Salvation Road at PTNJ

 

On March 15, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey will feature a reading of Salvation Road as part of its ‘Forum Soundings’ series, focused on youth-centered theatre. This is the latest step in an ongoing development process for the play, which originated as a one-act at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009, was workshopped at New York University and the Utah University Youth Theatre, produced at NYU in October and at Walden Theatre in November and is due for another production at Seton Hill University in April.

I sat down with  Jennifer DeWitt of PTNJ for a brief interview. The interview and more details about the series  can be found at PTNJ’s blog.

 

1.       What inspired you to write “Salvation Road?”

Originally a friend of mine who was active in what was then known as the Cult Awareness Network commissioned a play about the cult experience. I agreed to write the play, which I had intended as an “issue” play for theatres that tour to schools. But I didn’t really like the results; it was didactic and a bit predictable. So I tossed it in a drawer and did other things. Then in 2008 the successor organization to CAN–now called the International Cultic Studies Association–was holding a conference in Philadelphia and my friend wanted to present the play there. I went into a panic because I just did not like the script, but by then I had decided to take a different attack on the subject matter–which was to write about the people who are left behind, trying to make sense of what is going on. I had some experience with that–my sister was involved briefly in the Unification Church a number of years ago–and so I drew on a few details that I remembered from that time. So for me the play is really about the brother who is confused by his sister’s rejection of the family and trying to make sense of her need for an organization like the Disciples.

 

2.       You write in a variety of styles and genres. Do you let the subject matter dictate this or do you wake-up and say “today I plan to write a historical drama therefore I must find a subject?”

Plays for me are about wrestling with a question or an observation. The inspiration comes from all sorts of places–something I read in a newspaper or online, a book I’m reading, a photograph or an anecdote–even a painting or sketch I see in a gallery. I come across something that triggers a question. With Radium Girls, the immediate trigger was a chapter in a book on mass media that I came across online. I read the story of the New Jersey case and thought “How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening?” And I developed an obsession with the story. I knew starting out that the play was going to deal with the uses of denial in some way. But then I set out to do my research and in the process realized that I also wanted to tell the story from two points of view—the women in the factory and the men who owned the company.  It was a long struggle to come to a structure that worked, because it was an early play and I was not really confident in myself to do the story justice. But really I borrowed from Brecht, working in presentational scenes with more naturalistic scenes—and advancing the action in an almost cinematic way. So Radium Girls is really Epic Theatre.

 

Most of the other plays I’ve written are historical in nature–period pieces–though I am starting to write contemporary stories. And while in many cases the exchanges between characters are naturalistic—the structure usually isn’t; there is usually some element to the construction of the play that departs from 20th Century Realism. One artistic director described me as an “impressionist.” And I think that is largely true–certainly was true of The Good Daughter. There, the idea was to approach the scenes like photographs in a family album–that as you flip through the pages and through the years–a story emerges–and there are great leaps in time between the photographs, but you ultimately get a sense of an arc and a resolution.

 

I am drawn to period pieces because, like Shakespeare, I think audiences needs to look backward in order to look at themselves. You put some distance between the experience of contemporary audiences and the story you are telling them—and they can receive it better, especially if you are delivering a fairly harsh critique wrapped in the form of entertainment.

 

But I’m also interested in finding a shape or an approach that suits the material—and how this comes about is a bit of mystery. I sit with the idea or the characters for a while sometimes before the answer comes. Salvation Road is essentially a buddy movie on stage–two guys hit the road looking for a girl. And the structure is cinematic because the audience I am aiming at is used to receiving information in short bits; they are used to film and video and online entertainment and gaming–and that informs the way the play is put together. The newest piece I am working on now is a mash-up between a social satire and a murder mystery–with no solution to the mystery, which I am sure will really infuriate the audience. So it starts out as a comedy and gets darker as it goes. More and more I guess I am interested in bending forms—taking very familiar forms and working in that framework to force the audience to adopt a point of view it might not otherwise adopt. So I think the work is subtle in that respect—and I like to think it’s subversive. That’s what I tell myself.

