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Wagner’s creative and distinguished storytelling honored with McMullan Award
Emory University senior Ozzy Wagner

Senior Ozzy Wagner, this year’s McMullan Award recipient, has taken a lifetime of writing and developed into a groundbreaking playwright with an eye for inclusive and diverse theater.

— Emory Photo Video

Ozzy Wagner was filling ever-present notebooks with short stories and turning them into skits with other kids in their Seattle neighborhood in grade school. But it was not until an introductory playwriting course in Emory College of Arts and Sciences that Wagner considered a theater career that could marry their creative and collaborative passions.

“I figured I would see what jobs I could do in theater, since that would also let me write. I can’t imagine existing without writing,” says Wagner, a playwriting major who will graduate with highest honors in May. “Whether or not it pays the bills, I am going to be writing forever.”

That writing most recently included a full-length honors thesis play, which Wagner wrote about the life of Irish “Pirate Queen” Grace O’Malley at the same time as they came out as nonbinary. The resulting staged production earned highest honors, tackling questions of colonialism, history, gender, feminism and power.  

Wagner’s leadership and application of extraordinary intellectual and creative gifts has led to their selection as the 2022 recipient of the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award. Made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, the McMullan Award singles out one Emory College graduate each year who is expected to do extraordinary things on a community, national and global scale.

The award also comes with $30,000 to be used in any way Wagner chooses.

“Obviously Ozzy is an incredible writer, but they’ve also developed these incredible producing skills,” says Kimberly Belflower, the 2019-2022 Fellow in Playwriting in Emory’s Creative Writing Program and Department of Theater and Dance who was among those nominating Wagner for the award.

“I can see Ozzy as a major player who is not only going to be able to write exceptional new work but also understand all of the pieces that go into making it a reality on stage,” she adds.

Caitlin J. Hargraves, the director of undergraduate studies and lecturer in the Department of Theater and Dance, had similar praise in her nomination letter of Wagner for the McMullan Award. Hargraves, the executive producer of the SheATL theater festival, hired Wagner as a production assistant for the festival last summer after having them in class.

“The American theater is at a crossroads, and I have no doubt that Ozzy Wagner will be part of the next generation of theater makers to lead the way,” Hargraves wrote.

An introduction to playwriting

Wagner grew up immersed in the arts. Father Brian Wagner was a guitarist and songwriter for an indie rock band, while mother Rosemary Dai Ross is a portrait photographer focused on commercial and fine art.

Arriving at Emory as a QuestBridge Scholar, the national program that links highly qualified students from low-income backgrounds to top universities, was culture shock. Wagner mulled over many classmates’ casual approach to wealth while jumping into the coursework for a creative writing major.

That first year, they joined Theater Emory as a production assistant, wanting experience for a potential backup job. Wagner also worked as a feature writer for the Emory Wheel student newspaper and began a four-year stint with The Gathering a capella group.

Wagner’s epiphany came sophomore year when, in Belflower’s playwriting course, they began thinking of a way to write about blackberries, an invasive and ubiquitous plant across Washington state.

The decision to comment on capitalism came as they wrote “Blood & Blackberries.” The one-act play tells the story of a starving child forced to repay a debt for eating blackberries on a woman’s property by helping her make and sell fruit pies.

At one point, the woman-witch archetype serves slices of pie to some audience members — making them complicit in the cruelty. Two young men who received the treat in the play’s first production, though, reacted by devouring the pie rather than appearing uncomfortable.

“Blackberries became an allegory of capitalism, so in some ways their reaction is kind of perfect,” Wagner says. “What’s the point of a play if not to take advantage of all these people in a room together and do things you can’t do in books or film?”

Going beyond theater writing

Having decided on playwriting, Wagner continued to explore the world of theater beyond writing. Spending time with Theater Emory helped lay out the hierarchy of theater work, as did an initially volunteer role as producer with Lenaia, the all-undergraduate playwriting festival.

During the pandemic shut-down, their commitment to Lenaia led them to expand what had been a one-night festival in person to three days of full-length and one-act new works online. Wagner’s leadership included directing others’ work last year while building a community of theater/playwriting majors who helped them build the festival into a two-day, sold-out event that showcased more than a dozen writers this year.

Wagner also worked alongside alumna Lauren Gunderson 03C — a theater heavyweight who was America’s most produced living playwright in both 2017 and 2019 — for the Viral Plays project, a yearlong process of developing plays for Zoom. They also served as a digital playmaking intern with Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta.

That work, as well as stints at Horizon Theater’s Young Playwrights Festival in Atlanta and Seattle’s Village Theatre, mostly occurred online due to the pandemic. That’s also why Wagner was living at home, where they first heard about Grace O’Malley in a brother’s book on pirates.

Wagner originally conceived “Everyone Calls Her Grace” as a conventional biography but found a personal connection by seeing how someone who looked like them approached a traditionally masculine role as a leader.

“I learned more about my identity while writing about her,” Wagner says.

With O’Malley’s approach to gender and power in mind, and with very little official record of O’Malley’s experiences, the play became a meta-theatrical piece. The final play, advised by Belflower, features a play-within-a-play of three actors playing O’Malley as a male director tries to shape his vision of the pirate.

“I was blown away by the enfolding of a personal narrative of one person’s life, an imagined and constructed life, with broader exploration of culture and identity,” says Kevin Karnes, Emory College associate dean for the arts who served on Wagner’s thesis committee.

“Ozzy’s achievement is a testament to the fact that some of the most talented, driven, visionary Emory students are students who pursue the arts,” Karnes added. “Ozzy is the real deal. They’re an artist, full stop. It will be amazing to see to see where their work will evolve and go from here.”

After a lifetime of creating stories, Wagner is considering pursuing an MFA eventually. First, though, they are interviewing for apprenticeships at different theaters and also considering an AmeriCorps position to implement a community arts program in New Jersey.

They plan to save most of the McMullan funding while further developing their writing. Long-term, they can imagine starting a playwriting festival or theater company that further explores the different ways theater can happen.

“I’m grateful that Emory has people really willing to empower students to go on their own path, people who instilled this idea that you can go out and be a writer,” Wagner says. “I don’t feel like a fully grown person yet, so I want to keep working and writing and observing. I take it seriously.”

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