COLUMBIA — One day early this month, Nancy White asked her creative writing class at Hickman High School to finish this sentence: “I remember my childhood as …”
She told them she would do the same.
Performed April 16, 17 and 18 at Stone Soup Theatre in Seattle
Severed Strings tells the story of a cello player, Sarah, who signs up for the military and travels to Iraq because she does not have enough money to attend college. Once she returns to the states, she has a wounded hand and is no longer able to play the cello. She meets a woman in a nearby park who paints portraits of people and would like to paint a portrait of Sarah. Sarah, along with a child who represents a younger version of herself, struggles to find a balance between the artist she once was and the person she is now becoming.
Up Down n’ All Around, monologue from Still As Rain
Performed April 22 and 23 at Kathie Ramussen Women’s Theatre in Madison, Wis.
Still As Rain is a modern day interpretation of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, who rule over the growth and death of the earth’s vegetation. Persephone is Demeter’s daughter and in the old myth Persephone gets lost and is swallowed up by the Earth. Demeter embarks on a desperate search. The myth is transformed into a piece about a young woman in Chicago who struggles to create a painting while working through the loss of her child. The child, Persephone, enters the play in the last scene and shares with Demeter how she had "started out way early in the morning drawin' pictures with chalk ... up one sidewalk and down another, and, along the way, got turned around from home." She thought she heard her mother calling for her but could not see her. The two are reunited and together draw a red circle with chalk on the blank canvas in the middle of Demeter's floor.
“Who wants to share what they wrote?" White asked after they finished. "I’ll give 10 extra bonus points for sharing at least four lines.”
Ory Fudge raised his hand.
“I remember my childhood as the sweet smell of diesel fuel on the hot summer days,” he said.
Another student spoke softly about a fight with her mother. A third described the sinking feeling of waking up on Christmas morning and finding no presents under the tree.
White then shared her own memory: Watching her father’s dark blue Pontiac back out of the driveway as a young girl. It would be at least six weeks until she saw it return.
The secondary school teacher from Cincinnati has been a writer her entire life and spends her class periods showing Hickman students the joys it can bring.
Recently, it brought White a measure of recognition, as well. Two of her plays — “Still As Rain” and “Severed Strings” — were selected and performed last month in professional theaters.
A monologue from “Still As Rain” called “Up, Down n’ All Around” was the choice among 89 plays for a performance by the Kathie Ramussen Women’s Theatre in Madison, Wis.
“Severed Strings” was selected from 71 plays by the Seattle Stone Soup Theatre’s Women’s Play Festival.
“I researched different theaters and what contests were available,” White said. “I tend to be somebody who loves to write, but I’m not very good at pushing my work out there.”
“Still As Rain” was her first full-length play, inspired by the loss of a stillborn baby boy in 1996.
“That was really just a life-changing experience for me,” she said. “Up to that point, I was very ambitious career-wise, and that stopped me in my tracks in every way. I wanted to express some of what I was going through and I needed to do so in writing.”
Writing that first play was the creative outlet she needed.
A few years later her 13-year-old daughter, Jazz, was born. White and her husband, David, moved to Columbia in March 2000.
She describes herself as a closet writer during her high school years.
"I always had a journal and wrote all my teenage thoughts," White said. "I loved poetry and the older I got, the more I really knew I loved writing."
The process helped her to turn emotional pain into words.
“I feel that there’s some magic in pain,” she said. “There’s something so transforming about going through a really deep loss, and I think that’s important to take notice of instead of running from it or ignoring it.”
White encourages her students to express themselves in a similar way.
“I tell them toward the beginning of the school year that I’m going to ask them to write a lot,” she said. “Some pieces will be easier than others. Some will touch places, nerves and ideas within us that might seem kind of scary. But I try to gently nudge them through it.”
She tries to create a safe haven where students can put their most intimate emotions without the fear of a teacher slapping a grade on it.
She thinks it is important to let students find their voices at their own pace.
“We get to be creative and she makes it fun to write and fun to learn,” Fudge said.
Junior Jiun Lee agreed: “We get to write a lot. I was really afraid to write poetry before this class, but not now.”
Before sending her play “Still As Rain” to the contest, White brought it into class and asked her students for suggestions.
“She had us critique her work and it was pretty good, obviously, but she took what we said and made changes,” junior Scott Alexander said. “I loved it. She’s a really good writer – as good as any published author I’ve ever read.”
After the class first read her work, she said the students were silent and unsure if they should offer up any criticism. She insisted it would only help her improve, and they thoughtfully responded.
Next year, White plans to have each of her students write a one-act play to be performed in a school-wide festival. She hopes it will help them grow even more.
“I try to create a relaxed environment,” White said. “Not unstructured, but somewhere where there is a sense of peace and safety.
"I really think that that’s what art does in our lives. I want to really exemplify that in the kinds of lessons that I’m giving.”