 

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From STEM to STEAM: Putting the ‘Art’ Back in Science Education

On Saturday Feb. 23 I crossed something off my bucket list–and was a keynote speaker at the 2013 Theatre in Our Schools Mini-Conference in Richmond, a project of the Virginia membership of the American Alliance for Theatre & Education. Organizer Steven Barker invited me to speak on the topic of incorporating the arts into other core education courses. Here’s what I had to say:

 

Steven asked me to join you today to think through a most intriguing question: How can we transform STEM to STEAM? Or more to the point how can  that missing “A” can be incorporated into—and actually enhance—the teaching of  other core subjects?

 

STEM as we know is an initiative to emphasize SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, and MATH in the classroom.

 

For lovers and teachers of the arts—all manner of art—-the fact that music, painting, dance, theatre—even literature—is missing from this initiative is not just an unfortunate oversight, it is troubling evidence of an attitude that pervades our culture, which is that the arts are secondary—extraneous, fluff, unimportant—while science and technology are essentials.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour

 

To believe that is to be blind to the role of the arts not just in education but in our very lives. As theatre artists, we know that the arts and humanities are vital to helping young people develop essential skills— not the least of which is the exercise of the imagination. Without the ability to envision, the scientific mind would never think past the world as it exists now in the present.

 

 

In a recent essay, Princeton University Professor Danielle Allen reminds us:

 

 

“That you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and … reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.” And, I would argue—by classes in drama.

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The Long Shadow, Part III: A Soldier’s Story

The package that arrived  in my mail in mid-January came as a surprise, not because it was unexpected, but because the contents were so much more revealing than I had imagined possible—nearly 70 pages of Photostats, detailing the movements of my late uncle Jack in the three years he spent in the Army Air Force during World War II. Jack’s records were largely intact, having survived a 1973 fire in the National Archives in St. Louis that had destroyed nearly 80 percent of the military records then on file.

 

 

What those records revealed was a short life far more troubled than I had realized.

 

 

Jack’s induction papers, 1942

My mother never spoke of this mysterious younger brother unless prompted by one of us, and even then her stories were spare and brief. What I knew of Jack was that he had been rebellious and bold and that he had died, in an apparent car accident, years before I was born. The few photographs we had of him showed a cheerful, friendly young face with a spark of mischief in his eye;  it was left to us to fill in the details, and I did: in my mind he was reckless but sincere, good-hearted and kind, adventurous and noble—the kind of uncle every girl wanted, who would have taken me on long walks and imparted to me the wisdom he had gleaned from his years of unrest. He might have been a bit wild, but he was not a bad boy; he simply loved a good time and took nothing seriously. We knew this to be true; we could see it in his eyes.

 

 

But the picture that emerges from the documents is much different, much darker—a story of a troubled young man with a fondness for drink—who lost more than 100 days of service to his habit of leaving the base without permission—who married because he had to—and who died in the fall of 1946 by an unspecified cause. I knew the cause—I’d already gotten his death certificate—he died alone in October 1946, killing himself by putting  his head in the oven and turning on the gas.

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The Artist as Activist–Take It to the Street or the Stage?

On Jan. 26, after a month of planning that was kicked off by Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, the March on Washington for Gun Control took place—the first major public demonstration since the Sandy Hook shootings to demand a change in our national gun policy. I was in the thick of it, having helped (in a very small way) to assist the organizers and turning out to march and rally—one of more than 6,000 people who showed up that morning.

 

 

It was a first for me, to be in the midst of a movement, rather than at the edge of it, observing it.  Up to this point in my life, the most I’ve ever done for any cause I’ve supported is to write a check. And while money helps, muscle is sometimes more important.  So when Molly issued a call, I decided that it was time to do more than just lament a sorry situation. So I turned out to offer my limited skills at research and writing, helping collect as much information as I could on the issue and, with the help of my friend Cat,  searching out  the names of gun violence victims whose names were carried in silent protest down Constitution Avenue.

 

 

A view from within the crowd.

