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Judges dig this graveyard humor

MU graduate student a finalist for national playwriting award

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: March 18, 2009
Mary Barlie

MU doctoral student Mary Barile, a playwright known for her dark humor, is a nominee for the 2009 David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award.

A graveyard of yellow-fever victims is the opening setting for an original play that has earned student Mary Barile a nomination for the 2009 David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award. It’s a comedy.

Barile, a doctoral candidate in theater, writes plays that tickle your funny bone or send chills down the back of your neck. She will learn in April whether The Irish Rogue rose to the top of the 14 finalists in the annual competition of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). Receiving such an honor is the college theater equivalent of snagging a Tony Award.

KCACTF is the primary juried university theater competition in the United States. Barile’s play advanced to the national level after winning an eight-state regional competition.

The Irish Rogue — which premiered at MU’s Rhynsburger Theatre in spring 2008 — is set in New Orleans during the time of the Louisiana Purchase when immigrants are fleeing Louisiana before the Americans take over. The tale takes place in 24 hours amid the fun of mistaken identities, misguided lovers, slapstick humor and a trick ending. 

Barile’s inspiration came from an 1804 play by James Workman, Liberty In Louisiana. She broadened the characters and added scenes to expand the script, which poked fun at corruption in government. “Louisiana hasn’t changed too much,” she says.

The next acts

Meanwhile, Barile is too busy writing to worry about competition results. She just wrapped up a book on the Santa Fe Trail and has begun research for a new play about Columbia musician John “Blind” Boone.

In a collaborative project with producer Karen Johnson, a Mizzou law school alumna, she’s writing a documentary film script about actress Maude Adams (1872-1953).

Barile works as a grant writer for MU’s Center for Arts and Humanities, and she teaches as an adjunct theater professor at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo. Plus, she’s completing her dissertation for spring graduation. 

Barile’s intense work ethic is supported by several earlier successes. In two competitions, her 10-minute play The Hollow earned a staged reading at the Kennedy Center and another at the Wing Theatre in New York, and her full-length play Leaving Hannibal was chosen for production in New York at the York Theatre — through Mizzou on Broadway — and at the Arclight Theatre.

Barile attributes much of her success to MU’s playwriting program, where students learn the process in classes and at weekly playwrights workshops.

“It’s a nurturing environment for beginning playwrights,” she says. “We’re encouraged. We have chances to show our work, and we get feedback. We have an excellent playwriting process here, which is pretty rare in a PhD program.”

At home with history

A rich background of life experiences sets Barile apart from the traditional college student. She’s a former Army Reserve officer and a classically trained musician who played double bass with symphony orchestras before moving from New York to the Midwest. 

In her adopted state, Barile lives near the bluffs of the Missouri River in the Boonslick area. She compares her modest vintage home — a 19th-century cottage — to a servants’ quarters amid Victorian mansions.

Barile always has loved history, so mixing history and theater seems natural to her as she undertakes huge amounts of research. “If I’m obsessive about anything, it’s the research,” she says. “I track everything back to a primary source.”

For The Irish Rogue, she read the Louisiana Purchase document and newspapers of the era, and she attended meetings of the Missouri State Historical Society to analyze historical facts.

Barile knows that stories based on history can bring the challenge of dealing with bleak themes. “History is dark; it’s about people,” she says. And that’s where the humor helps. Enter stage left by the cemetery.

Read more in:  Beyond CampusArts & Culture

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Last updated: June 6, 2013