The Syracuse University Department of Drama begins the 2023/24 season with “Guys and Dolls,” directed by Banji Aborisade, reviving the classic musical–with a twist. Performances will be held Oct. 6-15 in the Storch Theatre at the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex,…
Incoming Drama Major Alethea Shirilan-Howlett ’24 Debuts First Full-Length Play on YouTube on Sunday
Growing up, Alethea Shirilan-Howlett ’24, a senior at Jamesville-DeWitt (J-D) High School and an incoming first-year drama major (theater management track) in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, dreamed of being an actress. After attending a pre-college arts program at Brandeis University in July 2018, she was inspired to pursue playwriting.
That summer, Shirilan-Howlett spent time immersing herself in the music of and documentaries on the iconic 1960s folk rock group The Mamas and the Papas. “I was completely enthralled with the band story and decided I wanted to write a play about a band,” she says. On Sept. 1, 2018, she put pen to paper.
Nearly two years later, her first full-length play, “No Exodus,” will come to life for the public. Performed by the J-D High School Drama Club and directed by Shirilan-Howlett, the play’s premiere will stream on YouTube on Sunday, June 7, at 7 p.m. (and will be available in the days following). Originally intended for a May unveiling on stage, the play has been transformed into a virtual performance due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the physical closure of public schools. Shirilan-Howlett and her colleagues have designated the play as a fundraiser for the CNY Arts Young Artists Scholarship Fund.
Set in Syracuse in the 1990s with flashbacks to the 1970s, the story takes place during a Passover Seder. It explores the relationship between a daughter, Ruth, and her mother, Wendy (a member of a band in the 1970s), and “examines the personal and cultural stakes of holding onto and letting go of the past and the stories we tell about it.”
Writing the play was a labor of love for Shirilan-Howlett, who went through about 20 drafts before she declared it complete. Often when writing, she would step away for a walk and find herself typing ideas into her phone. “When I look at the final version, I see threads from that first draft,” she says. “The draft process is all about layering in more threads.”
She completed the play in November 2019 and worked with J-D Drama Club Director Jordan Berger to plan for a spring 2020 production. The nine-member cast was chosen and stage crew formed in early March. Shirilan-Howlett held the first read-through on March 11, and shortly thereafter, a friend in college called her to say that her school was moving online for the rest of the semester. By March 16, local schools had also moved online.
Then started the biggest challenge of all—moving from a stage to a virtual production. The play had been cast before school closed, so that critical element was taken care of. But now came the task of bringing it all together in an unfamiliar way. Shirilan-Howlett researched how other schools, colleges and theaters were delivering virtual performances, and she decided on Zoom as the platform and the highlighting feature to record student scenes.
“The experience of having to change formats unexpectedly has been eye-opening and frustrating at times, says Berger. “They’ve had to adjust to life at home recording these parts with audio, video, costumes, props, virtual backgrounds—even just worrying about which direction they are facing and the blocking is all so much removed from their comfort of being on a stage and performing.”
Even though she would much rather be directing a stage production, Shirilan-Howlett found silver linings in preparing the virtual performance. Many of the cast members are experienced performers and are used to projecting out into the audience. The Zoom format has required them to transform big-stage energy into a small screen, resulting in nuanced facial expressions and acting choices that give the virtual performance its own unique flavor.
Quarantine also helped everyone to lean on each other. “We supported each other and gained so much as a cast,” Shirilan-Howlett says. “It has been a true lesson in how art and connection transcend physical space.”
Berger says it has all come together in a spectacular way. “The cast has put so much love and passion into this show, and it’s been such a pleasure to work with talented and hardworking young people in this capacity with so many changes and uncertainty along the way,” he says. “This is a student-run production through and through. I’ve been mostly on the sidelines, and it’s so cool to see students taking on this project, embracing the process and taking charge.”
Kai Gesek, a J-D senior and a seasoned performer, plays the role of David, Wendy’s boyfriend and band mate, in the production. He says he enjoyed the experience of bringing the show to life: “Being able to experiment with formats along with my fellow actors and actresses has been unforgettable, to say the least. I would much prefer to have rounded out my senior year by performing this play live on stage, but I’m very happy with the final result.”
Gesek says the show would not be anything without Shirilan-Howlett. “When we all sat down for our first read-through of this show, I was in awe of how impactful the script was,” he says. “It seemed to connect differently with every person in that room, and all of us were impressed with the sheer caliber of impact carried in the pages of the script. Alethea is a phenomenal writer and an amazing director. I cannot express how talented she is, simply because I can’t figure out what words to use.”
Meghan Culligan, a J-D freshman, plays a young Wendy. She has been in multiple musical productions, but this is her first play. “This whole experience has been really fun and a great way to keep my mind off of what’s going on in the world right now,” she says. “It was upsetting when we found out that we wouldn’t be performing on stage, and I was unsure of how we would virtually perform, but it’s been a lot of fun. And I think it looks great. It’s really interesting to see how you can build a character and interact with other actors over a virtual platform.”
Culligan says working with Shirilan-Howlett has been a great experience. “She is really good at having us understand our character’s intentions and helping develop our characters,” she says. “Alethea has definitely helped me improve my skills as an actress, and coming out of this I will have gained so many new acting skills from that I can use in the future.”
Berger says he is grateful to be working with Shirilan-Howlett on her production. “Alethea didn’t fret, complain or get down about our inability to get this in front of a live audience. She has stayed so positive throughout this entire process and worked hard from day one to ensure success,” he says.
Shirilan-Howlett’s skills in casting, directing, editing, publicity and leadership have impressed and inspired Berger along the way. “Alethea is a professional first and foremost and a leader of her peers the same age and younger—she’s a superstar,” Berger says. “I am so ecstatic that we’ve been able to bring her passion and work to life and that I could support her growth as a director.”
This is not the first time that Shirilan-Howlett has found success with her work in the broader community. She was a finalist in Syracuse Stage’s 2019 Young Playwrights Festival for her play “Viewer Discretion Advised.” The play won first place in Princeton University’s 10-Minute Play contest and was a winner in this year’s The Blank Theatre Young Playwrights Festival in Los Angeles, where the winning plays are performed in weekend-long runs in professional theaters across the city and student playwrights are part of the production process. Shirilan-Howlett is currently working with a mentor, Hollywood screenwriter Robert L. Freedman, on preparing her play for production at a time to be determined.
And she is really looking forward to embarking on her new journey as a Syracuse University student in August. “I’m really excited about joining VPA,” she says. “I felt so welcomed by the program and the faculty I met when I sat in on a theater management class. It seems like the theater community is really tight-knit, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”