Published October 29, 2020
Playwright and Theatre and Dance PhD candidate Bella Poynton knows how to keep busy. In the last year she’s produced a tremendous amount of artistic and scholarly work, and Poynton thrives by staying creatively engaged.
As a result of the pandemic crisis and an increased emphasis on digital content, Otherworld Theatre in Chicago, one of the many companies Poynton works with, launched a YouTube channel with recordings of its recent popular productions. Poynton’s 2019 play Medusa Undone is one of the featured works.
“Before she was one of the greatest mythical monsters of all time, Medusa was a kind, beautiful sea-nymph in Athena’s service. Unparalleled in both her beauty and devotion to the Gods, Medusa catches the eye of the charming but narcissistic Poseidon. Interested only in passions of the spirit, and not the flesh, Medusa has no choice but to reject the greedy God. She not only suffers violence at the hand of Poseidon, but unknowingly incites a deep-seated jealousy in Athena, with horrific and disturbing consequences. Medusa Undone explores the social problem of rape culture, our tendency to victim blame, and the great injustice suffered by female victims of abuse of all kinds.”
The inspiration for Medusa came to Poynton during dinner at a restaurant in 2013. “I remember the moment. There was a television on and a politician who said that if a woman is ‘legitimately raped’ that the woman’s body ‘has a way of shutting it down.’ My friend Peter turned to me and said, ‘That reminds me of Medusa.’ And he told me her unknown origin story. I was fascinated.”
“Most of my research was online and compiling different versions of Medusa’s story. I read as many as I could find, then asked ‘What do I need to keep from all of the stories (in order to) take dramatic license?’”
Ponyton was working on her MFA in playwriting at the time. “I wanted to create a work that was structured like a Greek tragedy, imitating Sophocles in a way. I think that there’s a lot of overlap between contemporary sci-fi stories and the stories of the gods. The hero’s journey is a universal story. It goes back to the Odyssey, but also to Star Wars.”
In pop culture, not many people seem to know that Medusa was kind before she became monstrous and fearsome. “Medusa is often kind of cleaned up for when the story is told to children but, in the actual story, Poseidan did what he wanted and she had to live with it.” The tragedy of Medusa’s assault is made that much worse by the refusal of Athena to believe her friend. In anger, Athena condemns the formerly human Medusa to a life of torment as an immortal with a head of snakes, whose gaze turns its victims to stone. Medusa Undone was recently recognized at Top 5 Chicago on NewCityStage.
Another of Poynton’s new projects was organizing a festival of new one-act plays at Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo called The End: Amen. The showcase featured Alleyway's Playwrights Circle members, which also includes Mark Lloyd, j. Snodgrass, and Winifred Storms.
Poynton has another Alleyway connection. Her play The Mighty Maisie was a runner up in the annual Maxim Mazumdar Playwriting competition. It’s available to read on New Play Exchange. “A friend challenged me to write a science-fiction story that takes place here, in your backyard on Earth, as opposed to another planet. It’s almost like an X-Files episode,” Poynton explained.
Not unlike Medusa, Maisie is a character whose story isn’t credible to those closest to her, though her circumstances are much different. “Maisie believes she’s being periodically being abducted by aliens, but she has no proof. She’s losing time. Her friends think that she’s crazy but she knows that more is going on.”
As a result of Maisie’s alien encounters, she somehow acquires unearthly superpowers. “Maisie discovers that her trailer park is like an island with an invisible fence, and she can now control who can come on and off of it (to help protect her friends). There’s a fun aspect to it, but it’s about the courtesy of believing people. (From Maisie’s point of view) ‘If you say you were assaulted and I believe you, will you return the favor when I say I was abducted by aliens?’”
Poynton is in the process of sending the script out for consideration. “I’m looking for an interested company or a workshop opportunity to produce it. The submission process for plays is challenging and time consuming. There are lists for submission opportunities like Play Submission Helper and the New York City Playwrights Blog. You have to be diligent,” she said. Poynton has done upwards of 150 submissions in a given year.
Another project which sidles up to technology-bordering-on-science-fiction is an article Poynton wrote for the online journal Theatre / Practice titled Playwriting with Robots: Creating Cyborgian Theatre with Online Chatbots."
“The project started in Grad Studio at UB,” Poynton said. “I would talk to chatbots online and investigate what it was like creating dramatic material by making the chatbot into my writing partner, and how it changed and grew. There were moments where they suddenly feel sentient and it draws you back into the conversation, but other times you’re aware of its limitations.”
In summer 2020 Poynton focused on community outreach as Literary Manager of Buffalo’s Post-Industrial Productions (PIP). “We’re putting together a virtual storytelling forum called Quarantine Stories where artists are invited to perform a two to three minute ‘story’ or ‘monologue’ pertaining to their experience since the pandemic began. It will run for four weeks and each week will benefit a different non-profit in the Western New York area.”
PIP is a newer company which focuses on new works for younger audiences traditionally underserved by the Buffalo community. “Quarantine Stories is an evening of spoken word, poems, and monologues, created by the community and curated by the PIP team, and which can be performed by actors on the virtual platform, slightly adapted for a digital medium.”
PIP’s most recent production is a virtual performance series featuring new 10-minute plays written specifically for the video conferencing medium called “Digitally Dramatized: Video Plays for the New World.”Upcoming performances are on November 6 and 20 on Facebook.
Regarding her ongoing PhD studies at UB, Poynton hopes to finish her dissertation by the end of the year. Titled Stage Machines: Robots, Androids, and The Mechanical in Performance, she says, “It’s kind of an exploration of robots in theater, seen through a historical and digital lense. In the TV show Westworld people also play robots, but I also discuss plays in which actual robots are playing robots, as in Spillikin, Soyonaro and I, Worker. The primary argument is that the meaning of what a robot is has shifted in relationship to its human counterpoint in the post-modern age.”
“What a robot meant to us in 1930 is not the same as what it means today. The theater gives us this really rich opportunity to explore robots in social and domestic spaces. I talk about how the labor of the robot has shifted. They were initially created to do the physical labor of humans, but now they’re shifting into being care workers, and taking on more emotional labor and connection.”
“I’m fascinated by the relationship between robots and people. All of the unknowns, like when a character encounters something like a robot or alien; those moments are inherently very dramatic and theatrical. I’m not sure if we’re going to see A.I. that we have to worry about in our lifetime, but the merging of human and digital will continue and really change how we live.”
Poynton also gets inspiration from the work of other emerging playwrights. As the graduate liaison of the Playwrighting Symposium at the Mid-America Theatre Conference, she gets to read over 100 scripts a year. “With the two co-chairs we pick 16 entries that will come to the annual conference. It’s a fascinating process and allows me to see what people are writing about and find new voices.”
In 2019 she also co-chaired a working group at the American Society of Theatre Research (ASTER). “Our working group was called ‘Worlds of Knowledge: Science, Performance, and the Public.’ That was an awesome experience where we were able to spearhead the conversation happening in our field of science and performance, as well as cyberc-culture and techno-culture, and the intersections with sciences broadly and performance. There were about 20 papers and we facilitated a conversation between the scholars.”
Once she earns her doctorate Ponyton hopes to secure a tenure track position teaching playwriting and to be part of the national field creating new work.