 

Later that afternoon, there was a demonstration of another kind at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre—where Obie-winning playwright Caridad Svich, artistic director of NoPassport theatre alliance and press, had organized a Theatre Action for Gun Control in collaboration with Theatre J and interdisciplinary arts ensemble force/collision and Twinbiz.  The presentation of short works included new pieces by Neil LaBute, Jennifer Maisel, Winter Miller, Matthew Paul Olmos, Svich, and others.

 

 

 

This juxtaposition of street theatre—which this march and rally surely was—and a theatre of protest in a traditional setting invites the question of what role art can play in responding to atrocity. The slaughter of those poor children and their teachers in Connecticut was so awful that any response at all seemed stunningly ineffectual. What can you say in response to such madness? And who is more crazy– the gunman who took the lives of people totally unconnected to his personal hell–or the rest of us, who allow these conditions to persist and go so far as to argue–some of us–that our constitutional right to firearms trumps any reasonable effort to curtail their unlimited availability to individuals unfit to use them.

 

Are there moments when art has nothing to say? Or is it just that I have nothing to say; and for that reason decided to take up an action at Molly’s invitation and do what little I could to make the point. Are there times when the only reasonable response is to put down the pen, take off the costume, and take to the street? These are the questions I put to Caridad and her response is below the fold.

 

 

 

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The Metaphor of the Gun

Something happened last night. It got me so fired up I was ready to let fly with both barrels.

Illustration by Mike Diehm

 

So you know it was big.

 

And that is why I had to step back and think about my choice of words.  How ironic that the first thing to come to me was the metaphor of the gun.

 

I’ve been volunteering now for a couple weeks to help bring about a March on Washington for Gun Control. This is an effort by some D.C. theatre artists to call attention to the need for a more sensible gun policy in this country — one that could have prevented the carnage at Sandy Hook. So when an apparent coordinated effort by opponents of the march shut down our Facebook page for several hours last night, I was outraged.

 

I guess when you don’t have an argument, you resort to dirty tricks. And no question it is easier to shut down  the argument you cannot refute than to actually refute it—and that is another irony, that such vocal proponents of the Second Amendment seem to forget that there is also a First Amendment.

 

But there I was, firing off emails (oh yes I know) invoking the metaphor of the gun.

 

Both barrels, loaded for bear.  And it occurred to me how trapped we all are within a language and culture so besotted with weaponry.

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A Man Without a Conscience, or How to Stick it to ‘Big Gun’

When I started this playwright’s blog, I wasn’t interested in whining about the reasons why theatres don’t produce more plays by women in general (or me in particular, let’s be frank) or the politics of production or the reasons the whole industry is at once relentlessly P.C. and yet so damn conservative.  I wanted to write my plays and  blog about the impulses that led me to them.  I wanted to understand process and come to a better understanding of my craft. But as the man said, life is what happens when you are making other plans–and in my case, and yours, since you are reading this–life is apparently what happens because you haven’t yet run into the business end of a .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle. And so we get to keep on breathing by virtue of the sheer dumb luck that, for now at least, we are not in some lunatic’s line of fire. And this realization, along with my outrage over what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary last week, has stirred me from my petty self-absorption to, shall we say, a vigilant stance.

 

 

Given the insane gun policy in this nation, the chances of any one of us being blown away in a random act of extreme violence is just too damn high. All it takes is for you or me to be at the wrong place–in front of the FBI Building, for example–at the wrong time–the exact moment when the lunatic du jour pops another 30-round magazine into his Glock—for us to be prematurely dispatched to that great big Arsenal in the sky.

 

Realizing their vulnerability after Columbine, schools undertook efforts to protect their students from armed gunmen. They stepped up security, they instituted “drills” so kids could practice how to run and hide. As a teaching artist, I happened to be on hand one day during just such a drill, and I found it surreal—the teacher locking the schoolroom door, the kids quietly huddling in a corner, and h how matter-of-fact the discussion afterwards.

