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In Mark Cornell’s Offbeat Comedy “The Retreat,” Five Great Writers Struggle to Find Their True Voices

"The Retreat" by Mark Cornell opens Jan. 14th

"The Retreat" by Mark Cornell opens Jan. 14th

Cary, NC-based Free Association Theatre Ensemble will present The Retreat, an offbeat literary comedy for mature audiences written by Chapel Hill dramatist Mark Cornell and directed by John Paul Middlesworth, on Jan. 14 and 15 and 20-22 in FATE’s performance space, located in the Harrison Pointe Shopping Center, at the corner of Harrison Ave. and Maynard Rd. in Cary.

The Retreat is a comedy about what happens when Stephen King [born 1947], a weak-hearted innocent; Anais Nin [1903-77], a shy and frigid sweetheart; F. Scott Fitzgerald [1896-1940], an uptight moron; and Dr. Seuss [nee Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-91], a womanizing egomaniac, all get together at a Southern writers’ retreat, in a prose class, taught by Emily Dickinson [1830-86], who just happens to be a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed shrew,” explains playwright Mark Cornell.

“Each student is struggling with their work — King with The Shining, Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby, Nin with her autobiography, and Seuss with various Seuss-like stories — because they have not found their true voices in their writing,” Cornell explains. “The Retreat moves from retreat locations to the world of the writers’ fiction, and back, as each student attempts to find his or her true voice, and, perhaps, true self.”

Sara Croninger, Wyatt Geist, Thom Haynes, Brook North, and Jessi Nemeth portray the famous writers. Kurt Benrud, George Kaiser, Jessica Kent, Oliver Vest, Cassandra Wladyslava, and Ken Wolpert act out scenes from the rough drafts of the works cited above.

Playwright Mark Cornell recalls, “At the time I wrote the play, I was getting my MFA in playwriting at UCLA. We had four students in my class and we spent a lot of time together. We were a close group — still are — and out of the writing and analyzing, our daily criticisms of each other’s work, the great affection, the crashing and burning, the late nights, the craziness, our relationships with each other outside of class — out of that came The Retreat.”

He adds, “The play started as a one-act. After that first production at UCLA, I turned it into a full-length [play]. The changes came in filling out the lives of these characters outside the classroom. I added the badminton scene, the poetry reading, and several other scenes that deal more with the personal lives of the characters and not their work.

“I never make changes based upon audience or critical response, at least not consciously,” claims Cornell. “My changes come out of time in rehearsal, my own viewings of the play, and rereading it. It’s not that I don’t trust the audience or value critics, it’s just that if I revised scripts because of their reactions, I’d never finish them. I already have a penchant for rewriting at great length. I don’t need to make it worse.”

Free Association Theatre Ensemble director John Paul Middlesworth adds, “FATE had presented a staged reading of The Retreat in early 2010 that I took part in. I was impressed by how audacious and imaginative the script was. As someone with an English degree, I loved the topsy-turvy presentation of a set of writers that (I thought) I knew something about. It’s a very funny piece.”

Middlesworth notes, “The play has had several presentations in its earlier, shorter form, so it’s been ‘workshopped’ in a way. We’ve incorporated some revisions that [dramatist] Mark [Cornell] has made as he’s watched us rehearse….

“[The Retreat] is more like a screenplay than a script for the stage,” claims Middlesworth. “With over three dozen scenes in various locations throughout the grounds of the writers’ retreat, the script really tests the ingenuity of anyone who wants to stage it. I decided to use three playing areas with minimal set pieces. Sometimes the areas depict the cabins of the retreat, sometimes outdoor areas, other times an imaginary space for enacting scenes from the writers’ work.

In addition to playwright Mark Cornell and director John Paul Middlesworth, who doubles as set designer for the show, the Free Association Theatre Ensemble creative team for The Retreat includes FATE founder and producer Julya M. Mirro and technical director and stage manager Amy Wright.

Middlesworth says, “Two platforms depict separate cabins at the retreat, and serve several other functions. Writers use a space at the center to gather and hear each others’ stories, often just after a given rough draft has been enacted. So you have, for instance, a scene from a nice, happy version of The Shining, followed by the writers working as a group to critique King’s initial draft….

“Expect to see Fitzgerald, Seuss, Dickinson, King, and Nin as you’ve never seen them,” says Middlesworth, “meaning that their choice of vocabulary at this, the imagined outset of their careers is anything but demure. Leave the kids at home and come for a good laugh. The characters develop in such a quick and crazy way that no prior literary knowledge is necessary, although the show should especially be fun for those who are familiar with the writers’ work.”

Free Association Theatre Ensemble presents THE RETREAT at 8 p.m. Jan. 14 and 15 and 20-22 in FATE’s performance space, located in the Harrison Pointe Shopping Center, 267 Grande Heights Dr., Cary, North Carolina 27513.

TICKETS: $15 ($10 students and educators, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).

BOX OFFICE: 919/228-8184,, or





The Play: (Mark Cornell’s official website).

Sample Pages: Retreat for the web.pdf (Mark Cornell’s official website).

The Playwright: (official website).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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