Poetry proved to be the perfect dramatic gateway for Emmaleth Ryan.
Ryan, an 18-year-old senior at Grandview High School, first started exploring verse as a freshman, following the example of one of her artistic idols, Smoky Hill High School alum and former Aurora Poet Laureate Jovann Mayes. She took part in slam poetry readings and worked hard to hone her craft.
It was only three years later, as Ryan kicked off her final year in high school, that she saw a new possibility in the craft of poetry. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts was looking for entries for its annual statewide high-school playwriting competition, and Ryan didn't want the opportunity to go to waste.
"I'd been meaning to enter the one-act play competition since I was a freshman, but I'd never really bothered to do it," Ryan said, adding that the contest offered an opportunity to address a topic close to her heart. "I wanted to portray a story about mental illness and depression, and the way that I found most appropriate was through poetry, because that's what I love to write.
"That's where I got a lot of the inspiration; I wanted to incorporate poetry into a play," she added.
The result was an original play titled "Sleep No More," a drama featuring a main character who struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide; her darkest interior conflicts find expression in the kind of lyricism that has long captivated Ryan. With a title pulled from a key quote in William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and a dynamic that never shies away from difficult questions, the show offers an unfiltered perspective.
Three of the four scenes in the one-act play commence with poems that illustrate the main character's inner turmoil. One muses about the fragility of human dreams and inspiration, declaring, "Dreams are people-shaped. Our aspirations rise in their throats and our despair catches in their teeth. Desires tangle in their fingers. Hatred knots their hair. They are as easy to kill as we are."
The show's unflinching and powerful exploration of mental health issues earned Ryan a spot as one of only three finalists in the playwriting competition. Ryan will attend a week of workshops and receive mentoring from nationally acclaimed playwrights before her original show is read as part of the Denver Center's New Play Summit on Feb. 24. She will also receive a $250 scholarship and free access to all of the readings and performances during the Summit. Ryan's theater teacher, Brianna Lindahl, will also receive a gift certificate for classroom resources.
As a finalist, Ryan is also in the running to have her play professionally produced as part of DCPA Education's 2018 summer program.
It's all a bit overwhelming for Ryan, who is quick to point out that "Sleep No More" represents her first effort as a playwright. Even so, she's eager to mingle with professional actors, writers and other theater professionals at the New Play Summit, and she feels validated that play's important themes and issues resonated with the judges.
"In the past, I've had mental health issues, I've had friends who've had mental health issues. It's always been a very important subject to me. (I've) recovered from it, watched other people struggle with it and encouraged them. Now in my senior year, I wanted to give myself closure," Ryan said. "I've had a lot more informed discussions about mental health and developing my own point of view … I wanted to offer the perspective of someone who's gone through it."
More importantly, Ryan wanted to spread a message of strength and determination; she wanted to tackle the stigma and ring a message of hope.
"Victimizing oneself is one way to go, and it's a way that a lot of people go," Ryan said. "In the end, that's not what's really important. What's really important is learning how to fight back."
Ryan is still getting used to her creative accomplishments and thinking of ways to fit her newfound success as a playwright into her post-graduation plans. At this point, she's looking to pursue studies in cognitive science in college; she insists that drama will have to co-exist with her other plans.
Still, Ryan is happy for the opportunity to share the message of her play with a diverse and professional crowd at the upcoming New Play Summit. It's a chance to offer her unique perspective and spread messages born of her own struggles; it's an opportunity to tackle difficult issues and offer valuable insights. Ryan wanted to create a piece that includes input from characters who are women of color; she wanted a forum to address difficult questions that aren't always easy to face as a high school student.
"That's how you fight," Ryan writes in "Sleep No More." "You show them your pain. You show them your anger and your happiness and your sadness and you make them feel it."