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“Where is your hat?”
“You need gloves, it’s cold out.”
“Please go get dressed!”
Janet Schlapkohl is trying to get her kids ready for the last performance of “Almost, Maine” at City High in Iowa City, Iowa. Actually, they aren’t hers. The play is a series of falling-in-and-out-of-love stories written by John Cariani that occur at the exact same moment under the northern lights in the fictional town of Almost in northern Maine.
“Tareq, how about putting on your costume just to make me comfortable!”
* * * *
Just over a month ago, Schlapkohl was balancing the handle of an umbrella stroller on her knee as her grandson Beckett, 2, took his nap. Schlapkohl watches the toddler while her daughter, Laura, attends class for law school. His grandma directed City High students during afterschool rehearsal for the Fall play as he slept covered by his green turtle blanket, the dirty bottoms of his bare feet sticking out. Onstage, two characters long married are going through a rough patch. It’s one of Schlapkohl’s favorite scenes.
“I like the older couple that fights because everybody else is kinda, young and in love and they’re finding difficulty, which is kind of cool,” she said.
The actors are finding some difficulty, too. They are supposed to be arguing because “Phil” has forgotten his and “Marci’s” anniversary, however, having not yet memorized their lines, the students are unable to generate the emotion Schlapkohl is looking for while reading from their scripts.
Schlapkohl frequently tells students what they need to know that isn’t in the script. Background information, characters not in the play, and emotional motivation, for example. She admits to often thinking, “Well, what did the writer want to have happen here.” Schlapkohl knows what she’s talking about, she was one of the students most recently accepted into the University of Iowa’s prestigious Playwrights Workshop.
She may be new to the program, but not to playwriting.
“In seventh grade, I wrote a play. Then I kept writing and acted in my own plays, probably because I couldn’t get people to do them or something,” she said. She was involved in some high school theater in her hometown of West Union, Iowa, but admits it was a small school and “not uber-competitive.”
Janet studied science in college and received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biology with minors in English, Chemistry and Education from Iowa State University. There was a small theater in the student union, however, and she worked during the school’s production of “Hair.”
“It was Iowa State, we didn’t do the nude scenes, cuz, you know, that’s a little bit much, you know,” she said.
Schlapkohl “didn’t do anything but diapers” during the time her three kids were small, she jokes, but remined involved in theater on-and-off as her children grew up. When her husband, David, graduated from veterinary school, they moved to Victor, Iowa. She did one show with the local community theater before it folded. Then they moved to Riverside, Iowa and she wrote some plays for the church, but they were “not what the congregation was used to, they were more theatrical,” she said.
Her son participated in some theater productions through The University of Iowa so Schlapkohl started working backstage sewing costumes and doing some set painting. Soon after she was hired at City High School as the assistant drama director and a special education teacher.
“I started writing plays for my special ed students and working with Doug,” she said. Schlapkohl also took over the school’s costume shop underneath the stage in a former fallout shelter. Its back wall is lined with industrial strength shelving and large plastic containers labeled, “Shoes” or “Wigs”. To the right, furniture is piled precariously on itself and to the left, two wall-length metal bars are packed with more elaborate costumes on hangers, like gowns from “Evita” and pirate coats from “Treasure Island”.
She also started “Combined Efforts,” a program at City High that brought special education and non-special education students together to perform a play Schlapkohl wrote and directed. This past summer, “Combined Efforts” went community wide. Schlapkohl was proud to say, “It was a successful venture.”
Schlapkohl is also proud of the kind of work “Combined Efforts” has done because it isn’t “Look, I’m different but aren’t we all the same” she said. “It’s just regular theater.”
While teaching at City High, Schlapkohl decided to take another step in playwriting. “I took an actual, real, legit playwriting class at ‘the U’ and submitted some stuff of longer length to some festivals and contests,” she said. She won one and was “just shocked.”
“I won ‘Audience Favorite’ and got to go to Colorado. That was really cool.”
When Schlapkohl learned she was going to be a grandma, she took a year off of teaching to help her daughter.
“I thought, ‘What do I want to do with this?’. I felt like I’d come to how far I could go with ‘Combined Efforts’ and you can try to get into stuff, but no one can get in without that MFA,” she said, referring to a Masters in Fine Arts degree.
The University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop is “freaking competitive,” she said, “and I thought, well, if I don’t [get in], I’ll be in the same boat.” So she applied and was accepted.
“I was shocked that they took me. I screamed for three days solid,” she said.
Schlapkohl just started the two-year program this fall, but she already has her sights set on her next goal, two of them, actually.
“It would be so ultra awesome if some of the students from the MFA program felt like City High was a place that they could workshop plays that they wrote for people, including people with different abilities, so that they thought, ‘Hey, man, I can do this. She does it and she’s, like, a grandma. I could write for this population’,” she said, “Instead of this limited scope of ‘I have to go to Broadway with my best musical’.”
Secondly, Schlapkohl hopes to write, “something that would get performed somewhat regularly. Like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that play’.” She plans on submitting two scripts to a playwriting festival this Spring, “Camo: The Musical” and “Jazz Funeral”.
“Forget the lines,” she instructs the actors back on stage. The actors drop their scripts and follow Schlapkohl’s direction to just “yell at each other.”
“You’re a liar!”
“I knew you were mad!”
“I’m not mad!”
“Yes, you are!”
The argument is getting louder and Schlapkohl likes what she sees. The strong, petite woman is getting into the fight, as well. Her short brown hair bobbing as she nods encouragement to the actors. Just as “Phil” accuses “Marci” of lying about not being mad at him, Beckett stirs in his stroller and Schlapkohl is a grandma once again, rocking him back to sleep as the actors continue, more quietly.