Once an avid theater student at Kenyon, Gracie Gardner ’13 now receives national acclaim as the winner of the American Playwriting Foundation’s 2017 Relentless Award.
The award, which includes a $45,000 prize and opportunities to present staged readings across the U.S. and Britain, was established in honor of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman to recognize innovative and challenging plays concerned with the pursuit of truth. The judges took particular interest in Gardner’s winning play — which has what the New York Times calls an “unprintable title.”
“Pussy Sludge” is one of several plays written by Gardner that have received critical acclaim for their deviation from the familiar. In her portfolio, Gardner tackles everything from teenage fencing to duck hunting. “I try to write things that feel unknown and scratch some new itch in the brain,” Gardner says of her work. “Because ultimately I’m writing for an audience and I think they deserve to be unsettled and transported.
“My practice revolves around uninhibited creativity, with the goal of accessing what is inaccessible to words,” Gardner says. “I’m more interested in characters who are driven by goodwill and radical kindness and exploring the limits of empathy. So that this play … was recognized on a national level gives me a huge amount of confidence in being as honest and unfiltered as I want to be.”
Though Gardner began writing plays when she was a child, she found her home within all things peculiar by splitting her time at Kenyon between the Department of Dance, Drama and Film and the Department of English, where she pursued poetry and challenged the boundaries of storytelling. Gardner says that together, this academic track gave her the “license to be more playful and rigorous with language.”
Time spent at the Kenyon Playwrights Conference, being mentored by James Michael Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod '81, professor of drama, Brant Russell '02, assistant professor of acting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and Associate Professor of Drama and Film Ben Viccellio '98 helped Gardner further develop as a playwright, and countless hours spent between the Bolton and Hill theaters gave her an artistic “compass.” “The drama program … weaseled into my brain. It’s so embedded in the way I think about theater now.”
The community Gardner built with fellow drama students stretches beyond Gambier and continues to push her career forward. After finishing her time at Kenyon with a play at the Horn Gallery titled “Manning Manning Manning” — which focused on the famous football family of Cooper, Peyton and Eli Manning — Gardner embarked on a fellowship with the Atlantic Theater Company, thanks in part to connections that she strengthened at the Kenyon Playwrights Conference. The playwright’s most recent work, “Athena,” was commissioned and performed this spring at The Hearth, a female and non-binary centered theater run by Kenyon alumnae Julia Greer ’15 and Emma Miller ’15.
“I really value the hugely supportive community of Kenyon grads I’ve continued to work with professionally,” Gardner says.
Looking ahead, Gardner’s work, in collaboration with others, will continue to bolster that essential community in art. “There’s a line in Paula Vogel’s ‘Indecent’: ‘When you write a play, you are no longer alone’,” Gardner notes.
—Anna Libertin ’18