Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2011

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The Playwright: Stefanie Zadravec '90

The Playwright: Stefanie Zadravec '90
Stefanie Zadravec '90. Photo by Brandon W. Mosley

In 2009, Stefanie Zadravec's playwrighting career was just taking off. Her full-length play “Honey Brown Eyes,” set during the Bosnian war, had just received the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding new play, and she had a great idea for her next project — a quirky play about a baby with a rare and mysterious illness that makes him glow in the dark.

For the moment, though, she had to put the new idea on hold. She had just given birth to twin sons 10 weeks premature. The only thing she and her husband, Michael, could focus on was the survival of Colin and Martin, whose combined birth weight was under 8 pounds.

When the boys were 10 months old, Zadravec started her play. But before she had completed 40 pages, life began to imitate art in a frightening way: Colin was diagnosed with a rare and dangerous lung condition.

Life with twin babies, one severely ill, was a balancing act of unprecedented proportions. In the early days, Zadravec and her husband managed through trial and error, flavored with black humor. (“I learned things like it's important to turn off your son's oxygen tank before you light his first birthday candles,” she says wryly.) They also learned to ask for help from friends and neighbors.

Through it all, Zadravec has continued to write. She completed “The Electric Baby,” which immediately drew positive attention, including awards, fellowships and a seven-year residency with New Dramatists in New York. “The Electric Baby” will have its world premiere this spring. Her presentation follows.

Good morning. My name is Stefanie Zadravec. I graduated from Connecticut College in 1990 with a major in theater.
Today, I'm an award-winning playwright. I am also the mother of 2½-year-old twin boys, one of whom has a rare pediatric lung disease called neuroendocrine hyperplasia of infancy, or NEHI. There are only 250 known cases of NEHI worldwide, there is no known cure, and there is only one known treatment: Colin is attached to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Before you think, Oh, no, this is going to be depressing, I'll cut to the chase and tell you that of the rare pediatric lung diseases, NEHI is the good one. Colin won't die from it and he won't need a lung transplant. In fact, he will likely outgrow the need for supplemental oxygen in the coming years.

What is it like to be an emerging playwright and a parent of a child with a serious and rare disease?

Well, financially, things are pretty tight. Most days my hair is shapeless and unflattering. Often I'm up all night with a cute boy while the stack of books by my bed sits unread. For the better part of a year my husband and I survived on frozen pizza, and I gained 15 pounds.

In other words, it's not that different from college.

However, that's not the part of my college experience I came to talk about...

When my parents dropped me off, fresh-faced, on this glorious, pristine campus 26 years ago, I knew two things: First, I wanted to act in as many plays as possible on this stage in Palmer Auditorium. The second was that my mother's bone cancer would likely take her life before I graduated.

Both things happened.

So how do you make a great beginning when your circumstances aren't great? When the parties and perils of your classmates feel trivial? Do you just keep your head down and volunteer for the Saturday-night shift in the library? (Yes, I did that.) Do you wear a lot of black and scowl at people from a corner of the dining hall? (I did a little of that, too.)
Or do you realize that college is a precious time and try to make the most of it?

Eventually, this is the approach I took. Here are five things I learned at Conn that helped me and continue to help me thrive in spite of trying circumstances.

First, just show up. Some of you students aren't going to like this one, but when I was here I didn't skip any classes. Showing up to every lecture was one of the best things I did at school. It's something I've carried over into my professional life and it has served me well. After all, you never know where you'll find your next inspiration or opportunity. Showing up also helped me get a 97 in my required math course, which, if you know me, is something of a miracle.

Second, find an outlet. For me that was easy. Theater is a creative art with a built-in outlet for emotion. Great plays ask big questions. Since I was already wrestling with large questions in my personal life, it was a gift to soak in and speak the words of Chekhov, O'Neill and Shakespeare, or laugh my way through rehearsals for Noel Coward and John Guare.

Next, find community. Let's face it, theater folk are an odd breed, but they are my tribe. I worked on more than seven shows in Palmer Auditorium. I stood here and sang with the Schwiffs and performed in dance concerts on this stage. I can't recite for you a single line, sing a single harmony or execute the choreography, but I can tell you everything about the people I worked with, because to this day we remain friends and these friendships are the cornerstone of my support system. These are the people I call when I have a new play and the people I messaged when my son went into the hospital. They provide context and continuity in every area of my life.

No. 4 is stretch yourself. Three of the best classes I took at Conn had nothing at all to do with my major. The first was a psychology course, which fed my interest in human nature, but more importantly it helped me learn how to question data and how to be a skeptic, in a good way.

The second class was a poetry workshop. I had no dreams of being a writer, much less a poet, but my professor suggested I submit some of my poems for the English department awards. That spring I received the College's Benjamin T. Marshall Prize for best original poem. I never wrote another poem, but I like to think the confidence gained from just taking a stab at something was lingering somewhere in the back of my mind when, at age 38, I left acting to become a playwright.

The third class was a survey of modern art history that I added last minute to my senior schedule. I'd expected to sit in a dark room memorizing names of paintings and painters. Instead we were discussing everything from history and politics to religion and popular culture. That course asked me to take everything I had previously learned and speak with authority from my own point of view.

Finally, the last lesson is to ask for help. During our senior year, fellow theater major Jodi Simon '90 wrote a theater outreach piece for her psychology thesis and asked if I would be in it. It was a play for teens, based on her own experiences with her father's battle with cancer. By now, my mom had passed away; I said yes. We performed it for New London High School students and during the post-show discussion both Jodi and I shared our real-life experiences with our parents' illnesses. After the show, Dean John King came up to me and said, “I knew Jodi's father had died, but why didn't I know about your mom?”

“Oh, uh...”

It had never occurred to me that resources were available to me and that I didn't have to work quite so hard to keep it together all the time. There were so many people willing to help me had I simply asked. There are always people wanting to help, once you learn how to ask for it.

I had no idea the lessons I learned at Conn — about balancing art and illness, pain and perseverance — would follow me so closely in life. Just this month, as I took on my first, large new play commission, Colin was also diagnosed with autism. But my years at Conn set into motion a work ethic and an ability to juggle that propels me to take those first steps and see how far I can go.

I remind myself that Great Beginnings aren't necessarily perfect beginnings. Struggle spurs the mind and opens the heart. Struggle makes us human. It is the stuff of great literature, great art and great plays. And sometimes a little struggle even earns you an A in math. I'm just one of many for whom a Connecticut College education provided a great foundation for many things.



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