Mitchell reflects on her BYU experience and offers advice to student writers
Every aspiring playwright hopes for the chance to see their work performed. Department of Theatre and Media Arts alumna Ariel Mitchell is living a dream that began nearly a decade ago as her play "A Second Birth" receives its first professional production in New York.
The seeds for the dramatic comedy were planted in 2010 when Mitchell was seeking inspiration for a one-act script in Eric Samuelsen's introductory playwriting course. Mitchell came across a New York Times article titled "Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part" which introduced her to the concept of bacha posh, a cultural practice in which families disguise one of their daughters as a boy in order to afford her educational and social opportunities and improve the family's standing in the community.
As she began to develop the story of a young Afghan woman navigating her family's social and economic circumstances, Mitchell was particularly fascinated by what happens when a bacha posh faces adulthood — and marriage — and is expected to start life again as a woman.
"What really made me want to write this story was the women themselves and their relationship with womanhood," said Mitchell. "It was much more complicated than what we usually imagine or read about the Middle East. There was definitely mention of the oppressive state of the society, but there was also a surprising amount of gratitude that they could have a childhood with freedom and education and also get to embrace who they really are: women."
"I was surprised by how many bacha posh talked about returning to womanhood as a second chance," Mitchell said of the difficult transition that became the central conflict for Nasima, her protagonist. "I related directly to these women, and I believe we all can; even though we don't practice bacha posh, we hold a lot of different expectations for members of different sexes."
The script quickly became much more than a school project. With the encouragement and mentorship of playwriting professor George Nelson, Mitchell worked to expand and deepen the story and characters. "A Second Birth" saw readings and performances on campus and in festivals, garnering various awards before it was ultimately published by Samuel French in 2014.
"It's so good to be having these conversations again," said Mitchell. "As a playwright, we don't want to just have our words read in a book. Plays are really meant to be performed; they are meant to be heard. They are meant to spark conversations. Having the show onstage creates an experience with the words and characters. It puts the situations and questions on their feet. At least for me, it makes me think more actively — I have more opinions, more questions and more to say afterwards."
The cultural and thematic elements of the play have been enriched by the production's entirely Middle Eastern cast led by director Kayla Friend, who worked for years in the United Arab Emirates.
"They've added beautiful touches specific to this area of the world — including prayer and live music — that bring the piece to life in a way it never has been before," said Mitchell. "I write because I have a lot of questions. I like to see what conversations happen and I like to listen and allow myself to be influenced by what we all discover. In productions, that gets to happen with real people, not just in my head. It's humbling because stories always feel bigger than me. In writing and production, I get to come a little bit closer to what is true."
As "A Second Birth" reaches another significant milestone, Mitchell's BYU mentor, George Nelson, was able to travel to New York to see the current production.
"The house was filled to overflowing with a mostly Middle Eastern audience," Nelson recounted. "They resonated with the play and it's positive portrayal of an Afghan family. They cheered at the deeply moving lines delivered by Nasima as she discussed her desire to explore all her talents and abilities as a woman and still be true to her faith and applauded the theme of the piece that celebrated the need for husbands and wives to be equally yoked. At the end of the production, they spontaneously rose in an enthusiastic standing ovation."
Mitchell was excited for Nelson to see the fruits of his interest and investment in her work.
"George really was the person who encouraged me to keep pursuing this story," said Mitchell. "I'm very grateful that he not only saw something in the piece and in me, but dedicated so much time to make someone else's work happen. The further I've gotten away from BYU, the more I've realized how rare that is. He gave me a graduate level experience as an undergraduate — something that wasn't required of him, but changed my life and career forever."
For Mitchell, the BYU experience — and her subsequent master's work at New York University — feels far away at times. While she continues to write from home and support her husband through his PhD, she now finds that her top priorities are her two young children.
"I've been out of school for four years now, and most of that time has been filled not with writing, but with life," said Mitchell. "Most of my career experiences in these last few years have been in development and not in production. I get down on myself a lot for that sometimes. But at the same time, all the living has given me more to write about, more questions to ask and more situations I want to explore more deeply."
Mitchell offered advice to student writers who may be struggling to navigate their strengths and limitations and find direction as they prepare to graduate.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," she said. "Work as hard as you can or want to, but also forgive yourself. Very few of us are going to make it to the big stages, and that's OK. Figure out what success is for you and allow yourself to be OK with that. If I could be in the present and find gratitude always for the moment I'm in instead of thinking about what I've done or what I have yet to do, I'd be a much better — or at least happier — artist and human."