By Bella Panciocco
My play The Road to the End — premiering April 20 to 23 at George Mason — is about an adventurous father, Steve. He and his conversely risk-averse son, Henry, embark upon a road trip to visit the Grand Canyon. Along the way, they pick up a witty hitchhiker, Dabria, who encourages them to rediscover their childlike spirits. Set against the backdrop of desolate highways and vast landscapes, their journey is muddled with trials and tribulations. The found family shoulders the burden of grief together through humor and heart, and even in the face of adversity, their momentum and persistence are unstoppable.
The play tells the story of an extraordinary journey that germinated from my own personal pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon in the spring of 2020. This majestic landmark served as a sanctuary for my mourning as I grappled with the loss of my grandfather who had passed away a few months earlier. While I beheld the canyon’s breathtaking vista, my sorrow gave way to a sense of tranquility, and I experienced true catharsis amidst the amber, scarlet, and rust-colored rocks.
When my mother and I were at the canyon, the world around us began to descend into chaos, with grocery stores resembling post-apocalyptic wastelands and people confining themselves in their homes due to COVID-19. Our internet was spotty at best and the concept of a world shutting down was foreign to us, so we did our best to focus on the splendor of the national park we were inhabiting with all its incredible grandeur. Upon returning to civilization, I found myself with ample time to reflect and process my emotions. I decided to put pen to paper and write. I knew exactly how the story would end — a poignant reflection of my mother’s farewell to my grandfather. The challenge lay in crafting the narrative that would lead up to that moment. Thankfully, inspiration struck as I sifted through my Pinterest boards, and before I knew it, I had completed a play.
I thought the story ended at that point. However, fate had other plans in store for me. As a sophomore at George Mason University, I was invited to join the play planning committee, which was the first time students were included in shaping the upcoming season. Emboldened, I proposed the idea of considering student work, to which I received a resounding “yes.” Although I missed the deadline to submit my play for that season, I was encouraged to resubmit it the following year. As fate would have it, our current dramaturg, Jess Singley, was part of the planning committee that year, and she urged me to resubmit my work. From there, things took off, and The Road to the End began its development journey in earnest.
The play was chosen for the fringe slot in the spring semester of my senior year, giving us the opportunity to delve deeply into the play development process. In preparation for this, I decided to take an independent study in the fall with April Brassard, an acclaimed playwright and professor at Mason, so that I could dedicate considerable time to the play while still being a full-time student. I shared with her my vision for the play and my desire to host a workshop event where students could learn about the process of playwriting. Our work began with a focus on revising the script, cutting some sections, adding new scenes, and rearranging others. As we toiled, I was struck by how much my writing had grown in just four months, from a 49-page one-act play to a 118-page three-act play. The development of the script was mirrored by my own growth as a writer, which was incredibly inspiring.
I wanted to share this experience with others, so I enlisted the help of my two talented friends and directors, Megan Lederman and Darren Badley, to join me in the workshop process. I knew that involving them would help us start developing ideas for the full production in the spring. We also cast our first-ever group of talented and amazing students, with whom we rehearsed for weeks. Hearing my words spoken out loud for the first time was a magical experience that I will never forget. I was even inspired by the actors and added new jokes and a whole new scene based on their input.
As we neared the stage reading, I knew that I wanted to do something special that would bring together our community, which had been impacted greatly by COVID. We prepared little goodies inspired by the show, played music from our playlist as guests arrived, and even held a talkback session so that our audience could learn about the process of developing a new play. This workshop taught me so much about receiving feedback, editing, and standing up for my work, and it gave me a newfound sense of confidence as a writer.
As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day; and although it’s been a long journey, I am so excited that The Road to the End will have its world premiere at George Mason University. It has been amazing to sit back and let our new team take over and add their artistry to the piece. Megan and Darren, two phenomenal student directors, have taken my piece and brought it to life. As a playwright, I personally don’t like directing my own work because when I write or read, I have trouble visualizing the world. I just see feelings, colors, and moods. Seeing them take what I have written and create their own vision of my play has been beautiful. Music is a very important part of the show, as its message is that music helps with memories. When Megan pitched that we should add original music composition to it, I was so on board and that’s how our amazing friend Brett Womack got into the picture. With the original score, the play was instantly elevated; and it tinged at the heartstrings. There’s often the discussion of what’s more important, words or music, but what I think people don’t talk about enough is how the combination of them can elevate a story.
The actors have taken these characters and run with them. It has been so fun to see them make big choices and have fun with their roles. I came into the theater world as an actor, so as a writer, it’s very important I write parts I want to play; so, seeing the actors have fun and want to share this story means the world to me.
The Road to the End talks about childhood spirit and change, and that’s what’s happening to many of the students right now, especially as a lot of the team members are about to graduate. Young actors, designers, directors, composers, and playwrights exist in this DC theater community, and we are the ones sharing this story, which makes it all the more special. This play has a big story to tell, and it’s been a process, but the power of young student artists has fueled it.
So, see new work. See young artists’ work. Support your community’s stories and join us for The Road to the End world premiere.
Running Time: About two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
The Road to the End plays April 20 to 23, 2023, presented by the Mason Players and George Mason University’s School of Theater performing at deLaski Performing Arts Building, A105, TheatreSpace, Fairfax Campus. Tickets ($20 for general public; $10 for students, staff, seniors, and groups) are available for purchase here.
Mason Arts at Home will be offering a limited release of a pay-to-view digital performance of The Road to the End from June 1 through August 31 at noon ET. Digital access ($10) is available for pre-order here.
The playbill for The Road to the End is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are not required but recommended.
About Bella Panciocco
Bella is an emerging playwright who is a graduating senior at George Mason University. She is pursuing a BFA in Theater, with a concentration in Performance. Her play Tomorrow Is My Day was featured in George Mason’s 2020 “1001 Plays” and “Mason Originals.” Her play The Moon Os Changing and So Are We was read at “1,000 Plays” in Toronto and featured in “Mason Originals” 2021. She participated in 4615 Theatre Company’s “Q-Fest” with her play My Angel. Her play The Road to the End will have its world premiere at George Mason in April 2023.
Follow @roadtotheendplay on Instagram to see more.