Student Spotlight: Jennifer West '20 wins Frost-Dodd contest

by Anthony Robles | 7/20/18 2:05am

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Jennifer West '20's one-act musical "First Year" will premiere next weekend.

Source: Courtesy of Jennifer West

Every summer, the theater department at the College hosts the Frost & Dodd Playwriting Festival, which features the three student winners of the Frost & Dodd Playwriting Contest. Two of the three plays are produced as staged readings, while the winning play becomes a full-scale production. This year’s Dodd winner is Jennifer West ’20, whose one-act musical “First Year” tells the story of a student’s first year at the fictional Ivylane College.

What inspired you to write “First Year”?

JW: So, this came out of conversations that I had with friends freshman spring, when we sort of reflected on our first year of our college experiences. I have always written songs, but I’d never really written a full-length work of theater, or any other sort of big, long-form piece before. We were sort of joking around and thinking about common experiences that we’d all had, and I thought it would be interesting to think about a way to bring those all together into some sort of piece that I could show my friends — and maybe even later on, present to the community.

How did you first get involved in writing songs?

JW: I did a lot of theater when I was younger, especially during elementary and middle school, but had to stop in high school because I did sports. One way that I wanted to keep involved, and also sort of take time to reflect and engage in creative writing, was through writing songs.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced in writing “First Year”?

JW: I think sometimes it can be hard to step away from your own personal experience and try to make things generalizable. At times, I found myself writing things that on second thought didn’t really seem relatable or interesting, but were relevant to my own experience, and I think because of that, the play in its current form is not very autobiographical. In fact, very little of it is directly taken from my own experience, but a lot of is more generalizable, which I think is probably for the best. Another challenge I faced is that I don’t read or write music, but the team has been amazing. We had a local musician help transcribe the songs onto sheet music, and we have a music director who has been fantastic in helping to edit the songs and make them flow better.

How did you feel when you heard you had won the Frost-Dodd Award?

JW: To be honest, I was very surprised. I submitted to the contest partly because I was under the impression that I would get feedback, and I wasn’t even hoping that my play would be performed. I just wanted to hear what the department had to say — to get some constructive comments that would help me build the show going forward. So I was very surprised, but super honored, and most of all just very excited because it was such a new thing to me that I couldn’t wait to get started.

Is there a challenge in not being able to direct something that you wrote?

JW: I think that, on the contrary, I’m really relieved that there is a seasoned professional who is working on the show, who has the skill and talent and expertise to make [the show] really good.

How closely have you been working on the production and development of the show?

JW: I’ve been doing rewrites for several months. The show’s been rewritten several times, and individual lines and small components of the show have changed during the rehearsal process just to make the show flow better and fit in more with different characters’ experiences throughout the play. And I’ve been working pretty closely with the director and also communicating with the cast and creative team

What are you most excited about in seeing your play realized?

JW: I’m most excited to see how people react to it. First of all, I hope people enjoy it and have a good time seeing the show. I think it should be very fun, but I also think that it’s my goal that people sort of leave thinking about their Dartmouth experience.

Do you plan on being involved in more theater productions after “First Year”?

JW: I do. I’m not sure in what form, but I definitely do want to stay involved.

If I remember correctly, this is the first time you’ve been involved with a theater production on campus.

JW: I took a theater class my freshman year.

Did that class play a part in helping shape “First Year”?

JW: It did. The class was called “Theater for Social Change,” and we both analyzed and wrote short works of theater. I think that it definitely helped to show me that it doesn’t take much to get started. Writing those three- to five-page plays in that class sort of helped me think about how I could write something longer in the future.

What else are you involved in on campus?

JW: Oh, boy. I’m president of Dartmouth College Democrats, a presidential research scholar, I’m involved in my sorority, I write for the Jack-O-Lantern and I’m on the Figure Skating team.

Did your experiences in those organizations help shape “First Year” in any way?

JW: I think those organizations helped me meet a lot of new people and meet a lot of different kinds of people across campus, and hearing from them about their experiences sort of informed the way I wrote about the characters’ Dartmouth experiences.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.