Playwriting class helps children make sense of pandemic


Like other NWU professors, Rebecca Boesen found herself in unfamiliar territory when she was asked to pivot mid-semester into a distance-learning model.

Boesen approached the new challenge first with caution and concern for students enrolled in her Playwriting II course.

Then the theatre instructor used her students’ wellbeing to influence a new direction for her course. She wanted to make it memorable and influential for her students who were now away from the bright lights and big stage of McDonald Theatre that they had become so familiar with.

“We made lemonade out of COVID-19 lemons,” Boesen said.

Boesen’s challenge to her students was to write a short play for young audiences, specifically one that addressed the anxieties and experiences that children are processing during the pandemic. The plays would be submitted and considered for a performance produced by Blixt Locally Grown, a Lincoln based organization committed to improving the lives of children and families through the arts. Boesen is co-founder and vice president of the organization.

Nine plays were submitted, and all were strong contenders, said Boesen. Ultimately, Claire Opheim’s play, “Captain Soapman,” was selected for production.

Opheim – who goes by the pen name, Mary Sinclair, understands how easy it is for people to get caught up in their own woes in times of uncertainty; however, the time is even more confusing for children who are often left out of the loop of information, she said.

“It’s important for kids to understand the situation but not live in fear,” said Opheim, a sophomore theatre studies major from Bennington, Nebr.

Her play embraces humor, heart, and hope to honor the experience of children everywhere who are processing the big changes that come alongside COVID-19. In the play, an eight-year-old boy named Michael is anxious when an army of hostile germs kidnap his favorite toy. Eventually he uses soap to fight off the evil germs that come to his room. His fear is addressed and overcome with the help of his parents.

“I physicalized the germs for children to understand their presence but also to give them a sense of power to ‘fight’ against the illness.” said Opheim.

Providing a sense of hope was a major factor in her writing.

“Too often, children feel helpless or small because of their age,” she says, “but I made Michael the superhero “Captain Soapman” to show other kids that they can be just as helpful and powerful during scary times.”

Opheim’s interpretation of reality made her play stand out among the rest for its entertaining and educational approach. Including themes of grief as well, Blixt Locally Grown knew this was the piece they would produce.

“For several years now, Blixt Locally Grown has been working alongside Mourning Hope Grief services and various schools and communities on utilizing theatre as a powerful way to address grief. Claire’s play was right up our alley,” Boesen explained.

Produced entirely via Zoom video-conferencing so actors and crew could maintain social distancing, Opheim says the experience has been a dream come true.

“I have always dreamed of having a play produced, but to have this happen so fast and so soon is so incredible. Becky [Boesen] and Petra (Wahlqvist, president and co-founder of Blixt Locally Grown) have put in so much work and treat this show with so much respect that I couldn’t be more pleased with the experience. They have put together an amazing team of creative artists that are making this show more than I even imagined.”

Boesen hopes her students finished the playwriting course with a new confidence in translating their own thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic  as well as the experience in writing short plays for young audiences, inevitably creating self-awareness and the ability to find their voices as playwrights.

Opheim plans to make a career of playwriting and potentially run her own small theatre in the future, working with children’s and conventional adult theatre.

“Captain Soapman” premiers May 15th on the Blixt Locally Grown website. The website also features additional submissions by the NWU class.