This blog post is the second in a three-part series by Laura Barnett. In the series, Laura shares lessons gleaned from OHMA alumni about finding a thesis topic.
Kristen La Follette (OHMA 2012) came to Columbia from California, where she worked as a transition specialist assisting young adult students with special needs to find employment.
Inspired by her cousin, a Franciscan sister, Kristen’s initial thesis topic was to focus on “the shrinking and aging community of Catholic nuns,” and write an analytic paper. “Once I did my first interview,” she said, “I realized, ‘No, if I write a paper, I’m going to have to cut out all the stories.’” Kristen decided to transform the interview with Sister Petra, an assignment for Mary Marshall Clark’s Method & Theory class, into source material for a dramatic monologue.
“I was working with a life-history based approach to interviews in Gerry Albarelli’s Oral History to Literary Narrative class. Gerry brought a guest, Penny Arcade, to class who performed a monologue, and I thought, ‘That’s it! That’s want I want to do!’”
Switching from writing an analytic paper to realizing a more creative format wasn’t straightforward. “I went through a crisis, concerned that writing monologues might mean leaving out historic or timely subject matter. But after this crisis, I felt even more committed, so I think the thought process –which included almost changing topics – was beneficial.”
Kristen credits Sister Nora Nash, an anti-fracking advocate, for facilitating introductions with most of the twelve nuns she would interview. For her thesis A Glimpse Through the Curtain: Monologues of American Catholic Sisters, Kristen created scripts using only transcripts from her interviews. In September 2012, she directed six professional actors and produced the play at Spark Arts Center in NYC; six months later, the same actors performed it at Our Lady of Angels Convent in Aston, PA.
Reflecting back, Kristen, who teaches at Cal State-Monterey Bay, says, “Change was the best thing I did. If I didn’t trust myself to do this, I would have sold myself – and the interviewees – short.” Her advice to current OHMA students: “Your instincts are probably better than you think.”