Hometown: Little Rock, Arkansas
Major: English/Creative Writing
Extracurricular Activities: Contents Under Pressure, Pi Kappa Alpha, Peer Assistant, Mr. Rhodes 2015, Writing Fellow
It began with Professor Caki Wilkinson’s Introduction to Poetry class, where Tom Simmermaker ’16 discovered his passion for creative writing. Next was Professor Jason Richards’ Text and Context course, and Tom was hooked. Now, the English department has become a family for him. “I really like hearing other people’s work. English classes are like a roundtable—we’re always in a circle facing each other, with the professor in the circle as well. I think this is why we’re so close.” For the past two years, Tom has served as a writing fellow and tutor in the English department. By writing lesson plans and working closely with professors, he says, his own writing skills have been enhanced. “It’s really a huge test of confidence. You have to be bold because you’re helping other students.”
While the interesting courses and inspiring professors sparked his interest in English, Tom’s decision was truly made after learning about the creative writing track offered at Rhodes. A self-proclaimed mad libs enthusiast, Tom’s love for words helped him thrive in these writing-intensive courses. “I remember my intermediate poetry class had only six people in it. It was the first time we’d really been given a lot of freedom with our writing and it got pretty quirky in there. I once wrote a poem about a bird-themed burger joint—it was a lot of fun,” he laughs.
The creativity encouraged in his writing classes hasn’t been confined to the classroom, though, as Tom is also involved with Contents Under Pressure (CUP), the improv comedy troupe at Rhodes. He joined his freshman year, and since then the troupe has grown dramatically, as has their audience. “I still remember a few of our shows freshman year with 15 to 20 people in the crowd,” he recalls. “Now, we’ve had to turn people away at our last few shows because we ran out of seating room.”
Tom’s love for improv has carried him beyond the confines of Rhodes, to the improv comedy hub of the country: Chicago. Following his sophomore year, he spent two weeks there as a participant in the sketch writing program with the Second City comedy troupe. A year later, Tom returned for a five-week comedy summer program with iO theater. For five hours every day, he was part of a small group of 16 people studying the ins and outs of improv.
“Everything we learned was grounded in improv philosophy. I studied and took notebooks full of notes. The things we learned almost doubled as life advice,” Tom explains. “For example, don’t second guess anything.” Out of the 16 people in his group, only six were from America. Despite the challenges of the language barrier, Tom relished the chance to work with people from Poland, Australia, Germany, Estonia, Finland, and China. “It was the biggest thing I’ve done in the past four years in terms of what I’m truly interested in. It was the coolest experience I’ve ever had.”
Through courses rooted in reading and writing, Tom has been able to truly access his creative side, while his improv experience has fed into his love for poetry. “For every serious poem I write, I write 3 or 4 goofy or stranger ones,” he says. For the future, he wants to pursue both live improv and comedy writing. After his incredible experience with the summer iO theater program, he plans to apply to the full-year intensive program next year in Chicago. “Comedy really does have a purpose,” Tom says. “But also, at the end of the day, it’s just good to laugh.”
By Ali Swee ’16