What if an established professional playwright asked you to direct the world premier of his new play? To Jessica Posner ’09, this thespian fantasy became a reality at last year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky.
Posner was invited to speak on a panel at the festival after having directed and produced the “365 days/365 plays” performance at Wesleyan last spring. Robert Louis Vaughan, a playwright she met some years ago while working with a professional theatre company in Denver, was also in attendance. They struck up a conversation, and he soon suggested that she take a look at the play he was working on, entitled “The Good Red Road.”
“I read it and liked it, but I also had a lot of comments about it,” Posner said. “But I was just drawn to the piece, so we started working on it last year.”
Months of hard work later, “The Good Red Road,” written by Vaughan and directed by Posner, will premiere this weekend at the ’92 Theater. Set in a non-specific rural/suburban town, the play takes place five years after a football hazing incident. In keeping with these themes, the cast and crew held a panel entitled “Perceptions, Experiences and Realities of Student Athletes at Wesleyan” this Monday and will hold a gala reception this Friday at 4 p.m. in Zelnick Pavilion.
Posner began working on the play with her cast early this semester, knowing that the script would still undergo many changes.
“It was always improving, and the changes were always little by little,” said Daphne Schmon ’09, a member of the cast. “It’s tough because you know you have to learn your lines, but you also have to expect changes. You just have to trust in Jess and Robert that the changes will be for the better.”
Initially, Posner felt tentative about approaching Vaughan with comments on the script. Like most college students, she had no experience working with a playwright on a brand new play.
“I had no idea how to navigate the relationship,” she said. “It just came kind of naturally that we had an open communication, probably because I don’t really know what I’m not supposed to say.”
She recalled being completely honest with Vaughan, debating script edits with him at length and asking him to cut two characters and rewrite entire scenes.
“It’s really been a collaborative process,” she said. “It’s been a really interesting exercise on what a playwright does and what a director does. Because a writer writes, but doesn’t always see it all. Some things I would see on stage and just realize that they didn’t work.”
Vaughan noted that he didn’t mind this feedback. On the contrary, he considered Posner his new set of eyes.
“I had a feeling about Jess right away,” he said via e-mail. “I like listening to her and she’s kind of fearless. Working with her was a no-brainer. […] Of course there were some things that we didn’t see eye to eye on, but we agreed to play it out.”
Members of the cast explained that they were at first intimidated by the prospect of helping to develop Vaughan’s play and having him sit in on rehearsals: However, any unease was quickly allayed when they first met him.
“He’s the most laid-back, nice guy in the world,” Schmon said.
“He was very casual,” added Ted Kelly ’08, an actor in the play. “He just played the role of someone who obviously knows a lot about the show, watching and providing his own input. He would never say, ’This is how it has to be.’ He would just say, ’Try if this works because this is how I saw it.’”
The cast expressed appreciation having Vaughan as an additional source of feedback and took full advantage of his willingness to help them work on their parts, both in person and via e-mail. Vaughan was equally excited about this interactive development of his play.
“Last week at rehearsal, Jess and two of the cast members surprised and thrilled me because they found a way to interpret a moment in a way I’d never imagined,” he wrote. “That’s hot.”
Considering his professional background, Vaughan’s enthusiasm about the production and complete trust in Posner and her cast and crew may seem a little surprising. Posner could not understand at first why he was agreeing to work with college students at all, never mind on the world premier of his play. The playwright offered a simple explanation.
“I’ve worked with people from Broadway, movies and television—not all of them are a dream,” he wrote. “Sometimes for them it’s just work and they could care less. The people I’ve been working with at Wesleyan are loving this. They have such energy and passion—something some of the pros I’ve worked with would do well to get back.”
Posner explained that Vaughan’s decision to fully place his trust in this production of “The Good Red Road” will have implications for the play’s future.
“To have a totally clean slate, the freedom is so much that it’s exciting, but also terrifying,” Posner said. “You know, our names are going to be in the actor’s edition. We’re kind of the point of reference for future performances, but we don’t have one. I think that it’s really given us the opportunity to imagine this play and have it be true to us.”
The cast members cherished this opportunity to shape the characters and bring them to life for the first time. They also explained that they see the play’s themes as emotionally and socially resonant and prepared for their performances accordingly.
“As an actor, there’s a lot of weight on our shoulders to make this real, especially because some audience members may have experienced sexual abuse, and this may speak to them,” Schmon said.
Actor Carmen Melillo ’09 considered the questions the play raises about loss of identity and the definition of masculinity in American society particularly significant.
“It’s almost perfect because we had ’The Vagina Monologues’ earlier this year,” Melillo said. “Eve Ensler [author of ’The Vagina Monologues’] does such a good job of challenging our preconceptions of gender stereotypes for women. And this kind of takes it to the other end of what’s our definition of masculinity. And what happens when we have these men, who feel that they’re losing their identity based on what it’s supposed to be versus what they actually are and what they actually feel.”
As this collaborative experience comes to a close, they are all extremely excited to see “The Good Red Road” go up this weekend.
“I love the play,” Posner said. “I think it’s really beautiful and moving.”