“Oh my God, what am I going to write?”
This was the question nagging then-junior Meredith Dayna Levy ’12, M.F.A. ’18 while she was studying abroad in London during the spring of 2011. For her senior honors thesis, the theatre major knew she wanted to write a play, one with an all-female cast that would allow her “to practically use the actors I knew on campus and also speak to my experience as a college student.” What she didn’t know was, what exactly was the play going to be about?
“I was beating myself up about it,” Levy recalls.
All that changed when Levy learned that in 2009, President Barack Obama had signed into law a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the group known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first women ever to fly American military aircraft. Created in World War II to fly noncombat military missions in the United States so that male pilots could take on combat missions in Europe and Asia, the WASP program logged more than 60 million miles and flew virtually every kind of aircraft operated by the Army Air Force.
Levy was astounded. She had never heard of the WASP program and was determined to learn more. She found a newspaper article about one of the pilots after she had flown her first solo flight. “All of her friends had dumped her into this wishing well per tradition. I thought, ‘This is something Hollins students are going to understand. We’re all about wacky traditions.’” But on a more profound level, Levy’s initial research told her that “even though I knew nothing at all about planes, the military, or physics, I decided this was an environment and a community that I could understand, and more importantly, my audience of students could understand.”
Thus began Levy’s work on what would become the play Decision Height. The drama would have its Hollins Theatre Main Stage premiere in the fall of 2012, subsequently capture honors from the prestigious Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, and go on to be produced at high schools, colleges, and community theatres around the country. Hollins Theatre is now giving Decision Height its first revival in a virtual staging April 1-3 at 7:30 p.m.; April 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m.; and April 11 at 2 p.m. (Admission is free and open to the public, but tickets are required; visit Brown Paper Tickets to request the Zoom link.)
Decision Height follows six women upon their arrival at a base in Sweetwater, Texas, for nine months of training before moving on to active duty. “We witness how their relationships develop and the ways in which they learn new things about themselves and each other, what motivates them and what gives them purpose and strength,” Levy explains. “By the end of the play, every character is sort of on a different path, but we know they’re united forever in friendship.”
Artistic Director and Chair of the Hollins Theatre Department Ernie Zulia, who was Levy’s advisor when she was an undergraduate, remembers when she first approached him prior to the 2011-12 academic year about writing a play as her honors thesis. “An honors thesis is a yearlong process, and I figured, ‘Terrific, that’s enough to occupy any new playwright for a year.’ But then she added, ‘I would like to design, produce, and direct the play.’ And I thought, ‘Sure, if anyone can take on that kind of effort, Meredith can.’ Not only was it sitting down and creating characters and dialogue, it also required intense research in order to do it authentically.”
Levy devoured every piece of background information she could find. A crucial discovery was an online collection of primary research materials compiled by Nancy Parrish, whose mother, Odean “Deanie” Bishop Parrish, was part of the WASP program. “Nancy has made it her life’s mission to document WASP, and I spent the entirety of the summer after I came back from London just eating this stuff up. I even got to talk to Nancy and Deanie. So many of the events in the play came out of that research and brought those stories to life. It can be intimidating when you’re faced with so many real people. How do you fictionalize it? You want to get every detail right and memorialize it perfectly.”
So, Levy devoted the fall of 2011 to “doing draft after draft after draft.” Friends took part in readings of the play “just trying to get the words out so that I could hear the play and determine what was missing or confusing. With each draft I was able to take a further step away from the history and lean more on my own lived experience, my friendships, and putting my own emotional truth into the play and amongst all the historical framework.”
Levy eventually invited Zulia and Todd Ristau, director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, to attend those readings and offer feedback. “It needed more work, but it was a beautiful script,” Zulia says. “When you get a play to that point, it’s important to get it up on its feet so the playwright can see the play they’ve written.”
In February 2012, Decision Height went into rehearsals for its production that spring in the Upstairs Studio Theatre at Hollins, a venue designed for trying out new works. The staging “was received with such enthusiasm,” Zulia says. “People were in tears and talking about what an impact this play had on them. I’d seen plays through many incarnations and I knew some of the problems she’d need to fix as she continued to work on it, but I heard it loud and clear from the audience that something in this play was profoundly moving.”
After graduating in the spring of 2012, Levy moved into Hollins’ M.F.A. in Playwriting program. Zulia offered her a deal: If she spent that summer working on rewrites, he would put Decision Height on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage. She continued adding new elements to the play with support from Zulia, Ristau, and Bob Moss, a member of the Playwright’s Lab faculty who has been called a “living legend of Off-Off Broadway.”
For Decision Height’s Main Stage production that October, Zulia invited representatives from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region IV, a program dedicated to improving the quality of college theatre in the United States. “The feedback we got was phenomenal,” Zulia notes, and in January 2013, KCACTF’s Region IV awarded its top playwriting honor to Levy.
A year later, Hollins and Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre hosted the 2014 Region IV KCATCF and featured Decision Height as the opening event. “There were spontaneous standing ovations, people were so impressed by the work Meredith and the whole company had created,” Zulia says. “It definitely told us something good was happening. At this festival, national representatives from across the country for the Kennedy Center were in attendance. They selected Decision Height as the top new play of the year, and the top production of a play that season.”
Subsequently published by Samuel French, one of the world’s leading publishers and licensors of plays and musicals, Decision Height over the past seven years has reached broader audiences regionally and nationally. Levy got special satisfaction from seeing it staged at colleges and universities. “I’m always amazed when I go to a school and see students do the show. If it’s a single-sex environment, the actors are so excited – ‘This play feels like our school. This is me and my friends, this is our community.’ I expected that, but I’m also so delighted when I go to big state schools and the women say, ‘There are so few parts for us in so many of the main stage productions. I’ve never viewed any of my peers as friends when we’re competing for the same five parts. To do an all-female production, I feel like I’ve built a new family.’ Hearing these students talk about how they had discovered this whole new way of being in community with women, that it didn’t have to be adversarial or competitive, was huge. I didn’t set out to write a play that would do that, but it was gratifying to know the play was having such an impact.”
Zulia sees the Decision Height revival as a logical continuation of Hollins Theatre’s Legacy Series, which began a decade ago as a way to bring literary pieces by Hollins writers to the stage. Beginning with the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown ‘32, the Legacy Series has included A Woman of Independent Means (Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey ’60), Belloq’s Ophelia (Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard ’67, M.A. ’68), and Good Ol’ Girls (Lee Smith ’67 and Jill McCorkle M.A. ’81).
“Along comes Decision Height, and we thought, ‘Our playwriting program is a big part of our legacy along with our creative writing program,’” Zulia explains. “Some students came to me last year and asked, ‘When do we get to perform Decision Height?’, and it seemed like a good idea – let’s bring this play back and give our current students the opportunity to be a part of it. Its historical setting and themes are timeless.”
Levy believes Decision Height is the perfect title for the play and underscores why it continues to resonate with audiences of all ages, particularly the college demographic. “‘Decision Height’ is the flight term that was used for the critical moment where you have to decide if you’re going to land the plane or keep going. I thought that was such a great metaphor for what it feels like to graduate college and be at this point where you have to decide, what path you’re going to take with your life.
“Looking back after ten years, there’s no decision that you can’t change. But as a senior, I thought whatever I do next is going to define my life. It felt so huge, and this metaphor was really helpful to me to put my hands around that feeling and fear.”