The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

A look at ‘West Illinois Glass House’ and the university’s production process

Playwriting grad student Alex Lead speaks with the DI about his writing and production process.
Ava Neumaier
Kylen Phillips reads his lines backstage during a performance of West Illinois Glass House in the Iowa Theatre Building on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Ava Neumaier/The Daily Iowan)

Alex Lead sits in Alan McVey Theatre and hears his written words spoken aloud for the dozenth time, following along with the script on his phone.

His play, “West Illinois Glass House,” premiered at the University of Iowa’s Theatre Building on Feb. 16, fulfilling the final step of an almost year-long process.

Lead, a second-year graduate student at the UI, has developed the play’s script since March 2023. The script was constantly revised in and out of rehearsals as the production progressed.

Before his time at the UI, Lead was primarily a writer but also worked on and performed in various sketch shows and stand-up comedies. For his master’s of fine arts thesis next year, he plans to perform a one-man show in which he will play the late comedian Richard Pryor.

“West Illinois Glass House” follows a Black family whose matriarch is on trial during the 2008 recession. After experiencing the recession himself, Lead felt inspired to write it from his now grown-up perspective.

“I was thinking about a lot of different things, that’s usually how I get my ideas, for scripts for plays or screenplays or whatever else,” he said. He emphasized how his process usually involves a multitude of ideas that converge into one.

Second-year playwriting graduate students at the UI are given the opportunity to produce a “gallery” show: a small-scale performance with a limited budget designed to give them production experience.

Once the somewhat final version of the script was completed and submitted on April 1 of last year, faculty paired Lead with director and first-year graduate student Josh Turner.

Lead said Turner has brought a lot to the play with his perspective.

“His understanding of not just social justice, but social work, like the actual, nitty-gritty details of this thing that we just call ‘the system’,” he said.

Turner was drawn to the script because of the relationship between three brothers, who are a central component of the play. He cited the resilience of the brothers and how much they want to be there for each other, even if sometimes they can’t, was what resonated with him the most.

Lead said the relationship between the brothers and the family is a critical element of the play, noting a significant question he explores in the play.

“What would these people say to each other if they weren’t scared?” he said. “What they wish they could say to each other is the main point that runs through it.”

From there, Lead and Turner staffed designers, lighting specialists, and a cast of performers.

Actress and first-year graduate student Cianon Jones, who played the lead character referred to only as The Defendant, was also drawn to the play in its early stages.

“Alex brought it [to class] last semester and I was one of the people who read for the workshop,” Jones said. “It’s a really beautiful story with a heavy family focus of this Black family in the landscape of 2008 and everything that comes with that.”

Before rehearsals began, Lead observed his words read aloud by the play’s cast for the first time, ready to make revisions if necessary.

The play’s rehearsals began on Jan. 29, comprising 21 days of prep in total before the performance dates of Feb. 16-18.

At this stage, Turner and Lead asked the actors to dig deep into how these characters operate within the script.

“We’re just taking inventory of all our discoveries to then give that information to the playwright to say ‘Oh, this is how it feels as an actor to perform your words,’ and then through that kind of discovery we’re finding the performance,” Turner said.

Lead and Turner became akin to audience members as they watched attentively, only occasionally breaking the silence to speak to each other when they had notes on certain moments or scenes. The script was flexible, and changes would be made if the director, writer, or actors deemed it necessary.

“It’s up to each individual team whether or not they want to implement those changes or whether they more so want to stick with the version that’s set before rehearsal,” Lead said.

Lead was also involved as a producer, a role that entailed coordinating designers and technical roles while ensuring everything in the production was on track.

For Turner, the experience of having the playwright in the room during rehearsals was invaluable.

“I think it’s a unique experience to be able to have the playwright in the room and lend questions to them and have the actors give questions to them,” Turner said, adding that Lead’s presence at rehearsals provided a wellspring of information.

Jones echoed this sentiment, emphasizing how these changes helped the play to find its voice, but also her own voice as an actor.

As Lead and Turner watched the actors hit their marks, laughs could be heard from the house when certain comedic moments resonated.

But aside from the humor evident in the play, Lead considers his work a drama first and foremost.

After rehearsals were complete, the play debuted to a public audience for the first time. On the evening of Feb. 16, the small-scale production was finally finished.

Lead hoped that audiences could find something in the play that resonated with them.

“I want people to see something in it, maybe a person, maybe an event, maybe an attitude that they recognize from their own life, from themself,” he said. “If that puts somebody into a state of contemplation or thought, I feel like that’s what success as a writer is for me.”

Lead also feels representation is vitally important for a story like this.

“At the end, it’s a portrait of a healthy Black American family who has each other’s backs,” he said. “I think that images like that are important for everybody to see, inside or outside
the demographic.”

He also emphasized how much he enjoys when people come to him with thoughts and feelings regarding his work that he didn’t intend. Turner, as the play’s director, shared this sentiment.

“I hope that people can attach to parts of the play and get the unique experience of seeing a play in this stage of development,” Turner said, further emphasizing the quality of Lead’s script. “I hope for Alex that seeing the end product of this process gives him more encouragement to keep writing.”

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About the Contributors
Grant Darnell, Arts Reporter
Grant Darnell is a second year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in English and Creative Writing and Screenwriting Arts. He is currently an Arts Reporter for the Daily Iowan.
Ava Neumaier
Ava Neumaier, Photojournalist
Ava Neumaier is a first-year student at the University of Iowa, majoring in English & Creative Writing. She was the Editor-in-Chief of her high school yearbook in New York, and has interned for a New York Times photographer. She enjoys taking pictures of performances and student life.