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Theater production written by Salina students earns national nomination

Reality proved better than dreams this month when news arrived that multiple honors had come again to the Emporia State University theater program.

“The Treehouse Effect,” written by student playwrights Brandon Jensen and Mark Warner, is one of six productions chosen to be performed in January at the Kennedy Center Region 5 American College Theater Festival in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Warner graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts; Jensen graduated in December 2015, also with a bachelor of fine arts degree.

“It was something that we were kind of hoping for in the back of our minds, but kind of realistically saying ‘We’re good either way,’” said Jim Bartruff, director of theatre and professor of communication and theatre.

“I was so proud of our students and so happy for them. It’s like a father whose spouse gives birth to a new child. You are just so proud ... and excited about what’s going to be ahead of you.”

Technology brought the good news early to the playwrights, when a mutual friend who had been monitoring the Festival website texted “Congratulations!” before Festival officials made the formal announcement. 

They checked the website and “sure enough, there it was,” Jensen said. “And then we started texting each other. This is happening. This is real. A little confusing at first, but then super exciting.”

Early recognition of the play had been something the two had not imagined, Warner said. They’d hoped eventually it would be shown to college audiences after several different runs and re-writes.

Support from the Emporia State faculty, though, brought the play to life in Bruder Theatre in March.

“They put a lot of trust in us, and we absolutely couldn’t have done it without them,” Warner said. “We never thought it would be this early or that the production at ESU would be so successful.”

Bartruff said the faculty viewed the play as one that could be done well. It is set in a background of video games and fantasy role-playing familiar to millennials.

“Importantly, it was a comedy about the people who were performing it,” Bartruff explained. “It deals with identity, with growing up; it deals with losing the magic of childhood as we enter into adulthood and taking on the responsibilities. ...

“And the fact that it was about them and the fact that it was written by them was very appealing to the selectors.”

Three “Treehouse” actors are nominated for the Irene Ryan Scholarship Audition. They are Justin Tinker, who received his bachelor of fine arts in December; Elliott Brest, senior, Tonganoxie; and Cameron Reynolds, junior, Paola.

Ryan nominees for other performances are Brandon Jensen, Lisa Tinker, Nathan Short, Sydney Main, Cassidy Tilden and Roxie Hopkins.

Costume designer Dr. Susan Mai, professor of communication and theatre, also was invited to showcase her costumes from “As You Like It” in the festival’s costume parade. 

A special performance of “The Treehouse Effect” will be at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 15, in Bruder Theatre in King Hall. Dr. Theresa Mitchell, professor of communications and theatre, is director.

General admission seating is planned. A suggested $10 donation will be used for travel expenses.

More information may be had by calling the Theatre Department, 620-341-5256, beginning Jan. 4 when the Emporia State University reopens from the holiday break.