Writer, Actress, Storyteller

Independent Scholars
Diana Witt

SUMMARY: Diana Witt (’22) crafts unique major in storytelling for stage, screen, and page

Growing up as one of the youngest of 29 first cousins and a sister, Diana Witt was constantly running around at the heels of bigger kids. “I have always been small for my age, and my cousins played rougher than I did, spoke louder than me, and certainly held much more authority,” she says. “To have my voice heard, I had to speak twice as loud. To keep up, I had to run twice as fast. To maintain my resilience, I had to develop a skin twice as thick.” Diana learned to charm her cousins, winning their tender care and fierce protection. Several facets of her personality flourished because of her role in the family. She became charismatic and full of grit.

When Diana was a senior in high school, she wrote and directed a one-act play. This was not part of the curriculum, but an individual project. “When directing and writing your own original play, there is no outline. I had to build the production completely from scratch,” she says. While daunted by the many roles she had to assume—writer, producer, director, and even set designer—she stepped outside her comfort zone to bring something new into the world. “Not only did the experience spark my passion for creative writing, but it also proved my ability to build my own path. As a JMU Independent Scholar, it is important to be self-motivated to pursue individual interests and goals.”

Diana’s acceptance into the Theatre program was a driving factor in her decision to attend James Madison University. She originally had planned to major in Journalism or English and mainly looked at schools with those programs. After attending a JMU Open House, she learned that many of the School of Theatre and Dance students had second majors. Diana knew that the Theatre program was one the best in the state, and so decided to audition. “JMU offers a wide range of artistic and academic opportunities,” she says. “I am double majoring in Theatre and Independent Scholars, and I also have a minor in Honors Interdisciplinary Studies.”

Diana’s most valuable experience as a JMU student was the Semester in London program in 2019. Not only did the program enrich her cultural knowledge and academic experience as an arts student, but it was an essential part of her personal growth. Going abroad was a big leap of faith. It was her first time out of the country, and her first plane ride alone. Despite the challenges, she says, “it was the best two months of my life. I met so many amazing people, saw excellent pieces of theatre and artwork, and took in the sights and sounds of four different countries.”

During her JMU London Semester, Diana held an internship at the British Music Youth Theatre in their development department. She did a lot of writing by crafting responses for applications and email newsletters. The experience changed her perspective on writing, showing her that there is an element of creativity in all writing. “I was ‘simply’ composing answers to a grant questionnaire,” she recalls. “But it was important to make the answers interesting and attention grabbing.”

Wolf Sherrill, associate professor of theatre, was the JMU faculty member in residence during Diana’s London Semester, and a reader on her project. “Diana is what I want to be when I grow up,” Sherrill says. “A cool, quirky human that brings a perfect mix of hilarity, intellectual curiosity, and gargantuan intelligence to anything she does. She has a generosity of spirit and an old-soul humbleness that is unique in the world. I look forward to borrowing money from her when she is famous.”

Advanced Playwriting with theatre professor Ingrid DeSanctis has been Diana’s favorite class so far. Diana describes the process of writing full-length plays as exhilarating and demanding. “It was an honor to collaborate with a close-knit group of students and watch their work evolve,” she says. Although her in-person semester was cut short by COVID, they were able to continue working on plays and hosted live readings over Zoom and Facebook Live.

Diana’s play Pseudo Psychic Medium can be viewed online. The play’s synopsis is as follows: “With a rapidly depleting bank account, Beatrix “Bea” Zelinsky is desperate. After joking around with her roommate Ray, Bea stumbles across a way to make a quick buck – by pretending to be a psychic medium. Taking advantage of the opportunity presented to her, Bea agrees to meet Evie Stuart, a grief-stricken eighteen-year-old who wants to connect with her sister. When the lie spirals out of control, Bea must determine when enough is enough, even when it will cost her.”

As a part of The Breeze newspaper staff, Diana has written and produced content for print and online. As a member of Maddy Night Live, she writes and performs her own sketch comedy. She served as MNL’s vice president in the 2020-2021 academic year. Diana also participates in JMU Speech and the Stratford Players. In Spring 2019, she performed as the Young Girl in The Other Shore and stage managed Leonce und Lena,two shows that were produced in JMU’s Studio Theater.

In Independent Scholars, students are always encouraged to engage in individual reading and research. Learning is not restricted to a certain project; it does not have a deadline. Diana is constantly thinking about how she can strengthen her area of inquiry. She stumbled across new questions as she read materials that interested her, as well as through experiential learning opportunities.

“I stumbled across Independent Scholars when I was thinking about changing my major. No single major felt quite right. I felt that Independent Scholars would give me a greater flexibility to acquire knowledge and opportunity. I feel that it has opened many doors for me. My interdisciplinary approach to education sets me apart in job interviews and applications.”

