back to news June 20, 2019

Alumna's play exploring opioid epidemic performed by local high school students

When Arts and Sciences alumna Abby Noel (BA, theater, 2018) was in third grade, her friend got sick the day of the school play: a fairy tale mash-up. The teacher asked Noel to fill in for her sick friend as Cinderella, a main narrator in the show. She immediately fell in love with theater. 

Abby Noel, 2018 theater alumnaWith a father in the military, Noel moved a lot growing up, but she had some family in the Midwest and decided to tour arts schools in the region and eventually decided on Ohio State.

Noel found, “At most schools, you pick acting or scenic design and you do that for four years. I was interested in so much that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. At Ohio State, you do everything.”

After writing, producing and acting in a one-act show through the Department of Theatre Lab Series, Noel was encouraged by Associate Professor Jennifer Schlueter to take a playwriting class. Every week, students were given a new prompt for a 10-minute play, which Noel said taught her not only about the format and structure of playwriting but the intentionality of writing.

In December 2018, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in theater and a minor in arts entrepreneurship. Barely a month later, she had her first playwriting commission.

Noel wrote "If A Tree Falls," a play exploring the opioid epidemic, for high school actors. The project was a partnership between Whetstone Academy of Performing Arts, Columbus City Schools and the College of Arts and Sciences, and was funded by the Barbara Lipton Pinchuk and Sheldon Pinchuk Arts Community Outreach Fund.

Professor Lesley Ferris, one of Noel’s mentors in the Department of Theatre, connected her to the opportunity. Professor Ferris recruited another mentee, Christopher Ray (BA, theater, 2010; MEd, 2012), drama teacher at Whetstone High School, to collaborate on the project. Whetstone High School students acted in the production. Ray and Noel co-directed the show, which took place on May 4 at the Roy Bowen Theatre.

Rehearsal of "If a Tree Falls," a 30-minute patchwork play highlighting the opioid crisis in Ohio as seen through the eyes of local high school students.
“I’d be happy just acting, but it’s more fun to do everything, and more realistic. No one in theater ever does just one thing for their career. No one in the arts ever does just one thing,” Noel said.

The opportunity for high school students to work with a university, to have that training and experience is remarkable. I wish I had that in high school.”

The play, a series of vignettes addressing the opioid crisis, includes a scene of students joking around at school while ambulance sirens played in the background. During rehearsal, a guest faculty member didn’t realize the siren was part of the show. “About half the time you hear a siren, that ambulance is going to somebody who just overdosed. It is so normal to hear sirens that we tune it out,” Noel explained. 

“This story wasn’t about characters, but about this issue that affects so many different people. To make it more manageable, I made it bite-sized with scenes that could move around and evolve through rehearsal,” Noel said. “Some pieces completely came from the students. We wanted to leave space for the students, to give them the experience of being on the creative team — not just learn your lines, say your lines.”

Rehearsal of "If a Tree Falls," a 30-minute patchwork play highlighting the opioid crisis in Ohio as seen through the eyes of local high school students.
One student, after learning that 47,600 people died from opioid overdose in 2017, couldn’t get the statistic out of his head and shared the fact with his friends all week.

“I can’t change Columbus and the world, but the population I can control are the students in the show. They will take something away from this experience,” Noel said. “It felt good to help give these students a platform that shows how capable they are.”

Rehearsal of "If a Tree Falls," a 30-minute patchwork play highlighting the opioid crisis in Ohio as seen through the eyes of local high school students.
Images courtesy Laura Falb

Because of "If a Tree Falls" — a project at the intersection of art and social change — Noel was empowered by a professional commission at the start her career.

“At the beginning, I had a lot of imposter syndrome, that these students would figure out I’m not a real playwright. I definitely feel more now that I know what I’m doing,” Noel said. “The sensory experience of being in one room together is the most powerful tool of theater. You can reach just about anyone. Art connects us all.”