Writing, directing, and performing: students do it all in the Spring Shorts


Meg O'Connor

“A Front Row Seat to Murder,” written by Mckarthy Grimes ‘24 and directed by Matthias Jaylen ‘24, portrays the detective and detective assistant (Oliver Kreeger ‘24 and Gifty Baah ‘25 respectively), investigating a shocking murder that unfolds right behind the audience’s eyes. Masterful writing makes for a humorous and intriguing story, keeping the audience at their toes the whole show.

Viktoriia Sokolenko, Staff writer

On May 4, 2023, the Masters community gathered at the Experimental Theater to see the spring shorts: one-act, student-directed and student-written plays. This is only the second year that the school’s theater company, Mainstage, has produced student-directed plays, but they have proven to be quite a success with students, faculty, and parents crowding the house on both performance nights.

Overall, the audience could see three plays: “Harton Springs,” written by Tucker Smith ‘21 and directed by Viviana Simon ‘24, “A Front Row Seat to Murder,” written by Mckarthy Grimes ‘24 and directed by Matthias Jaylen ‘24 and “Rom Com from Hell,” written by Emerson Riter ‘25 and directed by Avalon Golden ‘23.

“Harton Springs” is the second play written by Masters alumna Tucker Smith, whose play “Understaffed” was performed by Mainstage last year. At the center of the story, set in the 1980s in rural Florida, is the developing relationship between Stephanie and Diana, played by Willow Maniscalco ‘24 and Ellie Schalkwyk ‘24. Diana has recently arrived at Harton Springs from Singapore, shocking the local community, where the only entertainment for bored teenagers are drugs, alcohol or collecting car license plates as Stephanie does. 

Since the play was written by another student, everyone involved tried extra hard to honor their work and convey the original idea of the play. 

“Because these [student-written] shows feel more connected to you, as another student, you want to make that student proud,”  Maniscalco said. “This is someone else’s creative piece of work, and it’s the first time it’s being performed. You want to portray it in a way that will make them feel like they’re accomplished as a screenwriter.”

Another play, “Rom Com from Hell,” starts with the arrival of Rey, played by Ray Cassese ‘26, to a purgatory where it turns out that they can not be placed in heaven or hell. To deal with the consequences of Rey’s uneventful life, an angel Anais (Gabriela Olay ‘25) and a demon Izra (Alex Cooperstock ‘25) decide to go against the rules of the otherworld, which leads to even more havoc, love confessions, and plot twists. 

The final play, “A Front Row Seat to Murder,” mixes suspense, murder, and humor as it invites the audience to see the premiere of another play along with the detective and detective assistant (Oliver Kreeger ‘24 and Gifty Baah ‘25 respectively). Mckarthy Grimes wrote the script as a junior after completing her playwriting class. She took inspiration from “The Play That Goes Wrong” and murder mystery movies like “Knives Out” or “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Harton Springs,” written by Tucker Smith ‘21 and directed by Viviana Simon ‘24, transports the audience to rural Florida in the 1980s. Diana (Ellie Schalkwyk ‘24) arrives at Harton Springs from Singapore and immediately captures attention of Stephanie (Willow Maniscalco ‘24). (Meg O’Connor)

“I kind of combined the two where it’s like, the audience thinks they are sitting in for a normal play, then a murder happens, then it turns out the murder was in the play, and then it’s left ambiguously,” Grimes said.

With scripts being mainly dialogues, student directors had to make many inferences about the play. In fact, most of the staging was decided by the directors: from the actor’s movements to their expressions and inflections.

Golden said, “I never realized how vague it would be to have to work with an actual script. And how much of it I would have to come up with myself, like a lot of the side relationships and then Rey kind of being forgotten [at the end]. I remember that was a big thing for me because Ray didn’t have a lot of lines even though they were technically one of the main characters. So that’s kind of why I gave them the ending scene because I was like, ‘This is your moment, have it.’”

Since a lot of the play is open to interpretation, spring shorts gave both actors and directors the creative freedom in the production. Maniscalco said, “This year with [our director], it was very much [like] she’ll tell us how to do something, and we’ll be like, ‘But what if this?’ and it’s much more like a conversation. We got to make some of our own directions, probably, much more creatively than you would if it was a more formal directing situation.”

Other actors also appreciated the ability to work together as a team. Olay, who was a lead in “Rom Com from Hell” said, “I think it was really fun to have someone who is around your age to be directing you. It felt more like a collaboration than just someone being in charge of you and what you do.”

While facilitating cooperation on the set, the small age difference also complicated the dynamic between the directors and actors. Students often found it harder to attribute authority to their peers. Skye Pearlman ‘25, who performed in both “Rom Com from Hell” and “A Front Row Seat to Murder,” said, “I think there is a level to which [student directors] can connect with [other] students. While they’re your “boss,” they can also be your friend. But also I just think, student directors have to work harder because they are not like a teacher who has the immediate respect of everyone.”

“Rom Com from Hell,” written by Emerson Riter ‘25 and directed by Avalon Golden ‘23, focuses on the relationship of an angel and a demon (Gabriela Olay ‘25 and Alex Cooperstock ‘25 respectively). Golden worked to enhance the script by adding side relationships and plot arcs for secondary characters. She also designed the costumes for the show. (Meg O’Connor)

Directors had to learn to deal with the complicated power dynamic while still creating a friendly and supportive environment. For Golden, being a senior helped her to establish authority among younger students acting in “Rom Com from Hell.”

“I guess you’d have to find a balance between having fun and also getting work done,” Golden said. “I think out of the majority of the directors, being an authority figure [for me] was a lot easier, especially since I am used to taking charge of things. And my priority was, the sooner we get things done, the more time they have free. We probably finished staging maybe like a week and a half before tech week. I was able to keep them on task but it was also necessary for us to have moments when we made jokes and had fun.”

As the shows were finalized and put together, all three student writers came to see their work come to life.

“It was a very out of body experience,” Grimes said. “It felt unreal, but also like, ‘Oh, my God, like I wrote those words, and they’re being performed so well by real actors.’ So it was definitely a good experience. And I was nervous every single night. I saw it all three nights, and I was still nervous by the end.”