The Playwright’s Room: Emma Schillage

BY Robbie Armstrong, February 19, 2021

The Playwright’s Room is a series featuring the newest cohort of Columbia Playwriting students. These playwrights study under the tutelage of David Henry Hwang and Lynn Nottage


This week, Playwriting student Emma Schillage sat down with us in The Playwright’s Room. Schillage is an actor, writer, singer, and director. She is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and is a recent graduate from Loyola University New Orleans, where she received her BA in Theatre Arts. She has studied at The Stella Adler Studio of Acting and at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Schillage is a member of the Southern Rep Theatre Acting Company and is a teaching artist for youth programming. She is proud of her Southern Italian-Sicilian heritage which has influenced her writing and spawned her first full-length play, La Famiglia È Tutto. 

Tell me about your first time in Theatre.


Emma Schillage: My first experience in theatre was in Kindergarden. It was called The Persephone Play and I played Persephone’s mom and got to wander around the underworld trying to find Persephone. I remember replicating my mom in this part and she’s a loud Italian woman, so I was screaming like she would if she had lost her child. I was so loud and everyone was laughing. In high school I realized I wanted to act. Acting was my life until senior year of college when I took a playwriting class. This was my first time sitting down and writing a play. I had written short stories my whole life and I loved writing poetry and essays, but I had never written a play. I had some really great mentors in my corner who encouraged me to continue writing. 


After undergrad I tried a lot of different jobs in theatre. I was an actor and once a stage manager. I also was a theatre teacher for kids. I spent the time being as involved as I could, and always writing. 


Why did you pick Columbia for your MFA?


ES: I applied to every place that I could afford to apply to. I cast a wide net and had been interviewed at many schools. I had an interview with David and Morgan [Jenness] and something clicked. They understood my work in a way that other universities didn’t. I felt like they really wanted to help me grow as an artist. They just astounded me. 


Tell me about your plays. 


ES: I started writing one of my plays in a playwriting class in undergrad. I was really interested in reincarnation and I love fairytales and fantasy. I like to have the characters in my play escape into other worlds. This play is about two kids who find a time machine in their fridge and use it to escape a reincarnation program that they are a part of. It’s sci-fi and it was an experimentation of my ideas about time travel, reincarnation, and fantasy. 


The play I submitted to Columbia was La Famiglia È Tutto. I wrote it about my Sicilian family who were immigrants. It’s about an Italian family living in Independence, Louisiana. It’s sort of a love letter to my family. It’s about matriarchy and strong Italian women. It’s my family’s stories that I’ve collected. My family is a part of an oral tradition of storytelling but I became the scribe who wrote it all down. The play came out of me all at once and I finished it in about a week, but editing took way longer. 


Independence, Louisiana is a real town established by Sicilian families whose main work was on strawberry farms. I love writing plays in the south. I love writing about New Orleans particularly. There’s an endless supply of stories that can be told. The south will always be a part of me. It’s a place that will always inspire me. There’s something about the people, the place, and the humidity. New Orleans people are resilient, especially with everything we’ve been through. These people give me a great deal of pride. 


What’s a lesson you’ve learned from your time at Columbia so far?


ES: We had this master class with Dominique Morrisseau. She told us that she doesn’t read reviews and doesn’t care about the compliments or the feedback of those. She said that she writes for herself and doesn’t really listen to the fans or the critics. She writes for the audience as well but I appreciated that she said that she writes for herself. When people usually say that, they’re trying to convince themselves, but she said it with such conviction that I knew she believed it. It made me want to listen to myself as a writer. 


How would you define your writing style?


ES: It’s evolving and it will never stop evolving. Right now it’s dependent on the world I’m living in which is the pandemic and new government. It’s a lot of escapism and looking through the world with child-like eyes. I feel like I’m just a kid right now and my plays will always have that child-like youthful quality. I like to write about kids and how they interact with their world. I don’t think I had a writing style before coming to Columbia and my classes have been helping me hone that. 


What’s your favorite play/musical?


ES: My first dive into contemporary playwrights was Sarah Ruhl. I saw Melancholy Play and I fell in love with the way she wrote. She just wrote things I didn’t know you could write, like almonds falling from the sky. That play is so wacky, cool, and crazy. You never really forget your first play like that. I also really enjoy Gruesome Playground Injuries, another play that really cooks me. 


What’s next for you?


ES: I’m thinking about collaborating with members of my cohort on a piece about young women coming of age. We want the play to come through our different voices as playwrights. I’m also thinking about writing a children’s book for kids who are differently abled, something for blind or deaf kids. Some projects in the future, but I’m also embracing the school mentality of trying to learn and grow.