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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Gillian Hemme plays three Grinnell-inspired characters

Despite comprising a large percentage of the population in the town of Grinnell, students at Grinnell College seldom get the opportunity to learn about the lives of the townspeople. Gillian Hemme ’10 is changing that through her one-woman show Clean Start, which premiered last Friday.

Hemme began writing the script for Clean Start as a MAP (Mentored Advanced Project) with Shawn Womack, Theatre, during this past summer. During the process, she interviewed around 20 people from the town about their lives, from their jobs to their general life experiences. She then started picking out small details from the stories—a couple of words or lines—and began to write monologues. Slowly, three characters—Beth, Hallie and Joyce—started to emerge, and Hemme contrived the plot of Clean Start.

“I think the interviewing process was my favorite part because I got to hear so many interesting stories and people really opened up and were so honest and so generous with their stories,” Hemme said. “I felt really honored to be trusted with that kind of truth from them.”

One of the characters, Beth, is a loyal Maytag employee who Hemme plays from before the closing of Maytag—Maytag’s headquarters in Newton, Iowa, closed in 2006, affecting hundreds of employees from Grinnell—to after the company goes under. Beth strongly believes in the integrity of the company and is sad to see the company go down. However, she perseveres after the layoff and begins to dream of a bakery and lets herself wonder about life’s possibilities.

Hallie, another character in Clean Start, is a small business owner, who must make the life changing decision of closing her store. Hallie’s situation reflects that of many businesses in town, especially in the faltering economy as of late, though Hemme explained that the economy has not affected the kindness of the business owners.

“For improv we do the 24-hour marathon almost every year and I would go out and collect prizes donated from local businesses and people were always so generous,” Hemme said. “I wanted to learn more about the people who worked in town and who own these businesses.”

Perhaps the most prominent of the three characters, Joyce ages from eight to 87 during the show, as Hemme plays Joyce as an eight-year-old milk delivery girl who ends up in an unhappy marriage, then discovers her inner voice through art.

Brenna Ross ’13, assistant stage manager of the show, said the relatability of the characters is a big appeal.
“When Gillian [Hemme] plays Joyce in her eighties, [she reminds me of] a woman who lived next door to my grandmother who I called my grandma Olga,” Ross said. “So that really struck me because I identify with these characters and all of them reminded me of people I’ve known at some point in my life. They’re very real, they’re not overly theatrical in any way, everything they do, you kind of watch and say ‘yeah, I know someone like that.’”
Hemme explained that she was inspired to write Clean Start after reading Studs Terkel’s “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” and having participated in community-oriented work previously.

“There was just so much strength in each of the individuals I talked to, to carry on and continue going forward despite setbacks and that resilience was present in the individuals,” Hemme said. “I feel like just by everyone kind of knowing everyone else there’s a lot of support built in to the fabric of the community which is really lovely to witness.”
While each of the characters emerged from the interviewees’ stories, Hemme intentionally melded the different stories to create her own characters.

“Each character is a composite of all the different people I interviewed so there’s no one-to-one match up between the interviewee and the characters,” Hemme said. “They said that they could see themselves in parts of it but they couldn’t recognize anyone else and they liked that.”

Hemme also explained that the show provided a way to relate the stories of seemingly ordinary lives to the greater Grinnell community.

“I think it’s just really nice for people whose stories you don’t necessarily get to hear all the time to have some kind of outlet, some way to have their voice be heard,” Hemme said. “It’s just been really special to be given the gift of their stories.”

Hemme will also have performances this weekend, tonight at 7 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Grinnell Historical Museum—located at 1125 Broad Street in Grinnell. Though tickets sold out last week, those without tickets should be able to get in if they come around 30 minutes before the show.

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