It isn't unusual to talk about pregnancy as a metaphor for a play's initial writing and production process. There's the original moment of conception, a gestation period as the ideas develop and the ultimate birthing onto a stage where it will be both spanked and cooed over.
Somewhere in the third term of Praying for Rain, I attended a Lamaze class for the play, the first rehearsal attended by the playwright, joining the director, cast and designers for the collaborative experience of mid-wiving that is unique to the theater. At this stage, the characters are reconceived by a cast and crew who may come to know the characters better than the playwright.
Robert Louis Vaughan is a Colorado Springs native, an alumnus of more schools than he can remember, including Russell Junior High, Emerson, and Mitchell High School. Today, he is a working playwright with several New York productions to his credit. The world premiere of his Colorado-based play, Praying for Rain, opens at the Curious Theatre Company at Acoma Center in Denver this weekend.
The play is set on "The Bluffs at Dragon's Tongue," a red sandstone rock formation on the edge of the mountains that Vaughan readily admits is inspired by the Garden of the Gods. "The images are pretty indelible," he told the Independent after attending his first rehearsal during a weeklong visit from New York.
Knee-deep in therapeutic muck
It's a Saturday afternoon in February, and the cast and crew have gathered for the last in a week of read-throughs, exploring Vaughan's script and discussing the play's arcs and through lines. The play deals with high school students, violence, family discord and the struggle for respect, acceptance, sanity and survival in contemporary American society. The main character is a student who has slipped through the cracks, left searching for salvation at the all-night Quick-Stop.
"I had to stop working on it because some of these things just got to me," Vaughan admitted. His initial ideas came three years ago, before any of the recent school shooting incidents, but the spooky similarities with subsequently unfolding events made it difficult to continue at times. "It was frustrating," he said, "it was disturbing."
It's no wonder that the rehearsal feels like therapy, as director Chip Walton leads his cast to talk through their characters' issues, to open up about a script full of suppressed subtext, unspoken feelings and unfinished sentences.
"The first week is like putting on your galoshes, wading in and mucking around, seeing what you can dig up," Walton said after the rehearsal. The play is the latest in a series of hard-hitting, issue-oriented plays that Walton has directed, including Angels in America, How I Learned to Drive and Execution of Justice. "This first week is the most important week of the rehearsal process, and it's the week that a lot of people neglect. When you deal with issues as complex as teens or child abuse or sexual abuse or homosexuality in America, there's a lot of stuff in there to dig up."
Given the luxury of mucking around with the playwright, the cast grills Vaughan on everything from how sentences that end with a dash are distinguished from sentences that end with an ellipse ("Dashes mean the characters stopped themselves from saying something; ellipses mean they're not sure what they want to say.") to whether or not a certain character is really pregnant, as many believe she is ("I don't know. I was being intentionally ambiguous.") Misti McBride struggles with her character's need for control and the direction to play the scene on the verge of tears.
"Being on the verge of tears doesn't mean you're not in control," Vaughan explains.
"Being on the verge and not crying is even more in control," Walton adds.
Vaughan later told me that particular point was one of the key ideas of the play. Although the play has a violent murder and a gunshot suicide at its center, the major characters are relatively peripheral to this action. Nevertheless, they take responsibility for events they couldn't be held accountable for. "I left," says one character, blaming himself for what happened afterward. "I let him stay," says another, equally haunted by her sense of responsibility. Vaughan's characters don't see their absence as alibis, but rather as condemnable errors, a refreshing alternative in a culture quick to wash its hands of trouble and stay uninvolved.
"I think people feel the need to be in control of themselves and others and things," Vaughan explained. "Once you feel like you've lost control, it sends you to places that you're not sure about and you either blame someone or you blame yourself."
Of the street, by the street, for the street
"The one goal that I had was to direct this show to a target audience of 16- to 25-year-olds," Walton explained after the rehearsal. To ensure authenticity, he recruited cast members with hands-on experience in the world of the play, finding Craig Trout through a youth-at-risk theater program called "Break the Cycle," and casting Gene Gillete, an actor he'd found "on the streets when he was a kid and hadn't graduated from high school and he was really kind of lost in his life." Walton explained, "I can get an actor to act well, but I can't get them to know an experience that they've never had."
When Trout and Gillete talk about high school, they sound like Vaughan is writing for them. "High school is bullshit," Trout says during a cast discussion. "I only had one teacher deal on a personal level with me, and that's 'cause I showed up stoned to class." He characterized his attitude during those years as "Screw you all. I don't care about you people."
The indifference Trout attributed to himself is another central motif running through Vaughan's script. During a key confrontation, one character tells the other: "I don't want to understand. I don't care how you feel. And that makes me...That makes me...ache..."
"I actually remember writing that line," Vaughan told me. "Ache. I think it's a specific kind of word. If you're left with not being able to feel, the emptiness that's there, it's an aching feeling. This is obviously a woman who's used to feeling a lot. She's left without that."
The mirror has 18 faces
"This is the type of play that I founded Curious to do," Walton said. "It has a real, palpable, direct resonance in the community. It's community theater in the best sense of the word, it's about the community. It's dealing with teen violence and identity and the growing chasm between adults and kids. It's very human and not in any way pedagogical or preachy or agitprop."
Vaughan had no intention of being preachy. In fact, the play is exquisitely indirect, touching its audience from a variety of perspectives without ever projecting an agenda. "I hate theater of the sledgehammer," Vaughan asserts. "I don't want to go and have everything spoon-fed to me.
"A play may be like a mirror," Walton added. "You might look into it and you might see something back into it. A lot of plays do that. The truly exceptional ones are ones like this that if you crack that mirror and it had a bunch of little pieces it would reflect a bunch of different things. Good plays draw out a particular experience for everybody that is just a little bit different."