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Focus On: Lynchburg native Claire Wittman staging new play locally

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    Claire Wittman rehearses a scene from "Copernicus," which will debut locally at the downtown branch of the Lynchburg Public Library on Friday.

Posted: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 8:30 am

Why you should know her: The 20-year-old Holy Cross Regional Catholic School graduate is an up-and-coming actress/playwright currently studying musical theater at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester. The first act of her play, “Copernicus,” will be performed at the downtown branch of the Lynchburg Public Library this week during First Friday.

Background

Claire, a rising junior at Shenandoah, grew up in the theater, first appearing as part of the chorus in “My Fair Lady” at Lynchburg College when she was just three years old.

It was likely unavoidable, really, that she’d pursue a career on stage. Both of her parents are staples in the Lynchburg theater community; father Jeff is Lynchburg College’s longtime theater director, and mom Loretta is part of Sweet Briar College’s theater faculty.

Over the years, Claire acted in plays at Holy Cross Regional Catholic School, including a memorable turn as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” As she got older, she also became involved in community theater, performing in shows with the Academy of Fine Arts.

She started dabbling in playwriting during her first year at Shenandoah, where a playwriting series allows students to stage new works every week. That’s where “Copernicus,” about a young woman striving to reach her goals during Europe’s Industrial Revolution, was born.

“I had written this 10-minute scene, and I was just astounded by the way that the director and the cast were able to transform it from words on the page,” Claire says. “I’d never seen anything I’d written brought to life in that way. And they proved such an inspiration that I kept working on the piece and expanding the story, and suddenly it was 100 pages long.”

It later won Shenandoah’s inaugural Best Play award, and a fully-staged reading was held at the conservatory in 2014.

The first act of the play will be staged at the library this week, starring Claire and three local actors.

Here’s more of what she had to say about her influences, creative process and why she keeps writing about sad, British people.

Knowing both of your parents, it’s pretty much a given that you grew up in the theater. But what was it about performing and theater in general that piqued your interest, outside of their influence?

“I’ve always loved history and literature and a variety of different art forms, and theater always seemed to be the best way I could marry all of those interests. I get to explore all of these things I was interested in learning about and share them in this medium. And I like to tell stories.”

You’ve been participating in Shenandoah’s weekly playwriting series since 2012. Is that when you started writing, or did you dabble before?

“I wrote a great deal of poetry and prose when I was in high school, and I was convinced I was going to be Jane Austen and write novels. I had never given much thought to writing a play even though my parents consistently suggested it. They said, ‘You love theater, why don’t you write a play?’

“I supposed I never had a spark to do so until I got to Shenandoah [and] I realized that every single week, students were putting up work they had written and directed and acted [in] themselves. Given that opportunity, I thought I would try it, and it just grew from there.”

How do the playwriting series work there?

“Every Thursday night at 11 p.m., somewhere on campus, a brand new student work is put on. The director and cast receive the script on Sunday, and they have until Thursday night to put it up. We have works in all genres from my historical fiction to comedies to mysterious pieces.”

What is “Copernicus” about?

“[It’s] the story of a young biologist in 1860, which is the year after Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ was published. … She is observing the changes in the world around her, in sort of the scientific and social upheaval that’s occurring in the Victorian era. … Changes are coming about in regards to education and the Industrial Revolution and, most importantly to her, women’s rights.

“She sees these changes happening in the world [and] that encourages her to make changes in her own life and to fight for these things for which she has such passion, that were initially denied her because she was a woman and did not have a formal education. As she sees progress being made, she becomes more and more determined to have progress of her own.”

What inspired you to write it?

“I’ve always loved history and literature and particularly the Victorian era.  

“I could think of no better way to parallel the changes that were happening in my life at the time. It was my first year of college. I was out on my own, reaching for the things that I love. … There could be no better parallel for that than the era that first opened those doors for young people, and young women especially.

“I felt such kinship with the idea of this young woman who wants to make a difference in the world and is having the opportunity to do that for the first time.”

You’ve said your work is sometimes described as “sad” and “British.” How does “Copernicus” fit in with that?

“As she is fighting to achieve her goals in her work, she’s similarly facing changes in her life beyond that, including a young man who is very much in love with her and wants to marry her, but she can’t reconcile herself to the thought of giving up her work. At the same time, she can’t reconcile herself to deny him his dreams as she fights for hers. That leads her to a conflict that is within her heart as well as her mind.

“The joke about sad, British people sort of came from Shenandoah, and the first scene did end a little less than cheerfully. … Since then I have written other plays consisting of sad, British people [laughs].”

What is your writing process like? Do you wait for inspiration, or force yourself to sit down until something comes out?

“I find myself constantly surrounded by inspiration. I will read something or reread one of my favorite books or have an experience in my life that makes me want to explore that feeling and to expand on that story. And I find myself consistently overwhelmed with ideas. I always have six or seven plots going in my head at once, and I just try my best to put them on paper.”

Are you working on anything new now?

“Yes, I am. I have half a dozen short pieces in mind, but my major long term piece that will be a full length production is, as custom dictates, about sad young women in the Victorian era. It will be a play about four girls.”

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