UI Theatre Department’s ‘Skeleton Closet’ grapples with grief and identity

The next gallery production to take the virtual UI Theatre Arts stage shares a formative story about grappling with grief and identity.



Screenshot of Zoom rehearsal for “Skeleton Closet” of Courtney Graham (left) and Kyle Braeske (right).

Tatiana Plowman, Arts Reporter

As a trans individual, playwright Matthew Neal noticed the lack of trans stories in mainstream media. This observation led the third-year theatre arts major to write his play, “Skeleton Closet,” which will premiere as the next gallery production for the University of Iowa Theatre Arts Program.

“In today’s society, there is still a significant lack of trans work that is easily accessible,” Neal said. “It is a story that isn’t normally told, and I wanted to do what I could to share stories the world should hear.”

“Skeleton Closet,” as stated on the UI Theatre website, puts the lead character Scott in the position to untangle his feelings and grief. The play uses strong language and includes mentions of abuse, transphobia, suicide, and death.

Kyle Braeseke, a third-year social work major, plays the leading role of Scott within the production. As a trans actor, this is one of the first times he has been able to participate in a production where a trans character is featured at the forefront of a play.

“This whole script is so powerful, and it resonated deeply with me,” Braeseke said. “I saw myself in a character, and that rarely happens with the mainstream media portrayal.”

Neal drew inspiration from the 2019 film, Rocketman, citing Elton John as a role model for himself. He had always seen a crossover between transness and grieving/death of an idea, but it wasn’t initially clear to him until he saw the film. His playwright’s note further expands on his deep connection to the play.

 “Finding a new identity means losing all the things that could have been,” Neal said in an interview with The Daily Iowan. “The show in an essence is a eulogy of death and learning how to grieve in all different ways.”

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Neal began working on the script during winter break of his sophomore year and fully expanded on the idea within a course he took at the UI. This will be Neal’s very first play produced for the Theatre Department stage, as well as his first completed work. The story itself is extremely personal to him, and it serves as his passion project.

Director Meg Mechelke has been by Neal’s side throughout the production process. She has collaborated alongside him in adapting the show for Zoom and the two made countless edits to the script together. Some of the changes include the elimination of many physical moments and re-adapting the locations certain scenes took place.

“Being a tactile learner made the directing process a bit more challenging for me,” Mechelke said. “It was hard to explain the vision I had without being in the same physical space as the actors.”

Neal, Braeseke, and Mechelke all agreed that working through Zoom allowed for a more collaborative project. The actors had to be more flexible in order to adapt their filming environments to fit the overall look of the show. They also provided their own lighting and costumes for the production.

“Skeleton Closet” will be the fifth production of the UI Theatre Arts spring  season. The play will premiere on the UI Theatre Arts YouTube channel on March 6.

“This play is being premiered at a very poignant time, where we are all still facing the pandemic head-on and losing things left and right,” Mechelke said. “I am so proud of our entire cast and crew for creating this truly special piece of work.”