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Lakeland College senior Michelle Fromm expects long-simmering emotions to bubble to the surface this weekend.
"I know I'm going to cry at least once, if not more," she says.
Fromm's tears will represent a jumbled collection of feelings, ranging wildly from joy and pride to deep sadness. Because no matter how many people attend and enjoy her original play, she will think about the one person who won't be there.
"I know my dad would be proud of me," she says softly. "Even with as little of the show that I had finished, he was already talking it up to anyone who would listen."
Fromm's production of "The Writing Desk," a play about the universal human pursuit of love through the ages, will debut Friday night at 7:30 at Lakeland's Bradley Theatre. Additional performances are offered Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Admission to this wholly student-produced and performed play is free for Lakeland College students, faculty and staff. The cost is $3 for all other students and children, and $5 for adults. All proceeds go to the Theatricians, Lakeland's student drama club.
"I think this is a great reflection of what Lakeland College is capable of," Fromm says. "This play was born here and raised here, and now it's going to graduate here. It's really exciting to me. I really like Lakeland College, and so much of Lakeland College is embedded in this project."
Fromm was about a year into writing what would eventually become a 65-page script when she received a phone call on Sept. 28, 2013. Her father and biggest fan, Ron, had passed away suddenly at the age of 52. One of Ron's passions in life was writing mystery plays, and his excitement about Michelle's project inspired her.
"It was really hard on me," Michelle says of her father's death. "I had been going to him for advice, and he was so good about troubleshooting and suggesting different things, or having me take out twists that just didn't work.
"I didn't touch the play for weeks. I just couldn't. But when I finally did go back to it, I had a new energy in me, a new need to push this through to the finish line. I am dedicating this to my father. Actually, I'm dedicating it to both of my fathers: God, and my earthly father who's now in heaven."
"The Writing Desk" is a story about how people from three different eras perceive and pursue that universal need, love. In Fromm's piece, the spirit of the writing desk recounts its view of that quest for love in three eras: 1866, 1922 and 2014. The first year was post-Civil War while the second year represented the Prohibition era and the third year covers the present.
"The story is about what people are going through in order to achieve some sort of love," says Fromm, who will direct the performances. "I tried to get away from society's ideas of love. I think society puts too much stress on romantic love, and not enough on love between friends, sisters, family members."
Fromm, who disliked history until taking a class with Lakeland College professor Rick Dodgson, did hundreds of hours of historical research. She also spent many more hours clacking away at drafts on an old-school manual typewriter before honing the story via more modern word processing. Last summer, she recalls, the play was "like a fulltime job some days; eight hours with a lunch break."
She says it's important to her that the piece is as historically accurate as possible. For example, one character attempts suicide, and Fromm wanted to be sure the method of death this character chose fit the time period.
"Michelle really made this her baby," says Charlie Krebs, Lakeland's associated professor of theatre and speech. "The fact that she wrote it and is now directing it is pretty outstanding."
Some of the topics covered in the roughly 90-minute play are serious. In addition to the suicide attempt, Fromm delves into murder, abortion and arranged marriage.
What started as a senior writing project has blossomed into a production that will include 15 current student cast members and a handful of other students who will contribute in roles ranging from set design to assistant direction to working the spotlight.
"I believe that art forms should not stand alone, so this show carefully incorporates acting and lighting (performance art), set design and costume design (visual art), and of course my writing," she says. "The show is being put on entirely by students, plus two recent Lakeland alumni. We even have a Lakeland art student who is doing the set for internship credit."
Krebs, who gave Fromm advice but took care to let her run the show, has been impressed with his standout student's effort and execution.
"I'm extremely proud of her," Krebs says. "She's very, very talented, and works so well with other people. I just can't say enough good things about Michelle."
Getting "The Writing Desk" off the ground wasn't easy. There were setbacks, like when three cast members quit for various reasons early this semester. Their replacements had to memorize their lines in a week.
"They didn't complain," Fromm says. "I'm so proud of the cast. They have worked so hard. I'm not so great with leadership skills, especially since I'm an introvert. But the students have been so great to work with, and the sense of community they've built around this show is amazing. Everyone has such a passion. I think it will be a great show because of their dedication and hard work."
Cast — Sara Pfile, Brittany Beckmann, Leah Ulatowski, Katherine Zielsdorf, Elizabeth Plotka, Stephanie Rebek, Skyler Walkowski, Becca Eliott, Chris Callan, Miranda Miller, Andy Kay, Matt Troyer, Greg Heinen (alumnus), Rae Siehs, Irvin Colon
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