By Nurturing A 23-Year-Old Playwright, The Living Room Creates Promising 'Junk'
At just 23 years old, Emma Carter is making a name for herself in Kansas City as a playwright.
By the close of this year, Carter will have had her work staged at several venues around town, including a production of her play Junk, opening this weekend at the Living Room downtown.
A play about recognizable twenty-somethings salving emotional scars, Junk arose out of initiatives at the Living Room that help the theater company widen its talent pool. Bryan Moses teaches play-writing classes and the Writer's Den series gives some of that writing a public airing in the form of staged readings. Carter was a participant in both.
"Emma's work was an immediate standout," says Rusty Sneary, the Living Room's artistic director. "She has a great natural sense for structure and a wonderful voice for very natural dialogue."
The Living Room selected Junk from last year's Writer's Den to receive a workshop production, meaning Carter was able to work with a director from casting through staging, with a full rehearsal, design team and tech process. Its two-week run starts Thursday.
Developing a voice
Junk features four characters: Gabe, heartbroken from a recent break-up; Quinn, his ex-girlfriend; Al, his female roommate, who helps him cope at the expense of her own issues; and Intense Female Jogger, a character Carter says represents "some comic relief."
Carter admits she drew on her life experience to invent the four characters.
"I've been Al, where there's someone I love who I really care about and spend more time taking care of them than myself. Quinn is relatable in the sense that she comes off as if she's selfish and spoiled and a villain but it all comes from a place of vulnerability. I know people like that."
Most of us know an Intense Jogging Girl as well: "the bright, fresh young person, yet to be jaded by any of these things the other characters are jaded by. She's still open-minded and her heart is open," Carter says.
But Carter's work isn't solely autobiographical.
"Every one has been, or will be, one of these characters at some point in time," she says.
Carter grew up in Fulton, Missouri, and graduated from the theater program at Stephens College in Columbia. Though her focus in school was acting, Carter says she developed these characters within the two play-writing classes she had enrolled in with a friend.
"The beginning class was about finding your voice as a playwright," she says "We would write a little bit of something and then come back and share it with each other and read it aloud. I was excited but the first thing I wrote didn't even have names for the characters."
After graduating in 2013 with acting credentials, Carter was cast in Egads Theatre's Carrie: The Musical, prompting her move to Kansas City.
Her favorite lesson from working with Moses at the Living Room, Carter says, is that theater is a collaboration.
"You can't just sit at home and write your play and expect to just go out and do it. You have to talk with people and share it with people and get critiques from people you trust and respect."
She found those people within The Living Room's collective of actors, writers, directors, and designers.
"When I was writing Junk, I said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if The Living Room did this?' In my head, that was an underlying dream that I had. And I got lucky that I had a great cast of actors to bring it to life. That's a big thing as a playwright: crossing your fingers and hoping the actors and director get what you're trying to say. And they did. Immediately."
Not just 'Junk'
Carter also wrote a script for The Living Room's No Sleep November project, where writers are tasked with creating plays overnight.
"Emma presented one of the most cohesive scripts with a very solid beginning, middle, and end," Sneary says. "That structure seems like a no brainier, but can be extremely difficult to achieve."
In September, Carter won the local Project Playwright competition, where plays are created over two weekends from pre-scripted ideas. For one of this year's assigned themes,"Family," she came up with a trio of vampire sisters.
Also this weekend, she has a short play called The Bell-ringer in The Barn Player's 6 x 10 Ten Minute Play Festival.
She recently closed a run in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre as well, demonstrating equal ease behind and in front of the footlights.
"I'm still auditioning, still interested in acting," Carter says. "But I'm definitely feeling more confident and comfortable with playwriting in a way that I don't feel with acting."
Acting is fun, she says, but playwriting feels like more of an accomplishment because she's "created something that wasn't there before."
The same could be said of her arrival on Kansas City's artistic scene, but Carter's refreshingly unassuming about that.
"It's been a good year," she says.
Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emma Carter's Junk runs December 10-20 at The Living Room, 1818 McGee, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-533-5857. The 6 x 10 Ten Minute Play Festival runs December 11-13 at The Barn Players, 6219 Martway in Mission, Kansas, 913-432-9100.