 

But there is just something seriously sick about this, when school children have to engage in “drills” to train them how to avoid a mass murderer in the hallway–instead of the rest of us actually DOING SOMETHING to prevent there being a mass murderer in the hallway.  Back in my day, all we had to contend with in school were the usual bullies, occasional fire drills and predictable Friday afternoon bomb scares—it was the 70s after all—and  for most of us, the bomb scares just meant an excuse to get out of gym class. Today, we have gunmen who shoot their way into the building and massacre six year olds en masse. And if we can’t come up with some way to stop atrocities like that, then we might as well pack it in and return to the cave, because we do not live in anything approaching a civil society.

 

So what to do? Or more to the point, how to do it?

 

Not surprisingly, the internets have been afire since Friday with all sort of posts decrying the horror of it all, lamenting our lame gun policy, lambasting the National Rifle Association (mea culpa) and using Facebook as a public forum to express a general sense of outrage, disgust, and helplessness. (Interestingly, the NRA has disabled its Facebook page.) Vigils have been organized and protests are threatened. But for a truly compelling rant about how to really kick the shins of big gun, read this guy. Drew Magary argues that the real target of our frustration should not be the NRA and its four million dues paying members, but rather, the money interests behind the NRA itself.

 

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27 Dead in Connecticut: A Call to Action

27 Dead in Connecticut

 

The headline is too familiar, and yet, despite a culture saturated by gun violence in fiction and fact, we feel absolute revulsion at the senselessness of it all.

 

Twenty-seven dead in Connecticut, 20 of them children. They were kindergartners, five or first-grade students, six and seven years old. In the world of innocence, these were absolute innocents–and they are dead because this nation and its political leaders lack the nerve to stand up to a well-funded and wrong-headed gun lobby.

 

Why? Is the cry that goes out, again and again, when we see these headlines. Why, why, why?

 

 

Why? Because a troubled boy of 20 had access to a Glock and Sig Sauer pistols—two magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons capable of firing off more than 100 rounds within minutes, as well as a .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle – a military style assault rifle similar to the one used by the serial killers that stalked the D.C. metro 10 years ago.  This is the weapon, authorities say, that Lanza used to gun down his victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

 

Why? Because, even though gun ownership in this nation is concentrated in the hands of only a third of its population—our political leaders lack the moral courage to fight for a sensible gun policy.

 

The National Rifle Association’s slippery slope argument is that if the U.S. government curtails the use of any firearm—no matter how lethal—that is the beginning of the end for our constitutionally guaranteed right to gun ownership in the United States. And by their logic, an assault rifle is the equivalent of the shotgun my brother-in-law keeps on hand at his farmhouse in the mountains of Pennsylvania, where bears have regularly crossed into his property. A Glock is the equivalent of the rifle my brother once used to hunt deer.

 

According to the NRA, weapons designed for military use belong in the hands of ordinary citizens like Nancy Lanza. She apparently thought so, too. The shooter’s mother is dead by her son’s own hand, murdered with a weapon she had bought herself. According to news reports, Nancy Lanza was the legal owner of the guns her son used to commit mass murder.

 

This a crime so horrific that some of us wonder if it is not, at last, at very long last, the final straw.

 

And as often happens at times like these, we wonder what we, as theatre artists, can possibly say or do about it.

 

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The Christmas Card from Hell

I got a Christmas card today from the child molester’s wife.

 

This is not an unusual event. For the past several years, this woman has persisted in sending me birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter greetings—this despite what should have been a clear directive to her years ago never to contact me again. Yet she persists.

 

For years I evaded her ridiculous missives, but somewhere along the line one of my misguided relatives gave her my current address and so, for the past few years, I have suffered through a series of “greeting cards” from this woman. Usually I throw them away. But tonight, for some reason, I am moved to action.

 

The door that wasn’t opened …

You see, I have the misfortune of being related to her husband and, thus, I was one of his targets. I prefer “target” to “victim” because I decided a long time ago that what he did to me was not going to define me forever. And if I was a victim once, I am no longer. But God knows how many more children have come into his line of fire—how many of his own children? We cannot begin to know; his life is a lie wrapped in denial, embroiled in deception. We can guess, but we don’t have the luxury of the confirmation. Once, long ago, I confronted him in the belief that I owed it to his children to try to stop him. But I could not stop him. The lie was too strong.

