Stacey Isom Campbell talks Alaska, her new play and fast pitch softball
Stacey Isom Campbell is a professor of creative writing here at Lee, but she considers herself a playwright first and foremost. As we sat and talked, Stacey shared about her childhood and how she came to love writing and the theatre.
The daughter of Church of God missionaries, Stacey was born in eastern Kentucky but spent the first eight years of her life moving from state to state until they finally settled in Alaska.
“We moved every year, sometimes even twice a year, until I was around eight years old. That’s when we moved to Alaska, and that’s where I was raised mostly.”
Even though Stacey admits she would not want to live in Alaska as an adult because of the extreme cold, she has great memories of her childhood there.
“I loved it; it was a great place to grow up. It was the kind of place where you left the front door unlocked, the keys in the ignition of your car—it was a very safe place. It’s hard to explain, but it is like the fairy tales of the pictures you see; it is unbelievably beautiful.”
She says the people of Alaska are very self-reliant, and the Alaskan spirit leads people to venture into the outdoors, even if it’s cold. There is a sense of overcoming trials there, and because of it the men and women of Alaska are very strong. However, she felt the public education there was not the greatest, and ironically she had some really bad English teachers.
“I had one teacher in high school that weighed the karmic weight of our essays rather than reading them. I’m not making this up—she actually said, ‘I’m not going to read your essays, but I am going to weigh their karmic value.’ She was crazy, and the next year after I had her as my English teacher she was actually arrested for growing marijuana in her house. True story.”
When it comes to her passion for writing, Stacey says that writing has been a central part of her life for as long as she can remember.
“I’ve always been writing—since I was a little girl. I think it probably had to do with moving around so much. What I’ve been told is as a young girl I was very outgoing and talked to everyone, but as I got older I started to be more of an introvert, and I think it was because we kept moving across the country. At some point in that I became an introvert and needed to write in order to process and deal with the changes that were going around me. It’s just how I’ve always processed the world.”
Stacey’s parents were both Lee alumni, and her grandfather worked as a professor here many years ago in the School of Education. Of course, she was always expected to attend Lee, and the school had become a mystical place in her mind. By the time she moved in her freshman year, Stacey was perplexed by what she saw around her.
“It was the '90s when I came to Lee for college, and I honestly felt like I was landing on Mars because it was so different,” she said. “People here had big hair and heavy makeup, while in Alaska everything was much more natural. People are just trying to survive in the cold, so they don't have time to do their hair or makeup like they do here. It was just like a cultural difference to an extreme degree.”
Eventually, Stacey grew to love Lee and accept the culture here, and she appreciated the busyness of the campus. Alaska had felt like a a spiritual wasteland because the churches she attended there were only small groups of people. She'd never experienced a youth group until she came to Lee. But soon she became quite involved, indeed.
“I was involved as an athlete. I played fast pitch softball my freshman year here and also played intramural sports a lot,” she said. “Everyone knew I was an athlete, but they didn’t know I was a writer.”
And Lee didn’t have a writing major when Stacey was attending, so she decided to ask Dr. Matthew Melton to read some of her fiction—in exchange for babysitting his two year old son.
“At the time I didn’t know what to do with my writing. In fact, I had been told that nobody should go into writing because less than ten percent of writers ever make money…which is false. So [Dr. Melton] would read my work a few times, and at the end of it he told me my writing was really visual and that I should think about writing screenplays.”
She took Dr. Melton’s advice and ran with it. Stacey ended up accumulating two M.F.A. degrees—in screenwriting and in dramatic writing—after graduating from Lee, one from Regent University and the other from Old Dominion University. It was during these years that she found a passion for the theatre.
“Very early on I was sort of adopted by the theatre community; all my friends were actors and directors. They soon started asking me to write things for them—especially the women, since there’s a real lack of roles for women. So I started writing monologues specifically for them, which then led into my desire to become a playwright.”
This process also ignited a passion in her to write more roles for women—with an emphasis in ensuring they were complex, realistic roles.
“When you’re writing women, you want to give them human, well-rounded roles, which means that they’re not always going to be positive. One of my main goals is to continue writing strong roles for women, and I think all of my plays have a lead that’s a female,” said Campbell.
After Regent, she taught high school for a couple years while saving money to move to New York. But that plan got derailed after she went to see a script reading by an older man named Brian Silberman and was blown away by it. She decided she had to study under him and got a teaching assistantship at ODU as a full-time student. Towards the end of her program, she helped with the writers’ festival Silberman was in charge of.
“I got to drive around artists and writers who had come in, and one of them was a playwright named Danny Hawk, who’s an actor-playwright,” she said. “I’m driving him around, and he asks me what I want to do with my life. So I told him that I was moving to New York, which I was really excited about because he’s from New York, so I thought he’d give me some tips. Instead, he tells me, ‘Don’t move to New York! Just go back to where you’re from and make theatre there, and write plays about your people, for your people.’ He just felt like theatre was about community and that New York was full of writers who were not from there but were taking up all the grant money and opportunities from people who are actually from New York. I felt really conflicted by what he said. I wanted to go to New York, but when he said that my thoughts started to change. I just started to think about going back to Cleveland and starting a theatre company.”
Stacey did go back to Cleveland, and she started a theatre company called Red Clay Theater, which was located by the Starbucks downtown. They had enough money saved to do two full seasons in which they brought people in from New York and all over—even some big-name directors.
“We were doing professional theatre here in Cleveland, and people loved it. We were sold out,” she said. “The reason we only did two seasons was not because of ticket sales; it was just really hard to get corporate funding. So after two years that were extremely stressful, busy and heart-wrenching—because I couldn’t make a living and I was having to work other jobs—by the second year we didn’t renew our lease and I applied and got a job at Lee.”
She does admit that she hasn’t had the desire to start another theatre company again because she noticed that she did not have time to write plays during that time. When Stacey isn’t teaching, she spends her time writing at least one full-length play a year, and submitting her material everywhere she can.
And Stacey urges Lee students to focus on new opportunities and relationships. Getting out of your comfort zone, she says, is important for the growth of everyone.
“If you’re an introvert, do things that might push you in that. If you’ve grown up in Church of God, go to some of the other chapels that are from a different persuasion, and vice versa,” said Stacey. “I think there’s such beauty in all of the traditions that, at this point in life, you should just be open in experiencing some of those things that Lee has to offer. Get involved with your major and the people in your major. It really is about the relationships that you make and the community that you form. Going out into the world, you’re going to need that support group, and they need you.”