(Posted April 4, 2011)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Talking to funeral directors, coffin makers, grave diggers and relatives who had lost a loved one is hardly an easy assignment, but a group of Juniata College students not only interviewed dozens of people who have experience with death, but they also collaborated in writing a play about it.

The production "Death. A Comedy: With Music," emerged from a yearlong project at Juniata started in September 2010 by actor, playwright and director KJ Sanchez. Sanchez is the founder of American Records theatre company, a production company that writes and produces plays based on interviews with real people who work in a specific industry, or have a common experience.

"The play is like 'This American Life' on NPR, in that you get different segments on the same topic acted out on stage and there is an emotional journey that results from these stories."

KJ Sanchez, playwright, director

The Juniata production premieres Wednesday, April 13 and runs through Saturday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Suzanne von Liebig Theatre in the Halbritter Center for the Performing Arts.


Admission on Wednesday, April 13, is free. Tickets for the April 14-16 shows are $7 for adults and $4 for students. To inquire about tickets and other information, please call (814) 641-3000.

"The play is like 'This American Life' on NPR, in that you get different segments on the same topic acted out on stage and there is an emotional journey that results from these stories," says Sanchez, who used a similar technique to write and direct "ReEntry," an acclaimed play based on interviews with U.S. Marines who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sanchez and Kate Clarke, assistant professor of theatre at Juniata, met with almost 20 Juniata students in September for an intense weeklong workshop on interviewing and writing. Over the course of this year, the students were asked to complete three to five interviews. The students and Sanchez interviewed a variety of people who have intimate experience with death, including a coffin maker, coroners, chaplains and ministers, hospice workers, a grave digger, gravestone engravers and a wide range of family members.

"They've gone a great job," says Sanchez. "They started by interviewing people in their comfort zone, but at the end I had a student cold-calling a coffin maker in Kentucky and doing as great interview. The students all have a generosity of spirit."

Sanchez and the students used the interview transcripts to create monologues performed by the students, although there are several scenes with multiple actors. In addition, the production is interwoven with musical interludes commenting on the show's theme -- written and performed by PK Pickens.

"It's surprisingly funny," Sanchez says. "The humor comes out of the interviews as a sort of irreverent need to laugh at death and talk about the human aspect of loss."

Sanchez founded the American Records company three years ago after her production of "ReEntry" gained popularity. She is an artist-in-residence this semester at Juniata, and also is an associate artist with the theatrical group the Civilians.

Before starting her company, Sanchez was associate artistic director at the Two River Theatre Company and also acted in theatre and television roles, including credits on "ER," "Law and Order," and the "Apollo Comedy Hour." She also maintains an active career as a voiceover artist and currently works on the Nickelodeon shows "Dora the Explorer" and "Go Diego Go."

She is currently working on another "interview" play called "Highway 47," a drama about her hometown of Tome, N.M., about 30 miles south of Albuquerque, N.M. and a production about getting over a personal injury, either physical or emotional.

The Juniata students in the production are as follows: Andrew Orsie, a senior from Summit Point W.Va.; Sara Deppenbrook, a junior from Beaver Falls, Pa.; Kaetlyn Kuchta, a junior from Shickshinny, Pa.; Nate Frieswyk, a senior from Bel Air, Md.; Melissa Mellon, a senior from Patton, Pa.; Quintin Hess, a senior from Princeton, N.J.; Benson Canfield, a junior from Littleton, N.H.; Chris Ingersoll, a freshman from West Chester, Pa.; Lauren Hitzhusen, a freshman from Houston, Texas; Elizabeth Casey, a freshman from Landisville, Md.; Kevin Whitmire, a senior from Enola, Pa.; Sue Makosky, a junior from Greensburg, Pa.; Elizabeth Bird, a freshman from Edgewater, Md.; Jessica Haggerty-Denison, a freshman from Cooperstown, N.Y.; Phil Oberholzer, a freshman from Shippensburg, Pa.; Lara Schaffer, a freshman from Goshen, N.Y.; Gary Shoemaker, a freshman from Summerdale, Pa.; and Sara Lucchini, a freshman from Northborough, Mass.

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.