CORRECTION: A previous headline of this story incorrectly categorized Eleanor and Dolly as a musical. The headline has now been corrected.
While working at a scholarship fair for high school seniors, Jenny Stafford met a student who knew exactly what she wanted: to go to a good college, have a successful career and marry her high school sweetheart. Of course, she first had to find her high school sweetheart.
“She goes, ‘Oh, I don’t have a high school sweetheart,’” said Stafford, head of Temple’s Playwriting and Musical Theatre Bookwriting department, “I said ‘Oh, man, don’t you graduate in a few months?’ She goes ‘Yeah, but we just got this new foreign exchange student so, you know,’ then she crossed her fingers really tight.”
The interaction inspired the main character of Eleanor and Dolly, a coming-of-age story about Ellie, a high school senior trying to find a relationship before she graduates, following the advice of her heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dolly Parton.
The play will be performed at Temple’s Randall Theater from Sept. 14-24. Stafford will see her play for the first time in its entirety, brought to life through the direction of Brandon McShaffrey and performance by Temple’s musical theater department.
Since the beginning of the writing process in 2019, Stafford knew she wanted Ellie to be inspired by powerful female role models. She began to notice similarities between Parton and Roosevelt’s ideologies and positions as female role models while researching, and decided to intensely edit the play to feature them both.
“The thing that stood out to me, reading about these two women back-to-back was how much they had in common,” Stafford said. “They seem to be so diametrically opposed as human beings in terms of looks and education and where they fit in the world, like politics and music, but reading and researching them back-to-back I was astonished just to see how much was really similar between them.”
Stafford has had the unusual privilege of working on the play from the earliest stages of writing through the rehearsal process, which she has welcomed as a needed break from the solitary lifestyle of a playwright.
“So much of being a playwright is actually really lonely, it’s like you alone in a coffee shop, just imagining what all of these things could be, and then the process of actually getting into the room and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me caring about this piece,’” Stafford said.
Stafford was also able to work with costume and sound designers on the production, providing insight on the characters and her vision for the show.
“Dolly Parton is a big part of the show, and the sound designer has done the most amazing deep dive on Dolly Parton music,” Stafford said. “So it’s really sort of magical to sit in the room and suddenly this thing that’s just been in your imagination is now in the hands of a large group of people and to watch it actually come to life is pretty magical.”
The benefit of having the play’s author present hasn’t gone unnoticed by the cast. Stafford attended multiple readings and rehearsals, helped the actors through scenes and made edits to the original script so it translated better on stage.
“At the end of the day, it’s our goal as actors to make sure that the playwright’s vision comes to life and we want to make sure that we’re doing that as authentically as we possibly can,” said Eliana Pinckney, a junior musical theater major playing Ellie in the upcoming show. “So being able to talk to her and hear her vision for exactly how she envisions these characters come into life has been really incredible for my process as an actor.”
The cast of college students helped Stafford because they gave feedback on the characters’ behaviors and the slang they would use. Stafford was able to better tailor the play to a young audience because of their feedback.
Other participants, like Ontaria Wilson, who plays Ellie’s mother, felt it was beneficial to have Stafford involved in the production because her presence and passion help guide the characters throughout the plot.
After being asked by McShaffrey to play Ellie’s mother — as the character needed to be played by someone older — Wilson began to view her relationship with her mother differently because she related to the conflict Ellie and her mother experienced in the play.
She felt that personal experience helped her emotionally connect to the play.
“I saw myself in Ellie’s shoes with my mom, and so, when you look at your life in retrospect, through the lens of someone else telling their story, you get to see all of the sacrifice, all of the love and protection that your parents actually made me for you, it opens you up emotionally,” said Wilson, a Master of Fine Arts directing candidate.
Through the additional adjustments and driving plot of the script, Stafford hopes the play connects with young people who feel pressured to live up to unrealistic expectations, which she feels have been increasingly prevalent due to social media.
“I think even with social media and TikTok and all of those things, you see people out there that you feel that you need to live up to or who feel very aspirational, and sort of lay out what a successful life looks like,” Stafford said. “My hope is that this piece sort of allows you to say, ‘Oh, what if I threw that picture out and created a picture that actually feels right to me and authentic to me?’”