Playwright Todd Almond creates characters who bare their souls so beautifully and tenderly in the coming-of-age drama The Earth is Flat that every audience member sighs with a jolt of recognition: “Oh my god, that’s me.” Finding fresh new titles that resonate with college-aged actors and audiences is always an exciting opportunity. The material should be relevant, bursting with powerful characters that allow developing performers to challenge themselves artistically. The Earth is Flat contains rich opportunities for young actors since all characters in the play are either high-school or college-aged. There are no adult roles that stretch credibility beyond the range of experience. And the play is very funny.
When I read The Earth is Flat for the first time I remember arriving at the last page and grabbing my heart. It was so true, so powerful, so raw, and so loving. I couldn’t wait to direct the premiere production at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Playwright Todd Almond had attended CCM twenty years earlier, and I had the pleasure of working with him when he was a young artist learning to navigate life and love as an undergraduate student. His play is a love letter that explores the universal awkwardness of the American college experience. The search for identity by those least prepared with answers resonates with unexpected comedy in this new play commissioned by CCM Acting as part of the Cincinnati Playwrights Conference. A coming-of-age story set in a typical college dorm, The Earth is Flat follows purple-haired Ethan as he takes his first tentative steps toward self-knowledge.
Todd was a renaissance man ahead of his time when he arrived from Nebraska to start college in Cincinnati at the age of eighteen in 1996. He studied voice. He studied music. He studied composition. He studied acting. “I dyed my hair a kind of purplish/red right before I left for college,” said the playwright. “My mother was so disappointed in me.” He lived in a twelve-story high-rise dorm with tiny rooms. He loved school, and he loved finding his voice as a young man and artist. He is now a successful actor, singer, musician, composer, and arranger, a confident artist, sure of his place in the world.
In The Earth is Flat, the main character, Ethan, has a streak of purple hair. He just lost his brother in a freak motorcycle accident. He comes from a broken home and is the first in his family to attend college. His mother drinks and is damaged. Ethan is gay and he cannot seem to find solid footing anywhere. He just can’t seem to enter and commit, and for the course of the play he tries to successfully enter his life. He can’t properly begin anything. In fact, he has so much trouble entering that through the course of the play he never quite enters his dorm room. He gets stuck in the dorm hallway. With a dorm elevator at one end of the hallway and a row of dorm room doors stretched across the stage, the setting serves as a metaphor for a sort of self-imposed purgatory, a waiting place for something better.
Feeling like he doesn’t belong, Ethan has trouble starting relationships. He misinterprets signals from his roommate, ending in an awkward first kiss. He tries turning to religion for answers, then obsessed conspiracy theorists who believe the earth is flat, searching for a way to successfully finish college and enter life. Todd Almond creates a contemporary and believable world where the awkward and fantastical blend in magical ways. Part of the fun of the script is that Todd’s offbeat sense of humor takes flight with the creation of two acting tracks, one for a man and one for a woman who play a parade of characters who interact with Ethan in the dorm hallway. Audiences loved seeing an actor playing multiple roles with only moments between entrances, from drunken frat boys, to lonely nerds, to romantic misfits, a parade of American life wandering through a dorm hallway. When starting college myself I remember that everyone seemed both imposing and intimidating and all somewhat vaguely similar.
At the end of The Earth is Flat Ethan re-connects with his first roommate on the day of graduation at a rooftop party. He tells Ethan: “You’re going to save my life. And then we’ll be even. And then for our entire lives, we will be friends who saved each other’s lives. And I can see the future, I think: we stay in touch, sometimes we’re close, sometimes years pass and we don’t speak, because we’re busy with our lives, but nothing can take away the fact that we are each only here because the other saved our life. Isn’t that kind of beautiful?”
The Earth is Flat is smart and beautiful. A core event of the play is the death of the main character’s brother right as he arrives to start college. Final endings blur with new beginnings. He and his sister, a high school junior, grapple with the loss as best they can. A core question of the play is: “How does one move forward after suffering a profound and unexpected loss?” There can be so much guilt mixed with grief. Ethan seems to see signs of his brother, Jeremy, everywhere as he travels through his college years, embodied by a character named “Guy Who Looks Like Jeremy.” The play deftly and theatrically handles the mysteries surrounding the sudden death of a young person. In a cruel twist of fate, the Acting Department at CCM was mourning the loss of a beloved classmate as we began our rehearsal process, just like Ethan mourns the loss of his brother. The fictional and the true combined in challenging ways and the production lifted both the cast and the audience to a place of healing and hope.