Looking at Yourself Through Semi-autobiographical Theatre

By: Anna Evtushenko, 
October 25, 2021

How do we make sense of life? One way is writing about it – either directly, like in a journal, or indirectly, like through fictional characters’ experiences. A third option is a hybrid – autobiographical/semi-autobiographical dramatization of actual events and people.

The first live PMA production of academic year 2021-2022 (and the first since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic) was Saving for 17, written and directed by Owen Reynolds ’25, a second-year student in Architecture. The play recounts Owen’s experiences during Hurricane Irma in 2017, when he was about to turn 16 but, instead of getting to celebrate with friends, had to help his parents maintain, clean up and restore their house in Miami and a vacation home in the Florida Keys – which in reality took much longer than the 40-minute runtime. The production features a mature take on Owen’s shortcomings in understanding life as a teenager, and viewing it as specifically semi-autobiographical provides for an illuminating and engaging experience.

I find Owen inside Klarman Hall, where he’s getting some work done. We go out to the Arts Quad to take a photo of him for this piece and meet for real, i.e. without masks on. Always feels strange but nice.

Back in Klarman for the conversation, I ask Owen how it’s been going since the show closed a few days ago. He’s had multiple midterms in the past two days, but seems to be going strong. The show, in rehearsals for most of September, surely was a focus of the beginning of the year, but work didn’t stop just because of that. “Even during the performance weekend, I still had stuff to do,” he says. “And after each show at Schwartz I’d go back to Milstein Hall and work. A lot of back and forth. Luckily my parents were in town so it was a quick back and forth.”

Indeed, Bob and Juli Reynolds were able to come up to Ithaca to see a representation of themselves on stage. “During all the shows all I kept hearing from them was ‘I’m proud of you,’ ‘I’m proud of you,’ and I was like, ‘Thank you. Can we watch the show please?’ And the show was being recorded, but they recorded it on the phone too. No recording! They didn’t listen. Maybe I should have kicked them out of the theater,” he jokes.

Owen’s response to how this piece came to the stage brims with serendipity. “In [PMA Professor] Sara Warner’s Global Stages II class, I could either do a presentation or write a show. I’d written sketches but not a full play before (shout-out to Midnight Comedy Troupe!), but I thought I’d done enough presentations in my life and went with a show. The theme Community seemed best explored through an experience which lacked community – going through Hurricane Irma and feeling very alone. (Didn’t want to write about COVID, too much of that already too.) I reached out to my parents for photos and such and they sent like 40-50. And then I wrote the show in a week.”

Professor Warner told the class the final scripts could be submitted to PMA’s Performance and Events Committee, whose focus was on student works. Owen submitted, and was selected. “I got the e-mail while in the car with my sister and started tearing up, which is unusual for me. She slammed on the brakes and asked what was up, but I was okay enough to ask her to keep driving. Everything suddenly felt surreal. I couldn’t reach my parents on the phone so the next person I told was my high school theater director and mentor Michael.”

Michael Stoddard is one of the reasons Owen is so deep into theatre. The two worked together on various projects over more than 6 years, with Owen acting, building sets, or even helping direct. Through this connection Owen got to build a set and act in a professional production this past summer. “Michael just called me and said, ‘I'm thinking of creating a summer theatre company in Miami.’ I replied with, ‘Stop, no more, I'm in.’ He knew who he wanted me to play in [title of show], and every cast member also did something crew-related. I built a set over three weeks and we performed on it 7 times. 5 of the shows were sold out, even during COVID. It was a ball.”

Owen circa August 2021, on stage with Michael Stoddard in [title of show] produced by Miami Theatre Works. Photo courtesy of Michael Stoddard, Miami Theatre Works

Owen circa August 2021, on stage with Michael Stoddard in [title of show] produced by Miami Theatre Works. Photo courtesy of Michael Stoddard, Miami Theatre Works

Producing Saving for 17 may have been even more surreal, or “weird” as Owen deems this whole experience. As an actor, he is used to portraying characters who are not him. Here, he directed others in a story that was very much his own, even if dramatized for intrigue and comedy. What helped Owen take on the role of a director was imagining being cast as one. “Once I realized that, it was easy. My character wasn’t a person but the plot. And I got my notebook and was like, ‘Let’s get this show on the road.

Trence Wilson-Gillem, Amanda Juan, Kriti Sinha and Tim Johnson playing a version of Owen’s family. Photo by Youngsun Palmer

Trence Wilson-Gillem, Amanda Juan, Kriti Sinha and Tim Johnson playing a version of Owen’s family. Photo by Youngsun Palmer

I’m curious how it felt to share this story with the Cornell community. “It's a level of vulnerability that I have never really experienced before,” Owen says. “In Miami there’s one me. Here in college there’s another me. This was bringing them together. And I guess I've matured enough that I'm game to share experiences with people I don't even know. That's a prospect I didn't even think of when I wrote the show.” Perhaps that was what made it possible to infuse the play with so much honesty and realness (even if, again, dramatized for comedy and intrigue).

In addition to designing the set, Owen created a projection backdrop for the show. “The world of the play really came together when I saw the actors with the set and the background context two weeks before opening,” he says. Photo by Youngsun Palmer

In addition to designing the set, Owen created a projection backdrop for the show. “The world of the play really came together when I saw the actors with the set and the background context two weeks before opening,” he says. Photo by Youngsun Palmer

One of the most striking moments in the play is when Owen’s alter ego Oliver is painting a fence, then stops and says, “I know you all are there,” followed by a monologue directed at the audience. When asked about that bit, Owen admits to sometimes imagining an audience in his daily life and breaking the fourth wall.  “I know you all are there,” he says, and maybe they indeed are. I’m glad I asked about this: it’s fascinating how something so theatrical can be grounded in reality and not be born out of the dramatization process. 

Then, after the actors exit the stage, a cell phone video depicting real-life seventeen-year-old Owen after he's done painting that fence is played. Exhausted, he riffs on life as inspired by the fence, with paint in his hair and his sister behind the camera, laughing. To Owen, showing this as a coda connected the performance put on by Cornell students and directed by “college Owen” back to the actual, real “Miami Owen” of 2017. The audience loved that bit, too.

Looking back on those actual events and the Saving for 17 experience, Owen says, “Doing this showed me that I’m accepting of me and my family. Back then I didn't like being alone, I didn't like me, which is something a lot of teenagers go through. And now, I am very comfortable with who I am, my family dynamic, and going through hardship. And sharing that with the public hopefully shows people that they aren't alone in that prospect. Maybe it’s a message of just be who you are. Don't rewrite yourself as a character. That's really heartfelt, but I don't know, I love it.”


In addition to the cast, his family, Michael Stoddard and the PMA faculty and staff, Owen would like to thank Jack Donnellan, Jack McManus and Julianna Lee for their help making the show a reality.

 
Photo of Owen Reynolds, playwright of Saving for 17.  Photo by Anna Evtushenko