Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Playing the blues

Left to right: Actors Elise Morrison, Desi Moreno-Penson and Elliot Quick in a scene from "27 Tips."

As a playwright, Associate Professor of English Charlotte Meehan often stares life in the face and shoves the painful parts under a spotlight to be examined, right in the open,  where everyone can join in.

She did that in 2008 when she presented Sweet Disaster in Providence, R.I., her multimedia play that explores catastrophe—both global and personal. And she’s doing it again this year with her play-in-progress 27 Tips for Banishing the Blues, which was presented in workshop form in June, at Dixon Place, a New York institution for experimental theatre.

Peeling back life’s layers and writing plays based on the discoveries is what keeps her fresh as a professor, and benefits students, she says.

“Many of my current and former students came to the show. They need to see me as a working playwright as much as I need to see myself that way,” says Meehan, Wheaton’s playwright-in-residence. “Putting on my own plays helps me to continue to grow as a teacher, to remain in a state of wonder about how on Earth theatre happens, and to be mindful of the vulnerability we all face while creating a new work.”

Associate Professor of English Charlotte Meehan

This new work, described as a “mocking, multimedia takedown of the American obsession with happiness,” is definitely about vulnerability. The characters in 27 Tips, which was directed in New York by Ken Prestininzi, are desperately seeking some elusive media-driven version of bliss.

The play, says Meehan, is a “critique of America’s ‘happiness industry’ that uses self-help and other reality television shows as one of its main sources of inspiration. Alternately hilarious and harrowing, the play shows characters seeking guidance from nutritionists, astrologers, hack therapists, famous chefs, ghost busters, and more. At the play’s heart are a mother and child who suffer the worst consequences of charlatanism masquerading as help.”

The inspiration for 27 Tips was born of Meehan’s fascination with self-help books that offer questionable advice on various topics—in this case a book on depression.

“I let the book sit on a corner of my desk for several years (glancing at it on occasion) until one day I opened it up and knew what to do with it,” she says. “This book allowed me to see the many prisms through which ‘help’ is advertised on television and everywhere in our culture. It’s been brilliantly transformed into yet another commodity.”

Meehan has been working on the play with funding from a Mars Fellowship and a 2008–2009 Howard Foundation Fellowship. She wrote the first draft during a residency at the MacDowell Colony, for which she received a fellowship made possible by the Alpert Foundation.

Clare Bene ’09 helped her by collecting sources for the play over a nine-month period. Also, Elliott Mazzola ’09 was part of the video design team.

The workshop presentation at Dixon Place was the culmination of a two-week residency there. The play may be produced sometime in the future at the Flea Theater in New York, where another of Meehan’s plays, Work, premiered five years ago.

The plan is for a larger audience to get to see what Meehan sees when she examines this part of life:

“I want people to be startled awake by the virtual/actual dream space in which the play takes place,” she says. “It’s a multilayered version of the minute-to-minute days we are all having on the stage of life that includes mass media images constantly framing our view. The play is a meditation on mania that ends with a tragic, preventable image, and I want people to think about what happens when a society does not take care of its most vulnerable.”

To read sample pages from the play, go to www.charlottemeehan.com.