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Jennifer Barclay

Jennifer Barclay, assistant professor of playwriting and performance in the UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS), won the 2016 Smith Prize for Political Theater. Established in 2006 by writer Timothy Jay Smith in conjunction with a group of socially conscious donors, the prize is administered by the National New Play Network and supports a playwright addressing crucial contemporary social issues through personal storytelling.

Barclay’s project, “Ripe Frenzy,” examines the role of media coverage in mass shootings in the United States. Twenty young children were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the same year Barclay gave birth to her second child. She wanted to dramatize the impact the event had on her without succumbing to the media frenzy surrounding it. Her answer was to create a play that fuses traditional and innovative narrative techniques to explore how a community responds to tragedy.

Barclay is collaborating with her colleague Jared Mezzocchi, an assistant professor of theatre design and production in TDPS, to create a story that is driven equally by text and multimedia. It is unusual to work with a designer so early in the development of a new play. Typically, a designer is not brought on board until production. Together, Barclay and Mezzocchi are exploring the idea of multimedia as a character. The images, sounds and videos used in the projection design offer a distinct perspective and help the audience understand the characters.

June 12, the day Barclay learned she had won the Smith Prize, was also the day of the Orlando shooting, where 49 people were killed in a gay nightclub. Both Barclay and Mezzocchi have a strong sense of urgency about the play and want to produce it as soon as possible so that it can be a part of the national dialogue about gun violence.

“My goal when I write a play is to create complex characters that evoke empathy from the audience,” says Barclay. “All characters have flaws, and it can be terrifying to look closely at the character of someone like a mass shooter.”

The Smith Prize is unique because it supports not only the writing of a new play, but also its workshop and first production. With the support of the National New Play Network, the Smith Prize enables the creation and production of new theatrical performances on a swifter timeline. Barclay has already finished a second draft of the script and will begin workshopping it soon.

Barclay is an actor-turned-playwright, formerly based in Chicago and California, and she received her MFA in playwriting from the University of California, San Diego. She is a 2016 MacDowell Colony fellow and was a member of Center Stage’s inaugural Playwrights Collective for the 2015-16 season. Barclay was also the Shank Playwright in Residence at South Coast Repertory. Her plays include “The Human Capacity,” “Plunder,” “Freedom, NY,” “The Attic Dwellers,” “Obscura,” “Red Helen,” “Eat It Too” and “The Exile of Petie DeLarge.” Her work has been produced and developed nationally and internationally by Steppenwolf, La Jolla Playhouse, The Old Globe, International Theatre of Vienna, Moving Arts, Teatro Vista, RedCat, The Edinburgh Fringe, and The Kennedy Center, among others.