Playwriting's the Thing for Tanya Ritchie AC '19

photo by Molly Broxton

Although she had written and performed in theater before coming to Smith, Tanya Ritchie AC ’19 says her studies on campus have helped sharpen her craft—in particular, her skills as a playwright.

“Being here has made me a much stronger writer,” says Ritchie, who creates and performs under the stage name Tanya O’Debra. “I’ve always been someone who makes their own opportunities, but Smith has given me more confidence.”

Enough confidence to write a play that takes an unconventional look at an American literary icon. Ritchie’s comedy, Shut UP, Emily Dickinson! will be performed at Northampton’s Academy of Music on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 7:30 p.m., featuring the playwright in one of two starring roles.

Loosely based on The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson, the play seeks to undercut the “psycho-romance” that Ritchie says surrounds popular views of the reclusive poet. “We’ve turned Emily Dickinson into a projection screen for everything we think is true about her,” she says.

Ritchie’s view is that Dickinson is one of America’s “most brilliant—and annoying—writers,” the very definition of a “difficult woman.”

Andrea Hairston ’74, Smith’s Louise Wolff Kahn Professor of Theatre, says the satirical play is characteristic of Ritchie’s work. “She likes a challenge,” Hairston says. “She always reaches beyond what she can already do.”

Before coming to Smith, Ritchie won awards for producing and performing in New York City. In 2014, she performed her piece Radio Star at the Academy in Northampton and, some months later, decided to apply to Smith’s Ada Comstock Scholars Program for nontraditional-aged students.

Being at Smith was an adjustment at first. “Students here are so diligent and well-behaved,” says Ritchie, with a smile. “I was used to being around a lot of absolute maniacs.”

She soon came to appreciate the depth of artistic support offered by theatre students and faculty, and began to focus more intently on her writing.

Leonard Berkman, Smith’s Anne Hesseltine Hoyt Professor of Theatre, says Ritchie excels at creative collaboration. “She is able to both claim center stage when appropriate and to remain on others’ supportive sidelines,” he says.

Those skills were important to the process of developing Shut UP, Emily Dickinson! “Tanya listened closely to classroom/workshop readings,” Berkman says. “Each time I re-encountered her pages, and then her script in performance, the perspectives that informed her writing were earnestly reconsidered, yet with her integrity and courage sustained.”

Ritchie was awarded a 2018 Jill Cummins MacLean Prize for outstanding dramatic achievement with a comic touch in writing for Shut UP, Emily Dickinson!

This semester, in addition to working the box office at the Academy, she is busy applying to graduate school and finishing a thesis play that—surprisingly—is not a comedy.

“It’s about racism as it relates to childbirth,” Ritchie says. “It’s really different from anything I’ve ever done before.”