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High School Confidential

Teach your children well: Gene Gillette, Dee Covington and Misti McBride in Praying for Rain.
Brett Amole

A few weeks before he was supposed to send his newly written play to a Seattle theater company, Robert Lewis Vaughan experienced a sudden change of heart. The Colorado Springs native (now a New Yorker) says that he had a "gut feeling" that he should submit the drama, which is set in an unnamed hamlet near the Garden of the Gods, to Denver's Curious Theatre Company. As the director of professional rights for Dramatists Play Service, Vaughan had worked with Curious when artistic director Chip Walton mounted an acclaimed regional premiere of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive last spring. After conferring with his somewhat hesitant agent, Vaughan express-mailed Praying for Rain to Denver, with the stipulation that Walton would have only a week to decide whether to produce the story about a high school teacher's devotion to a student who becomes embroiled in a violent incident.

While his agent's strict time limit seemed unreasonable even to Vaughan, it was hardly a concern the next day when Walton received the script -- and Columbine High School became engulfed in cataclysmic horror. "I heard about the shootings relatively early here," says Vaughan. "And I called Chip and said, 'If you need more time or you just want to send it back, that's fine.'" Over the next several days and weeks, the community groped its way through a soul-numbing fog of confusion and grief, even as a steady barrage of media coverage sensationalized the carnage instead of illuminating ways to live in its churning wake. Despite the fact that public acts of comfort were nearly always followed by even more public scenes of controversy, Walton eventually decided to give Praying for Rain its world premiere in Denver. The play opens this weekend for a scheduled seven-week run at the Acoma Center.

"I said to the cast at one of the first read-throughs that appearances can be deceiving," says Walton. "And that even though the timing and the context of the project may look like one thing, it's actually an incredibly responsible thing to do." Following in the tradition of such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, who wrote witty comedies about prevailing social issues, and Bertolt Brecht, whose raw, unadorned productions of his own parable-plays were intended to provoke revolutionary social change, Walton has for the past three seasons maintained a commitment to produce high-quality productions that "go into the issues of whatever play we're working on." With Praying for Rain, he says, "It's scapegoating, which is such a political football that everybody -- from media, to legislators, to individuals -- wants to find a place to conveniently tuck away blame. But the important and interesting and exciting thing about this play is that it doesn't do that. This is a very human exploration of the reality that no one thing causes this, that we all have to take a certain level of responsibility."

That sense of communal rectitude is put to the test in one of the play's first scenes, when a teacher, known throughout as Miss K, tries to get through to a student whom she's volunteered to supervise during a four-week detention period. "What's your history?" she demands of Marc, a star football player who's been on a collision course with trouble since the beginning of his senior year, when a terrible motorcycle accident stripped him of his ability to play and, more important, of his identity. After having been nearly expelled for trying to make a deal to sell a handgun, Marc is shunned by his ex-girlfriend, Erin, and falls in with a group of newfound "friends" who seem interested only in seeing how often -- and how hard -- Marc will take the fall for their collective actions. Unfortunately, it takes a chance, deadly encounter at a local teen hangout in the bluffs outside of town for Marc to realize the importance of his after-school "history" lessons with Miss K.

Although the play's parallels to real-life events are likely to summon emotions that have been tender since Columbine, neither Walton nor the actors believe that the subject matter should be off limits. Performer Gene Gillette, who plays Marc, says, "I was in New York when all the Columbine stuff happened, and just to see [the television news programs] show that guy, Patrick Ireland, being dragged out of the window over and over again really disturbed me. It made me think about the fact that we have a responsibility when we do things like this. I mean, I didn't do very well in high school, either," says the graduate of Ponderosa High. "But if you can just find someone to latch onto -- like Miss K -- to help you out, things can be a lot better."

That's a sentiment shared by actress Misti McBride, who points out that the show has "remarkable ties" to her own life. The diminutive, wholesome-looking CU-Denver student, who plays Erin, says that during her high school years she was a drug dealer who was suspended three times for fighting and was left for dead in a basement by a group of people who were afraid to take her to the hospital following an overdose. Her fractured existence was further compounded by the fact that her brother was a gang member who went to prison four times for "serious acts of violence and robbery."  

