This Furman News article by Tina Underwood was originally published on November 16th, 2023. Photo: Tim Kimzey for The Post and Courier.
Playwright Cammi Stilwell is still trying to get used to the idea that her worldwide debut happens in December. “This project has lived in my brain for two years. Seeing it live with actors and designers and a crew building things out, it’s all very strange and doesn’t feel quite real,” said the 2020 Furman University theatre arts graduate.
“Odd,” debuts at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, South Carolina. A modern-day redux of “The Odd Couple,” the comedy portrays the chaos that ensues when polar opposites navigate life as best friends and roommates. “It’s a love letter to my 20s,” Stilwell said. “I was 23 or 24 when I started writing this show, so it’s taken up a nice little chunk of my mid-twenties.”
The chance to become a professional playwright at a young age isn’t lost on her.
“I’m very aware of how lucky I am that all this is happening,” she said. “I have people who are willing to work with me and create with me. I’m just some 26-year-old with a laptop, and this is my very first show.”
A Columbia, South Carolina, native and offspring of a drama teacher, Stilwell had a voracious appetite for books as a youngster, a hunger that never abated. On occasion, her middle school math teacher had to wrench away whatever fiction she was engrossed in — “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and other dystopian-themed books of the day. Carrie Fisher’s “The Princess Diarist” fueled Stilwell’s penchant for journaling at age 19. Seven years later, she’s on her 11th journal and counting.
Understanding what makes a work entertaining is a skill Stilwell honed at Furman, where she received a steady diet of plays, and Pulitzer- and Tony-winning scripts.
“I got to look at those from an actor’s standpoint and figure out what makes it work for good storytelling and to see it from different perspectives,” she said.
“I think that by studying all the different areas of theatre, students in our program can really see the broader view of the theatre industry,” said Maegan Azar, professor of acting and directing and chair of the Theatre Arts Department. “Playwrights have to be able to put all the pieces together – design, characterization, story arcs, form, style – and by studying all those aspects in lots of different classes and productions, Cammi got a keen sense of the big picture.”
Stilwell took a class from then visiting playwright Randall David Cook ’91, she wrote a student-led play “Muse” in 2019 and worked with playwright Kimberly Belflower on “John Proctor is the Villain” as part of Furman’s collaboration with New York’s The Farm Theater.
“I saw Cammi come alive on that trip,” Azar said. “She ate up the opportunity to be in the room with a playwright like Kimberly who genuinely cared about listening to women and giving them voice in her plays. From that moment on, I could tell Cammi was going to keep writing.”
But in 2020, jobs evaporated, theaters and playhouses shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stilwell bounced around doing random jobs, including a stint as a cast member at Walt Disney World in Orlando. That’s when she received an email that changed everything.
Mike Sablone, friend and artistic director for The Warehouse Theatre, dusted off the script for “Muse,” which Stilwell had sent his way before COVID.
“He wrote something like, ‘Hey, I forgot I had this. I had a lot of fun reading it – I’d like to invest in your future,’” Stilwell recalled.
“It was just the kind of thing I wanted to read,” Sablone said. “It had heart, it had humor, it was theatrical, and, more importantly, it had a clear voice at the helm. I immediately wrote to Cammi and wanted to talk more about what her dreams and aspirations were as a writer.”
That exchange led to a commission from The Warehouse Theatre to write a bit for a 10-minute play festival held in June 2021. The star of the monologue was her close friend and fellow Furman alumna Clare Ruble ’17.
Shortly after the festival closed, Sablone urged Stilwell to keep sending him her work for feedback.
“She sent me some pages from a play that was kicking around her head, and I told her I really liked what she had written,” Sablone said. The two started toying with the idea of using “The Odd Couple” as inspiration for a play starring Ruble and Furman alumna Kenzie Wynne ’17. A couple of years and many iterations later, “Odd” was born.
“Odd” runs December 1-17 and includes a cast and crew loaded with Furman graduates: Anna Bowman ’22, assistant stage manager; Caroline Jane Davis ’13, director; Kevin Frazier ’07, lighting and sound; and actors Ruble and Wynne.