Earlham commencement 2021: Grad transforms from theatre hobbyist to award-winning playwright

Brianna Miller loves the rush of performing on stage, but she otherwise considers herself shy and awkward. So, when she was deliberating where to study after high school, her personality played a role in the decision.

“I just typed into Google ‘good schools for introverts’ and Earlham College was on a Top 10 list,” Miller remembers. “I looked into it more and I really liked Earlham’s Quaker Principles and Practices and small class sizes.”

The list, which underscores how Earlham faculty get to know students on a first-name basis, didn’t disappoint when Miller traveled from her Arizona home to visit campus a year later. “I really liked how welcoming Earlham was, including the environment for the LGBTQ community,” she said. “I’m an ally, that’s something that’s really important to me. That’s why I ended up coming here.”

Miller will graduate with the Class of 2021 at Comstock Field on Saturday, May 22 after a four-year journey where she transformed from a theatre hobbyist into an accomplished performer and award-winning playwright. She is one of 249 students earning degrees from the undergraduate college, Earlham School of Religion and the Graduate Programs in Education.

“I just really loved the entire theatre arts department and it helped me realize that theatre is something that I want to be a larger part of my life,” said Miller, who will tour with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company as an intern for one year after earning her degree in theatre arts.

“I just really loved the entire theatre arts department and it helped me realize that theatre is something that I want to be a larger part of my life.” — Brianna Miller, Class of 2021

“I had only ever tried acting in high school, but because Earlham is a small and tight-knit community, especially in theatre, we rely on everybody to be part of several different aspects of our productions,” she said. “I got a lot of shop experience, helping build costumes and props, and held leadership roles that I never would have received if I went anywhere else.”

Graduating on a high note

Miller’s Earlham education ended with an unusual and unexpected opportunity: witnessing the production of Rotten Illusions, a play she began writing in 2018.

“I wrote Rotten Illusions for a playwrighting class and I wrote it as a joke because I was really close to all of the people that were in that class,” Miller said. “I knew their really dark senses of humor and I wanted to write a play that encapsulated that.”

Even though the play received the 2019 Janica Zuck Richards Memorial Award, which is awarded by the College’s Religion and Theatre Arts departments, Miller never expected to see it performed on stage. 

Earlier this month, a cast of 10 students performed the play over two nights on the Wilkinson Theater stage. Miller spent the last year fine-tuning the play’s original script with mentorship and encouragement from Lynne Perkins Socey, associate professor of theatre arts. In addition to her playwrighting duties, she was a fight captain for the production and a member of the marketing and promotion teams.

“Lynne just kept pushing me and told me this was something we should try to produce,” Miller said.  “I think Lynne has always seen more in myself than I knew was there.”

Rethinking her original plan

Miller’s journey has been a pleasant surprise, and led her down an unexpected path almost immediately after arriving on campus.

“I never thought I could be a part of a production in an administrative role because I am so soft-spoken and introverted,” she said. “Lynne has just really pushed me to voice my opinions a lot more and it has helped me become a better theatre artist and a better person in general.”

She never expected to be a theatre artist in the first place. As a first-year student, she was intent on pursuing a degree in English, thinking performing on stage would continue as a hobby that started her sophomore year of high school. 

Her thinking changed when she auditioned for a role in the College’s production of She Kills Monsters. Since then, she has performed in key roles in multiple productions every year since, including The Importance of Being Earnest; Much Ado About Nothing; Company; Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play; and a series of short plays written by Samuel Beckett.

She also traveled to Scotland to attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of an excursion funded by Earlham’s EPIC initiative. During the festival, Miller and 17 other Earlham students performed The Misadventures of Martin Hathaway, which was based on a book written by Indiana author Kathryn Clare Glenand adapted and for stage by Perkins Socey.

Her production work has been acknowledged by the Region 3 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival with an Irene Ryan Award nomination every year. Earlier this year, she became one of two regional winners of an Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship as well as Alternate for the national competition. 

“To say that we are very proud of Brianna and her work is an understatement,” Perkins Socey said. “It is validating to know that the combination of academic and experiential learning opportunities we provide in an environment of creative collaboration allowed her to thrive and grow into the interdisciplinary theatre artistshe is today.

“While we will miss her daily contributions on campus, I am excited to see how her career and life choices positively impact others as she moves out into the world beyond Earlham,” she said. “I look forward to watching her on stage and screen and to celebrate her gifts as a storyteller in whatever she writes, directs or produces.”

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Brian Zimmerman
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