A Lansing High School graduate is being recognized for her first foray into playwriting by the University of Kansas.

A Lansing High School graduate is being recognized for her first foray into playwriting by the University of Kansas.

KU's Spender Museum of Art announced the annual Jack and Lavon Brosseau Awards for outstanding creativity among KU's undergraduate students last month. Among the recipients this year was 2009 Lansing grad Jenny Curatola, whose debut play “One Wild and Precious Life” was singled out by the selection committee for its mature treatment of its subject matter ― aging ― and its unique approach, which uses various source materials to combine fiction and non-fiction and both trained and untrained actors.

Curatola said the success came as a little bit of a surprise ― after all, she said her interest in theater had started in modest only several years earlier, as a Lansing High School student.

“I had some friends who were into film and theater and I wanted to be around them more,” she said. “I auditioned for the play on a whim and this play had two lead female roles, both of them huge, and I actually got one.”

A self-professed “nerd,” Curatola said the experience was eye-opening.

“Acting was the hardest thing I had ever done,” she said. “To play a scene well and just being natural was very challenging for me and I wanted to know more about it.”

That challenge was strong enough to lead her to declare theater, along with English, as her major at the University of Kansas the next year. There she has been able to take on roles both on and off stage in newer productions like “Shakespeare in Hollywood” and classics like Bertolt Brecht's “Man Equals Man.”

But the idea to write her own play actually stemmed from an English class, “Literature in the Life.” The class showed her that although Americans are living longer than at any previous point in history, many of the literary and theatrical depictions of aging were focused on the “narrative of decline,” exemplified by Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman.”

Curatola said she knew she wanted to tackle the topic as the honors project for her English coursework, but was not interested in writing a straight literary critique. She said she decided, with the blessing of her English professor, to combine her two majors for a project that would help support, through theater, her thesis that positive aging was possible.

“If we had stories that showed old age as a space of growth and fulfillment, then maybe people would approach it a little differently, instead of being afraid or being unprepared when they get to that point,” she said.

In addition to a series of short stories on the topic by Grace Paley, Curatola said two other experiences shaped her piece ― an experience during the summer of 2012 volunteering with the Care Assurance System for the Aging and Homebound in Alabama and an internship with the Amherst, Mass., based KO theater festival.

“It was there that I realized that even though I had the short stories, I wanted to be doing a devised performance that involved lots and lots of people,” she said.

Upon returning to KU, Curatola said she gathered a cast that included two theater majors and about seven non-professional actors ranging in age from 17 to 65 years old. They went through weekly acting exercises and discussions and began visiting assisted living facilities to record interviews with residents there. Together those sessions formed the backbone of “One Wild and Precious Life.”

“It was my job to take all of these little bits and pieces of people's experiences across the Lawrence community and try to make them all make sense together,” using narrative threads from Paley's work to link them together, Curatola said.

Coming back from winter break in January 2013, she said she spent five weeks staging the performances, which took place over two days in February at the Lawrence Arts Center.

The performances themselves were unorthodox, with audience members encouraged to interrupt the play for discussions and the cast, position amidst the audience, frequently breaking the “fourth wall” to address viewers directly. It's the kind of work that one of the founders of the award, Lavon Brosseau of Concordia, Kan., said is why the recognition was created in the first place.

“It is a giant step in the right direction to reward students for their creative skills expressed in compositions in either prose and/or poetry,” she said. “If you keep encouraging kids this way ― with a little praise ― you may well awaken a new Mark Twain or Walt Whitman. They are out there somewhere.”

Though the award was nice, Curatola said she hopes that her work started a conversation, even among the small cast and audiences who saw it. Given some of the conversations she had with her collaborators, it seems it had.

Curatola said she will be back in Lawrence next semester to complete another degree in global studies, but it doesn't mean the end of her creative efforts. As someone who described herself as caught between “analytical and creative minds,” Curatola said her experience with “One Wild and Precious Life” showed her a way to use her artistic interests in pursuit of societal change.

“This is where the arts and policy are so related, because those changes don't happen until you imagine them, and the space to imagine them is in the arts,” she said.