 

But his wife is a great curiosity to me. When we undertook to confront him, my sister and I,  in the process, we confronted her as well. Her anger was a sight to behold. She literally shook with rage. Not at him, of course. At us. For daring to tell. For daring to say what had happened and demanding—how dare we demand it!—an apology.

 

We never got it.

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Breaking the Block Part 6: Cooking With Commies

I confess to a panic attack the other day when I realized that not only  am I behind on the promised scene, I cannot tamp down my anxiety to write it. The excuses are piling up—production, yadda, hurricane, yadda, production, yadda, nostalgia tour, yadda, yadda, yadda—and now the latest: a nasty flu, which I soothed with multiple toddies  (yes, there was whisky involved, sue me) and homemade soup (leek and potato, recipe to follow. I do try to please.)

 

Chopping leeks had me thinking about what my characters might be having for supper on a Sunday night, and it occurred to me that I ought to scout out a Russian cookbook somewhere, circa 1930 (but in English please!) to get a sense of what Alexei’s mother might put on the table. Then again—a 1930s cookbook would have to be approved by The Party, I imagine, and would a bowl of Communist borscht taste different from the pre-war Tsarist variety? Alexei’s mother in 1930 would be at least 50 and presumably have learned to cook sometime before the turn of the century and very likely, with no assistance from formal recipes at all, so I imagine what she put on the table would be in no way influenced by Party approval but certainly by any going food shortages at the time.

 

All this ruminating takes me back to my basic problem: To write a scene of any authenticity I have to know a little bit of something about the characters and their physical world, and for this play especially, I feel a deep need to immerse myself in the culture and currents of the era. For book research, I have turned to the brilliant Orlando Figes and his phenomenal account of ordinary life in the Soviet era: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. (Even as I write these words I realize I need even more than that. A book alone will not do it—I need a tangible experience, but a visit to Red Square in not yet in the cards.)

 

Forty pages in, the takeaway from Figes’ work is the extreme intrusion of the Soviet state into the private lives of its people, the widely accepted understanding that privacy and personal happiness are luxuries that the people can no longer afford; their focus must be to build the ideal (Communist) state, and to do so, they must cast aside any notion of a personal life. It is heartbreaking in its idealism, realizing the number of lives shattered by the grinding machinery of Stalin’s police state. Even those of the truest believers.

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The Importance of Multiple Productions

Having seen the second production of  Salvation Road—third if you count the original one-act at the Philly Fringe in 2009—I have now received the kind of vindication every playwright craves: I know my script stands up.

 

 

With two different casts in two radically different incarnations—David Montgomery’s production at New York University featured original music, a rich sound design and a modular set, while Alec Volz’s production at Walden Theatre in Louisville was performed in the round with minimal sound and only four barstools as set pieces—the story of a young man in search of a lost sister is the same from one production to another.  Now having worked the play through several readings and workshops, I already knew that the script was fairly well constructed and I had a lot of confidence in it. But seeing it in a second incarnation showed me that the play was really there.  It lived on stage in a different way, but the fundamentals were the same.

 

 

Nan Elpers, Courtney Doyle, and Elese Whiting in Walden Theatre’s production of Salvation Road. Photo by Harlan Taylor.

 

Most playwrights, though, don’t get to this discovery, for the simple reason that most plays never get past the initial production, if they are produced at all. As we know, theatre in the United States has been peculiarly obsessed with world premieres—and this obsession works to the detriment of the form. Not only is it frustrating to labor so over a play that will never see more than a single production, it precludes a playwright from experiencing the essential next step in a play’s development. Because it is only the second production that will make clear to us exactly how well—or how poorly–constructed our play really is.  Simply put, if if what we deem essential to our play falls out of it when a different director and cast takes over—then we know that there are problems with the script.