"We didn't have a very good family structure and so we found a family in a different sense of the word," she remembers. "I've had to revisit a lot of things that I thought I'd gotten away from and shoved down." But remaining silent about touchy issues "only breeds ignorance and contempt and more hurt," she says. "If we're quiet about things, we're not allowing our children to be real and angry and feel all of the things that they're feeling. In the play, Miss K makes an effort to get Marc to talk to her, and he finally feels as though someone cares enough to care about what he has to say, and what he was feeling. That's something that's huge on the hearts of most teenagers, that they're not understood, listened to or respected. As long as we refuse to open our hearts about what we feel, things are never going to get any better."

Indeed, far from exploiting the issue of teen violence, the work gives insight into one person's ability to shape another's destiny, says playwright Vaughan, who began working on the story in 1995 following a conversation he had with a former Mitchell High School teacher (and abiding friend) who influenced his life some twenty years ago. "By '95 or '96, there had been all sorts of events in schools around the country, but nothing as horrible as when the school shootings started. I was trying to think of the worst kind of trouble somebody could get in." Then, after completing the first draft in 1997, Vaughan says that "things started happening in different parts of the country. And I was thinking, 'Well, how could this play possibly match anything? Reality is taking over.' And I had to put it down. I couldn't work on it. But at one point -- it had been maybe six to nine months -- I said, 'Wait a minute, my play's not about that; it's about other issues.' When I finally picked it back up, I believed that it could help and say something. Because ultimately it's about communication and understanding. Whether it's the students together, the students and teachers or the parents and children -- if you aren't who you think you should be, a lot of people just tend to blend into a brick wall."

As far as Walton and company are concerned, one way to prevent that kind of disengagement has been to encourage younger audience members to see the show by involving them in various aspects of the production. Through a grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts, cast member Dee Covington serves as youth outreach director and has been working with students who frequent the Spot, a nonprofit organization that provides at-risk Denver youth with support, educational programming and job-skill preparation. "In some ways, the timing of this production is too perfect and too frightening all at the same time," Covington observes. "We've interviewed some of the kids, and we're putting sound bytes of their histories about violence into the opening of the show. And a really good graffiti artist is going to do some graffiti on the set."

Curious will also mount an art-gallery exhibit of the teens' work that will occupy a backstage reception area at Acoma and will be included in the monthly Golden Triangle Artwalk on the first Friday in April. "The whole room will be about them and their creativity," says Covington. And in addition to the opening-night fundraiser for SAFE (Sane Alternative to the Firearms Epidemic), a future performance will be broadcast over the Web to a thousand schools nationwide in conjunction with SHINE (Seeking Harmony in Neighborhoods Everywhere), followed by a panel discussion in which members of SAFE Students (a national youth movement formed by students dedicated to reducing gun violence) will take an active part.

Above all, though, the group hopes that their work onstage will resonate with theatergoers as authentic and emotionally true. "Done the right way, it's anything but a [made-for TV] after-school special; done the wrong way, it could very well fall into that," says Walton, who, like Vaughan, remains sensitive to the play's ongoing relevance. Post-Columbine feelings, Walton says, are "there, underneath it all and we carry it with us. But now, luckily because I have a really talented cast, everybody knows we have a job to do...We do have an interesting energy, with Gene and Misti and one of the actors who just graduated from high school who had the same sort of experience that Gene did. I started out going into this show thinking, 'You know, I'm not going to buy casting actors in these roles, just because they're actors and hoping they can get this. I really have to find the people who bring something from their own experience to it to make it real.' That's the most important thing. I want the audience, especially those kids from the Spot, all of whom are coming to see the show, to say, 'Man, that's real. That's about me and my life.'"  

Interestingly enough, the experience that Vaughan credits with arousing his passion for theater was an English-class assignment to read Eugene O'Neill's intensely autobiographical drama, Long Day's Journey Into Night. Rather than pore over the voluminous text, Vaughan decided to buy a ticket for a touring production that was being presented at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. "I saw it and it just did something to me," he says. "Anthony Heald was in it. I still have the program. And one of the people I dedicated Praying for Rain to was the person who put that show on the road for Milwaukee Rep."

When the lights rise on Curious Theatre's version of this most personal of plays, it's likely that Vaughan will harbor hopes similar to those that his boyhood idol expressed in his dedicatory preface to Long Day's Journey: "I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood," wrote O'Neill to his wife, Carlotta, whom he credited for helping him to re-examine his past "with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness." Perhaps in the same way that America's greatest playwright was inspired to face his demons, local audiences will be moved by Vaughan's drama to begin, in O'Neill's words, "a Journey into Light -- into love."


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