Alumna Spotlight: Molly Smith Metzler makes it big as a playwright

Around midterms, it’s common to hear Geneseo students decree that physics (or political science, or journalism…) isn’t for them. What they really want to do is be a plumber (or trombone player, or novella writer…). Shortly, reality strikes and that’s the end of it.

For Molly Smith Metzler ’00, however, the cold slap of practicality never came, which is why she will be honored in the largest and most celebrated competition for new plays in the country.

A little over 10 years ago, Metzler had every intention of getting her Ph.D. in English composition. Then, for fun, she took Intro to Playwriting with former School of the Arts professor Terry Browne, and everything changed.

“It’s because of Geneseo [that] I’m a playwright,” said Metzler. “It’s funny how these little choices you make dramatically change your life.”

The play she wrote in Browne’s class, “Training Wisteria,” earned Metzler a full ride to Boston University, where she earned a master’s in creative writing with a concentration in playwriting. After teaching there for two years, she received an offer to attend New York University on another full ride, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing. Another year passed and she was offered a full ride to The Juilliard School, where she served as a playwright-in-residence for two years.

Over 1,000 plays are submitted for consideration to the Humana Festival of New American Plays, which takes place in Louisville, Ky. and honors six plays as winners. In March 2011, Metzler’s “Elemeno Pea,” will be featured in the festival’s largest venue – the Pamela Brown Theatre, which seats nearly 650 people.

Metzler remembers the exact time and day her agent called to tell her the news. “I was just shocked,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for them to call and say, ‘Psych!’”

 Once a press release announced that Metzler’s play would indeed be included in the Festival, she figured she was safe. “It was better than my birthday,” she said.

Elemeno Pea” is about two sisters from Buffalo, N.Y. The younger is a personal assistant to an extravagantly wealthy couple in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. The older arrives for a visit only to find herself entangled in a relational triangle between her sibling and the “trophy wife” she works for. Metzler said that in addition to discussing class, family and ambition, the play explores “the choices we make [and] how quickly we make those choices that can change our lives.”

One of Metzler’s trademarks as a playwright is finding humor in the bleak and macabre, and “Elemeno Pea” is no exception. “Some really dark things happen, but it’s a comedy – I promise,” she laughed.

It cannot be denied that the style works particularly well for Metzler. Many of her plays have received national and international recognition, receiving audiences in Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, in off Broadway venues, at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, England and at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut.

Metzler said that people like her plays because the humor entices them to listen carefully – so carefully that she can “sneak in” serious themes that she says are reserved for the stage.

“Laughter puts an audience at ease,” she said. “And because you’re relaxed I can take you to darker places … It’s very funny until it’s not.”

In case you missed it, Metzler’s message is find what you love and invest everything into that. She says she writes for eight hours at a time. “I go to this magical happy place when I write,” she said. “I don’t get up to pee, I don’t drink coffee, my Blackberry is ignored.”

Metzler said she is happy to talk to anyone interested in playwriting. She advised students to, “Go in debt for whatever you believe in!” Though living in the nation’s biggest cities has put Metzler far into the red, she said she would change nothing about the path she’s taken.

To her, it’s a simple question of what brings joy. “When you fall in love, be in love,” Metzler said.