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Salvation Road Redux

Salvation Road‘s run at the Steinhardt School of New York University ended abruptly with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29. Compared to the loss of life, injury, damage to property, chaos and disruption visited upon the good people of Manhattan–one friend I know of is still without heat two weeks later–curtailing the run of a play on a college campus is really no loss at all.  Disappointed as I am not to have a full run, I feel worse for the students who worked so hard to bring the play to life; they threw themselves into the project with such enthusiasm, I know they must have been deeply disappointed that they could not restage the play at a later time. But alas, the Pless Black Box was booked with the next show coming in, and there was simply no space to perform.

 

Salvation Road at Walden Theatre, directed by Alec Volz

For me, the play moves on now to another production, this time at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., where a cast of younger actors tackles the story of two guys in search of a girl who does not want to be separated from her guru. The production is Walden’s entry into Louisville’s Slant Culture Theatre Festival, described as “a laboratory for uncommon works” and hosted by Walden. Salvation Road will run in rep with The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell by Mat Smart, produced by Theatre [502] of Louisville; The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, by Luigi Pirandello, produced by Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company, and 5 Things, a devised piece by Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, among other works.

 

Like NYU, the Walden Theatre is producing a large-cast version of the play. But this time, instead of college students playing high school age characters, the actors are area high school students who study in Walden’s conservatory program. This is a terrific opportunity for me to see how the play works as a youth theatre piece—and how well it is received by audiences of that age.

 

When I first wrote the play, I thought the biggest barrier to production by schools would be the subject matter–religion. But I was advised by a  high school drama teacher that cast size, more than subject matter, would be the bigger concern. Thus, I expanded what I had intended as a five-actor piece to a 90-minute play for 12 to 16 performers. However, the five-actor — actually now a six-actor — version still lives. During a workshop at NYU in the spring, I worked on that smaller cast version–simultaneously developing it with the 16-actor play, though we ultimately presented the six-actor version in public staged readings in June.

 

The differences? The larger piece creates a stronger sense of place; the atmosphere is richer. But the smaller cast play, requiring the cast to double into nine speaking parts, is a spare, stark telling of the story that for me, draws the focus more sharply. These are two different experiences of the story, and for schools that are interested in the issues raised by the play, involving more students in the telling makes a great deal of sense. But I still believe Salvation Road can find an audience in mainstream theatres and for that reason, I look forward to the production of the small cast version at Seton Hill University in April.

 

Salvation Road Opens Tonight

Salvation Road opens tonight with a cast of thousands ….

 

It has been a long process developing this play, a comic drama about a boy searching for a sister who has disappeared into a fundamentalist cult.

 

Originally a one-act for three actors (hated that version) the play underwent a massive rewrite in the summer/fall of 2008. I got up my nerve to stage the retooled one-act version, but on advice of a high school drama director — the fabulous Jennie Eisenhower — I developed it into this version, a full-length for 15 actors.  Jennie did not think the subject matter would intimidate a lot of schools, but the cast size–five to eight actors–would discourage a lot of high schools. A cast of 15 to 16 would be a much easier sell. With that in mind, I revised the play into a large-cast version. It subsequently received a developmental workshop at The Utah University Youth Theatre in 2011 as part of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s Playwrights in Our Schools Program.  This year the play was accepted for development during NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences workshop at Provincetown Playhouse this summer. Ironically, the Provincetown project focused a full-length with a small cast (six actors doubling into nine parts).  This is the first time I’ve written a play with two versions–one aimed at professional production, and the other aimed at the youth theatre market.

 

 

The  Theatre Department of the Steinhardt School at New York University trains drama teachers — and there could be no better match for this play than a premiere of the full-length youthversion in a departmental production. It is a challenging topic for young actors and for their audiences, but I strongly believe young people have more going on inside than many of their teachers, and sometimes parents, appreciate.  My hope is that schools across the country will not be put off by the subject matter, but will embrace this play as an excellent opportunity for their students to explore issues of faith, spirituality, conformity, and control through the story of two boys caught up in the cult phenomenon.

 

The next stop for Salvation Road is a production at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 8-18. I’ll be going out there for a post-show discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

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