For Kathryn R. “Katie” McClanan ’22, writing is a practice that draws on her physical body to stimulate the spiritual. She speaks from experience. Creating her senior thesis play “Sexy Girls and A Fish Contemplate Impermanence” was a spiritual journey in and of itself, involving a month in a Zen buddhist monastery and two months farming in different parts of the world.
The play is keenly aware of its spirituality and the culture that informs its creation. In the stage directions, McClanan makes it clear that actors should not pretend to meditate onstage. “They meditate onstage. These moments should also be guided by the Buddhist advisors,” she wrote. This reverence comes from McClanan’s own interactions with Buddhism. While she does not self-identify as a Buddhist, she engages in a variety of Buddhist practices including daily meditation, chanting, and prayer.
“My positionality as a white woman in that culture is super complex. It feels weird to me to put that label on myself, especially as a white girl who’s raised in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, with two Presbyterian parents,” she said.
“Ultimately this play was inspired by a spiritual journey that I went on. But as I created the play, the writing of the play itself also became integral in that spiritual journey, just writing as a means of making sense of my own experience,” she said. Thus, by approaching writing as a spiritual practice rather than as an intellectual exercise, McClanan wrote a play that she describes as more truthful and candid.
“I came in with the expectation that I wanted to write a very philosophical and spiritual piece of academic work. I was looking at Camus and Satre, all these playwrights who had written these dense allegorical texts,” she said. “Once I let go of that image of what I wanted my play to be, it ended up being way more centered around topics that are more raw and rich for me.” For McClanan, that topic was the “relationship between spirituality and romantic love.”
However, her thesis play is more than just a result of her spiritual journey: It is a product of her journey at Harvard as well. Initially trained as an actor and heavily involved in theater, McClanan was inclined to choose dramatic conservatories over Harvard. But she explained that being an actor meant having to mold herself into specific roles in order to get cast, something that was detrimental to her mental health in the long run.
At Harvard, she serendipitously discovered the Theater, Dance, and Media (TDM) concentration. She credits the explorative nature of the department with helping her discover her potential as a writer and director. It allowed her to gauge her internal compass and tap into her own creative agency, prompting her to reevaluate her whole identity.
“I think that TDM is one of the very few academic disciplines that really values embodied knowledge and experiential living,” she said. “I feel so lucky that so much of my college education has been on my feet in studios creating cool work that is recognizing my whole experience as a person: my body, my emotions.”
Leaving TDM with a stronger voice as an artist and a human being, McClanan is optimistic about life after graduation in December. She plans to spend the next six months doing residencies and apprenticeships in different monasteries and ashrams.
“I know that that’s what I’m feeling called to do. That’s a way that I feel like I’ll come into better contact with my own consciousness and my experiences and be able to live a more intentional life from here on out,” she said.
Afterwards, she plans to move to Chicago to start a job in creative brand strategy. Although this change of direction might seem jarring, it is a well-thought through decision. She noted that she values security, stability, and the ability to support herself.
“I feel really confident that I’m going to wind my way back to something that is more purely creative after this year,” she said. “But now I’m feeling really happy to get my feet under me as I graduate.”