Student Pens Play about Media and Love

By FINNE MURPHY

ELIZA RENNER
Cole Merrill ’19 and Madeleine Russell ’19 rehearse their roles as troubled brother and sister in Merrill’s play Chronic Blush.

Chronic Blush, a play written by and starring Cole Merrill ’19, will be running in the Hepburn Zoo on Jan. 28 – 30. It will be directed by Eliza Renner ’18 and also stars Victoria Isquith ’19, Sam Martin ’19, Madeleine Russell ’19, as well as a handful of voice actors. The crew includes Stephen Chen ’19.5, Sarah Gratz ’19 and Joseph Haggerty ’19.

Finne Murphy (FM): Would you be able to give me a synopsis of the play in a sentence.

Cole Merrill (CM): I had to write one for the box office. You ready for this? “Set in the near future, two siblings attempt to navigate an electric, media-saturated world in the wake of a spectacular explosion.”

FM: What was your inspiration for the play?

CM: I think the simplest answer I could give is that about a year ago I got weirdly obsessed with the Challenger Launch. I looked up footage and information about it. The fact that it happened intrigued me. I had heard about it, but it took on a new resonance. It stuck with me.

I also wanted to write a play for Sam and Madeleine to do, and this idea of a space shuttle explosion kept coming back to me. That was probably the kernel that then became this play. There’re a lot of other things that went into it too, but that’s probably the most interesting one.

FM: What do Sam and Madeleine have to do with this?

CM: The actors or the characters?

FM: Oh, the actors…. Is that their names? They kept their first names?

CM: I did that. They don’t like it, but…. yeah. They approached me earlier this year, and they were talking about doing a play together, but it just didn’t really seem like it was going anywhere. I wanted to write a play because I wasn’t involved in any theater classes because I got to campus late, and so I was just in all these weird classes. I wanted to do something creative. I approached them about it, and we talked a lot about what they were interested in and ideas that were interesting to them.

We discussed concerns they had about the future because the play is set in the future. All of that congealed into what the play is. So if people don’t like it, it is equally as much their fault.

FM: Have you ever written a play that you actually put to stage?

CM: No. Last year I took Playwriting I with Dana Yeaton — who is amazing and kindhearted and brilliant and a beautiful person. I did a reading of the final play I wrote for that class in the Gamut room but that was a 30-minute play and this is a full-length play. And this play involves quite a lot of tech.

FM: Can you go into the tech aspect of it? Without giving anything away.

CM: Yeah. So the play is set 20-30 years in the future — we’re purposefully vague by not giving the exact year — but it’s set in the future. Artificial intelligence plays a huge part in the show. One of the main characters is an AI. We’ve staged certain scenes around technological themes.

We used a lot of technology in terms of media. That was the dumbest way to say that. There’s a lot of media in the show. There are constantly headlines being read and sensationalized. I would hope that the way that I’ve written the headlines and blurbs and sounds gives people… I hope there’s something politically resonant about it.

FM: I was going to ask if you use media as commentary.

CM: I always hope there’s some kind of commentary. I would say there is some pretty offensive stuff in the show, and I would say that it is stuff I wouldn’t have felt comfortable putting in a play to be performed if I didn’t think it had a purpose — a satirical motivation.

FM: Is playwriting something you want to continue doing?

CM: I don’t know. It’s really hard. And I don’t think I’m really good at it. I think I feel a lot more confident in my short story writing and essay writing than I do in my playwriting. 

Plays are so dependent on plot and dramatic action, and if you don’t have a really good sense of those things in every scene, it can get really boring.

I think this play turned out pretty good because I used a lot of gimmicks.

FM: You’re also an actor. How do you use that experience to write the play?

CM: Hmm…

FM: Are you acting in it?

CM: Yeah. I’m in it for totally selfish reasons. When I started writing it, I knew it was going to be involved. I didn’t want to be there for just part of the process. I didn’t want to be gone for rehearsal. Initially, the character that I wrote for myself was really small and had a scene at the beginning, one in the middle and one in the end. Madeleine makes fun of me because I’m more or less the main character now.

I don’t really consider myself an actor. It’s kind of fun, but when I get in a room with Madeleine, Sam and Toria, they’re really acting. I have to work a lot harder to get to the same place that they can.

FM: How long have you been acting?

CM: Just since I came to Middlebury. I don’t really act. But for this, I really wanted to be a part of it.

FM: I understand.

CM: You’re going to have a lot of trouble spinning this into a positive article that makes people want to see it.

FM: I’ll figure it out. Is there anything else you want to say?

CM: When we started out, we wanted to just to give a lot of people the opportunity to express themselves through theater outside of a class. As we’ve gone on, we’ve had a ton of people help us out in a lot of ways.

For instance, we have a ton of voice acting. We spent hours and hours in the recording studio. We’ve been getting people involved to do video for the show. All sorts of people are involved incostume design, set design, etc. That’s one thing we wanted to do. To give a lot of people a chance for artistic expression… Not artistic expression, that’s stupid. Change that.

One thing that was great was that it allowed many different people who do many different things to come together and create something. It took me forever to get that quote.

FM: Is that all?

CM: Come see Chronic Blush. It is one part The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, two parts Interstellar, two parts Adam Sandler’s Click, three parts Don DeLillo’s White Noise and two parts the New Testament. If that doesn’t sell tickets, I don’t know what will.