2018 Newsmakers: Dr. Kenneth L. Stilson

Thursday, August 23, 2018
Dr. Kenneth Stilson, playwright, chairman of The Conservatory of Theatre and Dance and professor of acting and directing at Southeast Missouri State University
Photograph by Fred Lynch.

There were more than 210 entries from all over the world for the 2018 New York Musical Festival, which is the largest musical festival in the world. From these entries, 11 were chosen to be produced at the Off-Broadway Acorn Theater on 42nd Street, July 9 through August 5.

“An American Hero,” written by Dr. Kenneth L. Stilson, Southeast Missouri State University acting and directing professor and chairman of the Conservatory, was one of them.

That’s not even the best part. Stilson’s musical won “Best of Festival.” And “Special Citation for University Excellence.” And “Individual Performance Award: Adam Schween.”

“It was somewhat of a pipe dream, to think that out of submissions that are coming in from literally all over the place, you’re going to be selected,” Stilson says of the experience. “It has been wonderful and exhausting, and everything has been terrific.”

The show was born three and a half years ago, when Cody Cole, a Southeast student who has since graduated, wrote a song. Stilson heard it and thought it would be a good piece of music to develop into a story. He and Cole began storyboarding it, and decided Stilson would write the script and Cole would write the music and lyrics. They workshopped “An American Hero” with the Gallery Players, the oldest Off-Off-Broadway company in New York in 2016, and fully produced at The Conservatory in Cape Girardeau in 2017.

“An American Hero” is set in 1939 and chronicles a young Irish immigrant named Thomas O’Brien who joins the U.S. Army. The story follows his journey throughout France during World War II, as well as his new wife’s war efforts on the homefront in New Jersey. Both people change dramatically throughout the war, but ultimately, Stilson says, it is a story about how “war is hell, but love, family and honor provide hope for a better future.”

Stilson’s musical was the only university-based finalist, up against musicals performed by professional, Tony Award-winning Broadway actors and actresses. Performed by Southeast students five times in one week, Stilson says the quality of the musical gave the University “a lot of really good press,” elevating Southeast Missouri State University’s status in New York, the mecca of theater.

“These are young, professional actors, and they brought their A-game to it, and they really knocked it out of the park,” Stilson says of the collaboration process. “When you write a show, it’s just in your head, so it’s very solitary. I sit in my office, and I turn off these horrible fluorescent lights, and I wrap myself in a little cocoon, and I write, and I’m not thinking about anything else beyond that, except telling the story. But then when you produce it, then it becomes this really large, collaborative animal that takes more than 100 people to produce ... nobody got paid for this. Everybody did this out of a love of their craft and love of the art.”

Stilson describes watching the musical in New York as a surreal experience.

“When you’re sitting there and the curtain rises on opening night, it’s pretty much out of your hands,” he says. “Your work as a playwright is done, and so you’re somewhat helpless. It’s a process of giving up. You give away … on opening night, there’s nothing more useless than a playwright at the theater, because all you can do is pace.”

Stilson’s hope is that “An American Hero” will be produced and published. In the meantime, you can catch “Our Town” and “Sister Act,” productions Stilson will be directing this year at the River Campus.