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English professor earns award

CAITLIN SISK | Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One Notre Dame professor imagined what would happen if Henrietta Lacks, Julian Assange and Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse could sit down to talk, and she won an award as a result.

Associate English professor Joyelle McSweeney created a dialogue between these figures in her play “Dead Youth, or, The Leaks,” and she received the inaugural Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Playwrights for this work.

The award was recently created in honor of the late Leslie Scalapino, an author, poet and playwright who died in 2010.

“This award was set up in her memory because she died before her final play could be performed,” McSweeney said. “So this is a way to honor her and to remember her and to support women writers here inspired by her.”

Scalapino’s literary innovations, such as dual or plural characters, inspired McSweeney to incorporate such devices into her own work, she said. Her award-winning play includes a plural character, which allows a director to cast any number of people in that role.

“It’s very meaningful for me to receive this award because I have been inspired by Leslie Scalapino’s work,” McSweeney said. “In one of her novels, called ‘Dahlia’s Iris,’ she sets up a very unusual idea that there could be a person inside another person. And for me, challenging the boundaries of personhood that way and coming up with this idea of permeability where one character can actually be inside another character, that really knocked me out and influenced the way I thought about what could happen in a novel or in a play.”

Among other words of praise, the award announcement said McSweeney’s work was “truly contemporary.” McSweeney said she takes this to mean more than simply that the play is innovative or touches on current issues and events.

“I think that what they were maybe getting at is a sense of innovation with ideas and language … but I also think that a really contemporary writer is one who is drowning in all the other possible time zones, in the past and the future, and can sort of move through them in their imagination and be touched by them all and gather up information from all of them,” McSweeney said.

As part of the award, world-renowned director Fiona Templeton led a staged reading of the play, which McSweeney said was an invigorating experience.
“It was extremely exciting and even a little terrifying to see my work come to life and come out in the actors’ voices,” McSweeney said. “It really felt like magic to me … to suddenly see that these voices had bodies and could exist in space.”

Although McSweeney published short plays within two of her previously published books, “Dead Youth, or The Leaks” marks her first full-length play. Writing the play was a new and somewhat less restricted experience, McSweeney said.

“When I write I’m always hearing voices, and sometimes I’m hearing lots of voices at once or voices talking to each other,” McSweeney said. “When I’m writing a poem it can be hard for me to convey that on the page the way I’m hearing the voice change or talk to itself or become very strange, and when I’m writing a play I can split each of those voices out and create kind of a dynamic shape, a dramatic shape, that is very evident to the audience.”

Contact Caitlin Sisk at csisk1@nd.edu