By profession, John Marsh is a history professor at Ball State University and the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities. Jenni Marsh is the president and CEO of Heart of Indiana United Way.
However, outside of those jobs, the couple makes an award-winning playwright duo.
Jenni was very active in her theater club at Yorktown High School growing up. Her favorite shows are screwball comedies from the 30s and 40s, and that love for theater is what inspired her to continue writing plays in her adult life, she said.
“I love to go to plays, love to be at plays and I loved being in plays. And … as I’ve gotten older, co-writing plays with this guy [John] who’s super funny and makes me laugh every single day, has been a really fun hobby,” Jenni said.
John has always been interested in all kinds of writing since he was young, and writing plays with Jenni has always been a fun hobby for him.
“We just always enjoyed writing and we just kind of found our way to doing this just for fun for ourselves,” John said.
In 2014, John and Jenni wrote their first play together called “Fixing Up.” The play is a comedy, a favorite genre of the writers, they said, and they submitted the show to the McLaren Comedy Festival in Midland, Texas. Finalists of this competition get their show staged for audiences to decide on a winner, and the winner gets their show produced at the Midland Community Theatre.
That same year, John and Jenni’s play won the competition.
“The play . . . was produced in Texas for a month, and the audience really loved it, and that … really energized us. And so, … we got onto our next play.” John said.
Now, the Marshes are working on a new play titled “Cat's Pajamas.” The show was put on in the form of a staged reading at the Muncie Civic Theatre, directed by Ball State Theatre and Dance faculty member Michael O'Hara. The assistant director and stage manager is Ball State alumna Bianca Sulanke.
A staged reading of "Cat's Pajamas" by John and Jenni Marsh on Oct. 20, 2022. Director: Michael O'Hara. Asst. Director, Stage Manager: Bianca Sulanke
“Cat’s Pajamas” is a comedy taking place in 1929 at an old mansion on a remote island. One of the main characters of the show, a writer of the mystery genre, aims to plan a haunted house-themed party that goes wrong, and mysterious hijinks ensue. The show is a mix of comedy, romance and mystery, all with historical elements mixed in.
“We both have a real love of history, which is partly what inspired the play ‘Cat’s Pajamas,’” Jenni said. “I love screwball comedies, [John] loves screwball comedies.”
For this new work, and all the works the two collaborate on, there is an appreciation for strong female characters. Both John and Jenni are inspired by works like “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “You Can’t Take it With You,” two plays that feature strong female characters.
“They had really strong and interesting and funny female characters, and that was not so typical in those days. So when we’re writing, we write really strong, quirky female characters,” Jenni said.
However, the two do appreciate an original work and like to create “new and fresh” characters, ideas and stories.
“I think there’s so much rehashing of what’s already been done, and so how do we do something that's just kind of new and exciting?” Jenni said.
The Marshes said collaboration and teamwork are the secret, as a married couple working together on creative projects like playwriting.
“A friend of ours said, ‘You guys write plays together? My wife and I repainted the den and that ended in divorce. How do you do it?’ I don’t know. We just have fun with it,” John said. “I think part of it is we don’t have our egos so heavily tied up in it.”
The two have a writing system that is simply finding the time to talk it out. The two play to their own strengths: John does some writing, and Jenni makes edits. The overwhelming amount of their process is in collaboration.
“The two of them … as a writing team are so much fun to work with,” Sulanke said. “They are really clever, and they really listen to the feedback we give.”
Unlike most shows that happen at the Muncie Civic Theatre, “Cat’s Pajamas” is performed as a staged reading where actors will have their script in their hands and the costumes and props are kept to a minimum. At the end, Muncie Civic Theatre will offer an opportunity for the audience to provide the creative team and actors feedback.
“Cat’s Pajamas” director Micheal O’Hara is also a Sursa distinguished professor of fine arts and professor of theatre at Ball State. O’Hara has been directing shows at the Muncie Civic Theatre since 1998.
He compared the production to that of the American Playwrights Conference, which accommodates very minimally produced and funded performances for audience voting and feedback. This conference took place at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, where O’Hara received a scholarship during his undergraduate studies.
For O’Hara, the support of the Muncie Civic Theatre is a major reason that this staged production is able to happen. New works can be a major financial risk for theaters, but doing it in the format of a staged reading requires far fewer resources and still allows little-known playwrights to exhibit their work, he said.
“I think it’s thrilling and wonderful because you never know what’s going to happen. I mean, you literally show up one night and there’s new stuff on the table,” O’Hara said.
Because “Cat’s Pajamas” is still under development and not yet complete, the creative team can make adjustments on the fly, taking input from anyone, anywhere, at any time, Sulanke said.
“One of the actors … made a joke in character that was so funny that they added it to the script, which is part of the fun of working on a new production,” Sulanke said.
For the Marshes, seeing their work on stage is a fun and surreal experience.
“It’s always fun seeing people bring to life the characters that were just ideas in our heads,” John said. “Now they’re alive on the stage, and they really are the kinds of characters that are … special to you.”
The staged reading of “Cat’s Pajamas” will take place in the Casazza Family Studio Theatre, a space within the Muncie Civic Theatre created to honor a dedicated member of the Muncie Civic Theatre community, Cathleen Casazza.
“We shared the play just hoping for some feedback, and when [the Muncie Civic Theatre] committee had reviewed it and came to us saying, ‘We want to try something new because our studio theater was really created to do some new theater and experimental theater and test new works,’” Jenni said, “they wanted to really honor that, and we are honored that our play is getting to be put on in that space.”
The Marshes do not currently have plans for a full production of “Cat’s Pajamas” but would welcome such an opportunity, they said. While the staged readings took place on Oct. 21-22 and will again on Oct. 28-30, the ever-changing nature of a new work like this one makes it an evergreen process.
“I’m having the time of my life, and … in a way, it’s almost sad when a show opens because then it’s halfway towards being over,” O’Hara said. “These weeks, weeks and weeks of work just evaporate overnight. In a way, it's actually more fun to work on something than it is to have worked on it. So, I’m really savoring [the] idea that this process will still be a process, even up to the last day of performance.”
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