I did. So, it’s like Stanislavski’s Magic “If.” Write what you know as if it were happening to you or your characters.

Have you ever gotten in over your head with a scheme à la Ellie?

I am a terrible liar. I cannot keep a secret. There is no way that I would have been able to pull off what Ellie has been able to do. The worst thing I ever did was get a ride home from the last person to leave a party and tell my mom that they were the first to leave. Terrible, I know.

—Jim Peterson

Jim Peterson is the Director of Theatre and Film in the Performing Arts Department at Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana and the founding member of the Indiana Film Teachers and the Board of Theatre Teachers of Central Indiana. He is also an International Baccalaureate Organization Film SL Independent Study Diploma Examiner and is on the screening committees for the Heartland Film Festival Narrative Feature and the High School Film Competition. While the theatre director at Carmel, Mr. Peterson has directed twenty-five mainstage productions and seventeen one-act plays. He has directed productions both here and abroad. He’s coached his ComedySportz team to multiple victories since its inception in 2001 including a league championship in 2012. His productions have competed regularly at Regional Thespian Conferences, State Thespian Conferences and the IndyFringe Festival here in Indianapolis, and also the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has collaborated with numerous playwrights, experts, and coaches, including grants from both the Indiana Arts Commission and the Carmel Education Foundation. Peterson has served as an adult Board Member for the Indiana Thespians for sixteen years and Chair of the Individual Events and Scholarship Competitions. He has served on committees and advisory boards for the Indiana Department of Education, the Professional Development Committee, the Technology Committee, and Arts Program Evaluation Committee. His committee published the State Theatre Standards through the Indiana Department of Education. In his spare time, he is a loving husband and father to two teenage boys, two dogs, and two cats.

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