The Trustus Plays – An article by James Hartley in the Columbia Free Times

Perhaps unknown to many locals, Columbia’s Trustus Theatre hosts an internationally recognized annual Playwright’s Festival. Coming from all over the country, winners of this event have gone on to write major motion pictures, receive Tony Awards and even the Pulitzer Prize. The festival has also significantly enhanced the career of many local playwrights, including Jon Tuttle, a professor of English at Francis Marion University, whose winning works are now being published by Intellect Books through the University of Chicago Press.

Titled The Trustus Plays, Tuttle’s collection includes The Hammerstone, an academic comedy about two aging professors; Drift, a dark comedy that explores the ups and downs of marriage and divorce; and Holy Ghost, which examines the odd plight of German prisoners-of-war interred in South Carolina during World War II. All three of the pieces received their first major production at Trustus.
The publication is the result of both artistic success and marketing effort. While Tuttle’s plays have seen more than 100 productions from Columbia to Dubai, it nonetheless took years of persistence and numerous rejections before he found a publisher for his work. Naturally, as soon as he found one he received an offer from a second, and so 2009 has also seen the publication of another volume, Two South Carolina Plays, including Holy Ghost and The White Problem, an intriguing look at the first black graduate of Harvard and faculty member at USC, by the Hub City Writer’s Project of Spartanburg.
Born in Utah, Tuttle accepted a teaching job at Francis Marion in 1991 and has been there ever since. When asked about his relationship with Trustus, he credits the theatre with encouraging much of his drive to write.
“The production of The Hammerstone in 1994 was really a turning point in my life,” he says. “The call I received from them informing me that I had won the festival is one of my fondest memories.”

The production of his next winning play, Drift, led to Tuttle’s appointment in 1998 as Trustus’ literary manager.
In turn, Tuttle’s successful publications add to the rising status of Trustus and its Playwright’s Festival. In his preface to the first volume, Trustus Artistic Director Jim Thigpen notes that “now … the rest of the theatre world can know about the good work we’ve done together.”

While the genres vary, all of The Trustus Plays revolve around a protagonist who must ultimately make a choice “freighted with ontological implications.” Tuttle, not unlike Brecht, admits that he himself had to search his own work to find its ultimate meaning, coming to the conclusion that because there is no universal principle or common wisdom by which his characters can make their self-defining choices, “I must be some sort of existentialist.”

All of the works also reflect Tuttle’s penchant for thorough research, as his inspiration often stems from thought-provoking articles to which he is exposed, and which he desires to know more about.

Drift, for example, was inspired by a 1995 Time magazine cover story he refers to as “a depressingly clinical investigation into the chemical origins of love,” which prompted him to spend months reading anthropological accounts of mating and interviewing divorce lawyers and private investigators. Asked about the relationship between Drift and his own life, he jokingly says, “It’s dark. My wife is not too keen on that one … but I can say that had I been lucky enough to marry her my first time around, I never would have written it.”

Tuttle’s investment in the process does not end with the first production.
“One of the benefits of working closely with a company like Trustus is that there is an opportunity to witness and respond to the feedback from all participants,” he says. “After each of these shows I go back and do substantial re-writes based on what I learn from the production process.”

He will have this opportunity again in August, as Trustus is producing his newest work, , which tells the story of a woman who has lost her closest companion — her cat — as she negotiates her grief. 

For more information on The Trustus Plays, visit
For more on The Sweet Abyss, visit


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