Seniors in high school are typically preoccupied with serious life decisions like what they will do after high school, and other, not as serious but just as vexing issues, such as excessive facial oil and who they will go with to the prom. But a young lady by the name of Anna Vaughn Stewart, soon-to-be graduate from Williamsport Area High School, had deeper things on her mind. Things like, why did several teens at her school commit suicide?
Anna Vaughn Stewart wanted to address the issue and took a very ‘novel’ approach. She wrote a play. It is called “In Relation to Alex,” a story of a young man named Alex Clark who finds himself overwhelmed with depression for reasons he does not understand and thus, cannot explain to others. The others are the basis of the drama — his one-on-one encounters with a best friend, a co-worker at the pizza shop, a younger sibling, a teacher, and a life-long friend. The drama was designed to take the stigma away from those struggling with mental issues.
Daughter of the Paul L. Starkey, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost of Penn College, Anna Vaughn Stewart came to Williamsport from Mississippi when she was in 6th grade when her father took the position at the school. Coming from a school that had 13 in her entire class, to one that had 380 was quite a transition. Williamsport seemed like New York City to her.
But the new environment gave her unlimited possibilities to use her God-given talents like music, theater, and working with people. Over the years she honed these gifts to the point where she not only was able to write a gripping drama, she also produced and directed it!
The school supported her work, but she had to come up with the funds to buy the props and other items needed for it. So, she created a GoFundMe fundraising project that had many small donations, which when all added up, came to $3,000.
Anna Vaughn Stewart showed amazing insight in naming her characters with names that could filled by either males or females. But, she needed to find the right actors to play those characters, and that would be tough because the high school was also preparing for their major spring production at the same time, and she would need to compete with it. She and the drama teacher agreed to do auditions simultaneously, and those auditioning were not even sure what this play was about. But Anna Vaughn Stewart did, and when she picked sophomore Rhamir Hatcher in the lead role, it was like she had him in mind when she wrote the script. The supporting characters; Brian Bond as “Bailey” (the best friend), Devin Swartz as “Cameron” (co-worker), Olly ‘Conner’ Gautieri as “Logan” (kid brother), Mercedes Rothrock as “Ms. Riley” (teacher), and Hailey Robbins as “Sydney” (neighbor friend) were all perfect for their parts.
Anna Vaughn Stewart put them through an intense regime of daily rehearsals, practices, and showed incredible insight as a first-time director. She encouraged the players to make the characters real to them. Some lines got modified for realism, and even the ending got a twist from the original script. Symbolism such as the color red running through the apparel of the characters showed a common link between them, and when red disappeared from Alex’s clothing — it was a symbol that the end was near.
All the work and prep was worth it. The opening night on Saturday, January 20, 2018, with a Sunday afternoon matinee afterward was an amazing success. All admission fees were donated to the local chapter of NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness), and it amounted to $4,176.89 — the largest donation NAMI had ever received. NAMI returned the favor by sponsoring a second run on April 28th and 29th at the Black Box Theater, Williamsport Area High School. The cast then ran seven shows for the student body over May 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.
Anna Vaughn Stewart admitted that her experience as writer, producer, and director was exhausting but also exhilarating. She is leaving the theater behind as she goes on to Temple University, intending to major in international business with a concentration in hospitality.
The best for this incredible young lady is obviously in front of her, but the impact of her dramatic work may resonate for some time to come. It is very possible that a person struggling with mental health issues will find an understanding family member or friend because they saw a play that showed them how to care. These problems can be scary, but another famous playwright by the name of William Shakespeare once wrote, “Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.”