Accept your characters for who they are

I haven’t been writing much over the past several weeks. Rehearsing for “Spinning into Butter” is taking a lot of time.

My First Reaction to the Script of “Spinning into Butter”

I’m playing Dean Catherine Kenney.  My first reaction when I read the script was that it was just a bunch of white people navel gazing. I thought that Kenney was a soulless bureaucrat. I reminded myself that this is why you should read plays before you audition.

I asked myself how in hell I was going to make this woman into a human being.

Then We Had the First Read Through

At the first read through, I realized how funny the play is.

And I realized that Kenney isn’t a soulless bureaucrat. She has a job to do. She is the Dean of a small, private, liberal arts college. She oversees curriculum. She is responsible for standards for faculty. She’s a fundraiser. She has to meet the needs of lots of different groups on campus – administrators, faculty, staff, students – and off campus – alumni, donors, accreditation boards.

She has to manage difficult people, such as Burton Strauss and the president of the University.

She has to deal with a problem that could potentially disrupt everyone on campus and threaten the future of the University.

And Then I Found This MFA Masters Thesis

The play is based on actual incident at Middlebury College. While I was searching for any information I could find on the actual incident, I found someone’s MFA masters thesis on analyzing and directing the play.

It’s titled “Tackling Difficult Dialogues: A Director’s Approach to Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter,” and the MFA candidate was Whitney L. Smith. You can find the text of it here:

So I thought, I’ll read what she has to say about Kenney. Maybe she’ll have some useful insight.

Don’t Judge the Characters!

At first, her analysis sounded fair.  She describes Kenney as meticulous, scrupulous, dedicated, a no-nonsense leader, authoritative, sharp, intelligent, well-dressed and well-groomed.

Then she starts judging.  She says that Kenney “finds peace and recreation in making memos, inter-office emails, and bulleted lists.”

And “she wants easy solutions to difficult problems, and tries to control everything and everyone, without getting her hands dirty.”

And “To Kenney, anything can be solved with a ‘to-do’ list, even the university’s race problem.”

“She decides to sit back and let the other administrators come up with a plan that she can then take to President Garvey. Making sure that the plan is actually well-thought out is not as important as if it seems like a good idea that everyone agrees on. ”

And the kicker:

At the end of the play when the administration learns that Simon was sending the notes to himself, Kenney is the first to want things back to normal. Kenney, who says, “The quickest way to heal is to get on with things” decides that the quickest way to forget about the incident is to expel Simon (Gilman 80) She refuses to talk with Simon, believing that he wrote the notes to get attention.


Kenney doesn’t think “anything can be solved with a to do list.” She’s got a white, male president of the college to deal with along with the board that is probably exclusively white and mostly male. When she tells Sarah, the Dean of Students, that she needs a plan to deal with the problems developing on campus, written up so that “any idiot can understand it,” she’s talking about the difficulty of getting through to the white male president and board she has to deal with.

What’s more, she’s working with a Dean of Students who was hired to increase diversity on campus, but is dropping the ball. Sarah isn’t dealing effectively with the problems, and when Kenney asks her what they should do, Sarah says “I don’t know.”

There’s absolutely no evidence in the text that Kenney finds “peace and recreation in making memos, inter-office e-mails, and bulleted lists.”

As for sitting back, the other people at the meetings have more experience than she does in dealing with issues like the one that has come up. Smart people let knowledgeable people come up with solutions. And of course she takes the plan to President Garvey. That’s her job!

Kenney doesn’t expel Simon as a way to forget about the incident. She expels Simon because he violated the honor code, not once but several times. It’s right there in the text! She doesn’t “refuse” to talk to Simon. She wants to, at the beginning, but he’s gone to class.

How Did Someone Get a Masters Degree with This?

How could someone get a masters degree for analyzing and directing a play, while fundamentally misunderstanding the text?

How could someone effectively direct a play, while judging the characters?

When I Was in Academia…

I have two masters degrees. They’re not in theater, but I still can’t believe that this thesis would be called good work.

Why This Bothers Me so Much

I’m writing this post as a way to find out what bothers me most. I think what bothers me is that she says all the things about Kenney that I feared were true when I first read the script.

But I can’t play that. I have to play Kenney has dedicated, intelligent, strategic, and always doing the best she can in the situation.

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2 Responses to Accept your characters for who they are

  1. Pingback: How do you easily pick up where you left off with a play? | Playwright's Muse

  2. Shannon Mayhall says:

    I just read the article “Accept your characters for who they are”! Finding this article couldn’t have been timelier! I was just cast as Dean Kenney in a production of “Spinning Into Butter” and I came across the Character Analysis for Kenney written as part of a Masters Thesis. I, too, wondered if this person had even read the play?!?!? It depressed and angered me! I am nervous about tackling this role as it’s different from most of the other roles I’ve played. But after reading your article, I’m excited by the challenge and looking forward to bringing Dean Catherine Kenney to life.

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