The set of "Lonely Planet" shows actors in front of haphazardly stacked chairs.
Doane University's spring 2021 production of "Lonely Planet" was recognized during the Region 5 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, held Jan. 16-22. The production was entirely student-led, and five Doane students received awards.

“It’s a mapmaker’s job to take a messy and round world and put it neat and flat on the wall in front of you.”

Nearly 20 minutes into the one hour and 22 minute play “Lonely Planet,” Wyatt Jorgensen’s character, Jody, delivers that line to the audience before he dives into a lesson on maps.

It’s a short line. But it takes on a larger meaning offstage. Just as the play itself is much bigger than mapmakers, maps and a mapshop.

Ahh yes, we’re talking metaphors here. Any creative person’s preferred mode of communication.

Substitute “director” for “mapmaker” in the dialogue and you’ve described senior theatre major Mason Morrill.

A play director brings a written story to life on stage. A lot of their work happens behind the scenes and in between “action” and “cut” during rehearsals.

On the rare occasion they’re in the spotlight, it’s usually misplaced blame from a reviewer. They don’t receive credit, only critique. They juggle egos, deadlines and mishaps. And when opening night comes, it’s all hands off deck as a director. The show must go on and they have minimal control over cast and crew performances.

They sit among the audience, who might scan over their name in the program, not knowing they’re sitting right next to them.

Directing isn’t for the faint of heart. Morrill, however, actively sought out directing.

But as a college student, this is rare for both the student and the college.

Most students start off in other theater specialties – acting, lighting, playwriting, etc – Morrill explained, because most schools encourage them to focus in those areas.

Finding a role at Doane

As a junior at Johnson County Community College, in Overland Park, Kansas, Morrill received “yes, but…” responses from schools he’d auditioned at and hoped to transfer to.

He heard a lot of, “yes we know you’re interested in directing, but how about we have you continue down the acting path with us?”

“I just really wasn’t finding a good place for me because I knew I was in this weird place,” Morrill said. “I’m an actor, I really like acting, but I was just starting to get a taste for directing. And I was finding that I really, really loved it.”

His department chair at the time, Beate Pettigrew, connected Morrill with a colleague of hers who gave the “yes, and…” he needed. And he met Robin McKercher for the first time at the 2018 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Des Moines, Iowa.

The two talked for hours in the hotel lobby. Neither could’ve directed a better meet-up.

McKercher is a theatre professor at Doane and directs most of the university’s productions. During his initial conversation with Morrill, they discussed playwrights, plays and projects. But it was Morrill’s understanding and full-on commitment to a director’s true duty that had McKercher thinking, “I want this guy to be at Doane.”

To be (a director), or not to be

Directors can be misunderstood characters outside the theater world. In general, the public equates theater with “ego-driven people,” McKercher said.

And some directors latch onto the power the role brings. But the best directors are the opposite.

“We're doing something impactful and meaningful for the audience,” McKercher explained of directors. “That's our job. Our job is ‘we are the caretakers of the audience.’ Our medium is working with the actor, but we're there to serve the audience.”

This giving nature is at Morrill’s core. It was like the role of director was either written for him or completely based on him.

“I much prefer hosting parties rather than going to them,” Morrill started. “I like cooking meals for or with people rather than being the one served. [...] The essential of what theater is, is that it’s storytelling. [...] And I like being the one to, or I find much more fulfilling, being the person who facilitates and tells the story rather than being the one that is in the story like as an actor.”

At Doane, Morrill has the opportunity to tell stories as a student director. There was no guarantee he’d direct a main stage production – it’s a rarity for a student at Doane – but the fact that it’d happened a couple times before was all Morrill needed to know to officially transfer and become a Tiger.

McKercher, though, knew Morrill would direct a mainstage production as a senior project. And when that time came, Morrill had McKercher’s absolute trust and respect based on his previous productions and dedication to the process.

Normally, students and faculty work together to choose a show for the season. McKercher allowed Morrill to select a show and run with it. It was the same hands-off approach McKercher appreciated from his directing mentor at a theater in Pennsylvania before his Doane days.

Using theatre to cope with and process events beyond the stage

With free reign, Morrill chose Lonely Planet – a play written by Stephen Dietz in 1992 and produced off Broadway in 1993. It was less explicit than its peers at the time – it never mentions HIV or AIDS in the script – on the loss, trauma, and social, political and health crisis that was the AIDS epidemic.

But for that reason, the play could easily serve as a dialogue on another major health crisis, say the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lonely Planet is this potential museum piece but there are so many parallel themes,” Morrill said.

A museum piece is what McKercher calls a play that is stuck in a certain time period. Another reason Morrill transferred to Doane is the theatre department’s preference to produce “Doane shows” over popular or well-known plays.

“We don't do those things,” Morrill said. “We don't like to do those things. And if we do those things, we radically turn them on their heads or rework them or do something to take it out of being that museum piece.”

