As Rye Neck Middle School eighth grader Ella Grann sat in her school’s Performing Arts Center, she diligently took notes as a group of high school students recited lines from her original play. Grann, who wrote the short play during lockdown last spring, said she was inspired to reflect on the similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and other viruses, such as the smallpox pandemic, Spanish flu and Ebola.
“The main message [of my play] is that humanity can overcome pandemics even if society is changed forever,” Grann said. “Other generations made it through these epidemics and pandemics, and we can make it through the coronavirus.”
Grann’s play tells the story of four girls living in different pandemics or epidemics. One of her characters, Emma, faces smallpox at a time when marriage was a way that a woman’s worth was measured; Mary’s indecisiveness impacts how careful she is about avoiding the Spanish flu; Nyah is living in Kenya when the Ebola virus starts to spread; and when Sophia was a young child, her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico and are now facing the coronavirus pandemic.
Theater director and drama teacher Scott Harris, who taught Grann in his drama class last year and also directed her in the middle school production of “The Wizard of Oz” the prior year, recognized the young playwright’s talent. After reading through her drafts, he invited Grann to listen to his Intermediate Acting class students read aloud her play.
“This is an integral part of the development process for a young playwright,” Harris said. “It allows her to hear her words spoken aloud rather than just reading them in her own voice off the page. This helps the playwright shape her script and realize what is working and what needs revision.”
Harris described Grann’s play as ambitious and advanced for such a young student.
“I was very impressed with the complexity of the character development and the mature themes she tackled,” he said. “Rather than sit back and simply relax during the school shutdown, Ella took it upon herself to synthesize what was happening in the world around her and compare that to previous pandemics, then boil all of it down to a short play that also deals with women’s issues.”
Grann said she was grateful to her teacher and the high school students for reading her play aloud, which helped her refine it and make any necessary revisions.
“I enjoy all of the playwriting process, especially hearing my words come to life,” she said. “I loved writing at the most random times when my ideas sparked. This was the first play that I have written, but I guarantee it will not be the last.”