Diana’s area of inquiry is entitled “Storytelling: Writing for the Stage, Screen, and Page.” She focuses on learning how narratives and stories are crafted for different mediums and the social and cultural impact that these stories can have on our society. “There is an element of creativity through all writing, but the body of research about creativity is still emerging,” Diana says. “I’m working to understand how to construct stories for contemporary audiences across a wide variety of traditional and new media platforms.” Associate professor Ingrid De Sanctis in the School of Theatre and Dance advises her capstone, entitled “Comedy for a Playwright in Process.” Diana’s creative project aims to illuminate effective facets in comedy by researching other comedic works, revising her own work, and producing a fully realized production of Pseudo Psychic Medium.

Diana is supplementing her Independent Scholars curricular plan with a string of pivotal experiential learning activities. She is currently the social media and marketing assistant for the JMU School of Theatre and Dance. In this role, Diana is creating different kinds of content for the school’s social media channels, including artists spotlights, graphics, and events. She has learned video editing, writing and managing posts, and other design skills for social media using the Facebook Creator Studio. “I’ve had responsibilities as varied as controlling the technical aspects of getting streams up on social media, reporting from rehearsals and interviewing performers, and creating video clips.”

In 2020, Diana interned at the Manhattan Comedy School, working virtually ten hours per week on marketing, graphic, copy editing, event planning, while juggling important managerial roles such as helping co-produce the school’s online professional comedy shows. Diana says that she helped invent new forms of digital comedy while working creatively within constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. One of the school’s virtual students was able to help create the show over an internet connection from Canada, and another attended class from Zambia. “I remember the Zambian student saying, ‘Yeah, it’s like 2 AM here.’ But what a gift to be able to experience Zambian comedy in the middle of a global lockdown.”

Diana served as a production manager for The Ruthless Comedy Hour. The show format involves an interview with a comedian, a cold open sketch, a couple of sets, and some interactive audience games. Diana produced shows with big-name standup comedians like Judy Gold and Jim Gaffigan. “It did end up as a really huge step for me,” she notes. Diana is still helping to produce the show. “I would love to stay on as long as they'll have me. At the last meeting the comedians were talking about when they’re going to switch back to the club. But I think a lot of them realize we built a virtual fan base of people from all over the world that want to continue to experience the shows. Maybe we can continue to produce a mix of live and virtual comedy hours.”

Diana also landed two other virtual internships last summer. One was at Glitter Magazine, an e-zine featuring beauty, fashion, and entertainment news. Diana wrote stories and edited other intern’s work for publication, while learning valuable skills in WordPress content management and photo usage rights. She also wrote blurbs on products for the print version of Glitter Magazine. “Sometimes things could be a little challenging, especially with COVID-19. People had all sorts of different schedules and were in a different time zones,” she says. The second virtual internship involved grant writing for the Marcus Harris Foundation. Marcus Harris sponsors a neighborhood express meal truck service, funds supplies for teachers, and provides other services to underserved people in Durham County, North Carolina.

Diana is currently freelance writing for Write Label, a crowdsourced service for radio advertising. She has completed about 75 writing assignments for the company in the past year. Diana finds the puzzle-solving aspects of the various assignments stimulating. The clients give her guidance on purpose, constraints, and creative voice. “Then I have to ask myself: ‘How do I take this bare-bones information and make a radio script that’s fresh and original?’ I have to consider all sorts of questions. What is the product? Who is the audience? What emotional tone am I going for?” she says. “I am writing for a specific customer and that presents unique challenges.”

Earlier this semester, Diana participated in the Institute of Theatre Journalism and Advocacy (ITJA) of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). “I attended KCACTF workshops last weekend and have some assignments to complete this week,” she says. “This has been an amazing opportunity. I get to learn about theater criticism, gain skills in interviewing people and doing research-oriented writing, and explore some really interesting online works.”

Diana has an established record as a successful speech competitor for JMU’s Individual Events Team at forensics tournaments all over the country. She reached the quarterfinal round in impromptu speaking at last month’s all-virtual National Speech Tournament of the American Forensics Association. Diana was honored at the end of this year as the Outstanding Individual Events student at the JMU SCOM awards ceremony. “Diana is an exemplary speech competitor and it shows well beyond her success in competition,” says JMU’s director of individual events Dr. Mallory Marsh. “Above all, what is most impressive is her dedication to growth; she’s eager to learn, willing to challenge herself with new events, and committed to striking an important balance between education and competition.”

This summer Diana is social media specialist for X2 Comedy, a production company based out of Harrisonburg, and an instructor for summer camps of the Alexandria Children’s Theatre. Next academic year, Diana will be completing a semester of comedy studies at The Second City™/Columbia College Chicago. She will study the history of comedy, writing for comedic scenes, comedy production, and comedy performance. Second City™ operates a training center that has served as the starting line for many famous comedians and comedy writers, including Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Dave Foley, and Amy Poehler.






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Published: Thursday, August 19, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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