Lonely Planet is a “Doane show” for Morrill. It’s a two-hander, meaning it features just two actors. The small cast – who also happened to double as roommates – was a benefit as rehearsals coincided with the pandemic.

As we learned at the top, Wyatt Jorgensen ‘22, plays Jody, a map shop owner. Calvin Schlautman ‘21, plays his friend Carl. Scene after scene, the map shop fills up with stacks of chairs Carl drops off, each one representing another life lost to the disease.

In contrast to Carl’s coping strategy of clearing out the houses of his friend who passed, Jody fears what’s happening outside and stays tucked inside his map shop.

Morrill resonated with both characters’ struggle to cope with isolation and process reality – and knew it would resonate with an audience today.

“In everything that I direct or want to direct I find there are always these key essential images or metaphors that I think are extremely poignant and relevant to our current moment as a society,” Morrill said. “Or just messages that are essential or that completely encapsulate a moment that we’re living. Or a moment that we did live in that we still haven’t processed or dealt with.”

Behind the scenes, Morrill dealt with even more isolation and coping struggles as the director. The week Lonely Planet was set to film in the Whitcomb Lee Conservatory – warmly regarded as “The Con” – the water pipes froze and burst.

The show went on hiatus for a week and a half. The return was brief though. Fire alarms in the lobby disrupted a rehearsal. And the cast and crew learned the burst pipe had damaged the fire safety system. They had to go on hiatus for two more weeks.

McKercher assured Morrill the Con would be Lonely Planet’s, the musical would move to Heckman Auditorium and his senior project would still happen.

It was a cruel circumstance that, of course, proved to be a larger lesson in life and directing for Morrill. A director, though seemingly with the most control, has to learn to relinquish that come show time and trust the cast, crew and process.

McKercher compares a director to a “captain of the ship” navigating tides and storms while staying the course and docking the show to port.

“And most people can't take that pressure. They can't deal with the stuff that goes wrong,” McKercher said. “And that's what a director is. Yes, you come up with these wonderful concepts and ideas. But getting an entire team on board to go with that? You're dealing with a lot of people and a lot of ego.”

When rehearsals and filming could safely return to the Con, Morrill, alongside his all-student cast and crew, returned stronger and crisper in their performances.

Filming took place and was submitted to the Region 5 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

“I knew in my heart of hearts that we had a great possibility of securing a spot as the representative show of our seven state region,” McKercher said. “And then we got nominated. And I'm thinking to myself, these guys are gonna win, these guys are actually going to do it.”

And they did.

Lonely Planet was an invited production at this year’s regional festival in mid-January and also earned four “Outstanding Achievements” awards in direction (Morrill), scenic design (Ceci Barr ‘22); lighting design (Lauren Walther ‘22) and ensemble performance (Schlautman and Jorgensen).

It’s only the second Doane show that has toured to a regional festival, the first being a production of Phedre that McKercher directed during his first year teaching at Doane.

Far from curtain call

“Good theatre is good because it addresses a universal human need,” McKercher said.

Morrills understand this more than most. He feels a “holistic sense of fulfillment” when he collaborates with designers, actors and others, and enjoys the “level of anonymity” that comes as a director.

He remains humble in his success as a student director. During an interview, he quickly shifts the spotlight onto his classmates in the cast and crew, and acknowledges McKercher and Doane as the mentor and opportunity he held out for years ago.

“Rob is one of the two reasons why I am where I am right now,” Morrill said.

“Him and Beate at JCCC have been the two mentors that, if I ever win an award of any note, those are the first two names that will come out of my mouth for people to thank – as long as I'm not contractually obligated to list anybody ahead of them,” Morrill finished with a laugh. “But it'll be them. And [professor] Jeff [Stander] and [assistant professor] Joel [Egger].”

Morrill is working on his student internship this semester, serving as the directing intern at Angels Theatre Company in Lincoln. This Mortal Life Also is an original play from local playwright Nancy Shank and runs at the Carson Theater March 17-20 as part of the Lied Center’s season.

Morrill dives into a three-minute summary of the play, which is based on the true story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an Anti-Nazi Lutheran minister in Nazi Germany.

It’s another heavy subject matter, but Morrill easily encapsulates what the audience can interpret from it.

His ability to always see the overarching story and view theatre as transcendent of purely entertainment or a way to make money is what makes Morrill special as a young director.

Doane has just been the beginning for Morrill, who isn’t sure what the future holds after graduation.

“Rob always talks about finding your artistic home. That's something he really harps on,” Morrill said. “And it's not always a place, but it's more people that you're with. And Doane has been [...] an artistic home for me the last four years, three and a half, I guess. And I'm just, I'm ready to find and make a new one.”

“We didn't strike gold, but we hit a vein at least with Lonely Planet,” Morrill said. “And I would really love to continue to work on and develop the work that I did here at Doane and evolve it and see where it takes me.