Producing a world premiere play at a university theatre is a challenge. Developing a new play with music, adapted from a Stephen King novel about a school shooting, is ambitious on several counts. But Quinnipiac University Theatre in Hamden, Conn., is not daunted: This weekend, the school will present Rage, a mere 30 miles from the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
The play with music was adapted from King’s 1977 novel Rage, a psychological thriller written in diary form that follows Charlie Decker, an expelled student who returns to his school and fatally shoots his algebra teacher. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of the book or can’t find it for purchase, it’s because King pulled the novel from circulation in the U.S. in 1997, after a slew of real-life school shooters cited the novel in manifestos and were found with copies of the book.
So why theatricalize this banned book, and why now? Elizabeth Dinkova, a recent Yale directing graduate, who adapted and directed Rage, grew up in Bulgaria, where the book was available; she first read it in middle school. In a country where where citizens aren’t allowed to own or use firearms, she says, “Rage was as fantastical of a plot as The Shining.”
Dinkova reached out to King a few days after the Parkland shooting, and he gave her permission to draft a play and add music, for which she enlisted the help of a fellow Yale graduate, Frederick Kennedy, a composer. “I felt that there was something in this story that could shed light on these unconscionable things that we talk around,” Dinkova explains.
Her version takes place in its original setting, in the ’70s, and includes the main action of the novel—a school shooting and classroom hostage situation. It then dives into a series of confessions the students share with each other about the simmering pressures they face. This allows for a further exploration of the social failures and mental health struggles that can lead to such tragic events. The play’s narrator is a writer who weighs the negative and positive effects art can have on its audience, and who contends with the shooter throughout the play. The confessionals of the students take the form of rock songs.
“The impact of the novel feels so personal and intimate—that gets lost when you put it onstage,” explains Dinkova. That’s where the songs come in: “I think adding music to these personal revelations and secrets that the students share in the classroom increases that sense of intimacy and helps us transport into their world in a really meaningful way.”
Quinnipiac University’s theatre department approached the project gingerly—and at first not at all. Dinkova was invited to develop and direct the school’s spring musical, but when she proposed Rage she met with resistance.
“I turned it down—I rejected it,” says Kevin Daly, the head of the theatre program. “I didn’t feel equipped to, a) engage in the material myself, and b) lead the theatre program through the important conversations that would have to happen if we decided to do this type of material. Further, I didn’t know if our students were equipped for it.”
Daly was ultimately won over when Dinkova put the question this way: “This is a problem in this country,” he recalls her saying, “and if artists and educators aren’t willing to talk about it, who will?” He also saw that her passion for the project could serve as a model for his students. She was brought to Quinnipiac as part of a program in which recent directing grads are invited to develop and helm a show with current students. “You can’t teach it, but you can expose the students to it,” says Daly. “And here’s Beth Dinkova, who really embodies what I’d like my students to work toward. So I really wanted to try and find a way to make it work.”
Thomas Pruzinsky, a psychology professor at Quinnipiac, and Scarlett Lewis, a mother of a victim of the Sandy Hook shooting, both encouraged the theatre program to develop and produce the project. Moreover, they wanted the university to present and contextualize Rage with programming across disciplines on campus and throughout the community. The many planning conversations led to the conclusion that empathy is the antidote to rage, and that theatre is the optimal place to teach and share empathy.
The supplemental programming has included a panel discussion in early February with the creative team, Lewis, and representatives from the university’s criminal justice and equity and inclusion programs; a teach-in on gun violence by Department of Cultural and Global Engagement; a series of deliberate dialogues on mass shootings by the Collaborative for Interdisciplinary/Integrative Studies program; and Rage curriculum built into English courses, theatre classes, and first-year seminars this semester.
For the students directly involved in the show, a great deal of care has gone into ensuring their health and safety throughout the rehearsal and production process. The cast comprises 18- to 21-year-olds—a cohort of students who were in high school when the Parkland shooting occurred. Many of the cast members grew up in Connecticut and were children when the nearby Sandy Hook tragedy happened. Some even knew children and families who were victims of the massacre. In casting the show, Dinkova sought students with a musical capacity, an interest in developing new roles, and most importantly, the emotional maturity to work on the material.
“My town in Westchester was about 15-20 miles from Sandy Hook, and I was 13 when the Newtown shooting occurred,” says cast member Tess Adams. “Gun violence in schools is a very personal issue to me, and so I was very apprehensive when I first heard that we were going to be taking this on.”
The audition process included conversations about why Dinkova felt the story was important to share. After offering roles, Dinkova sent the students the script and allowed the students to take time before officially joining the project. Says Adams, “I did a lot of introspective searching and decided that the way that it was written, and the way that she had laid out the narrative structure, was going to be something that didn’t sensationalize the act of violence, but actually looked critically at how someone arrives at that point. The open dialogue between us and the adults in the room has been really critical for our peace of mind.”
The eight student cast members are joined by Equity actors in the role of the teacher, portrayed by Mariah Sage, and the writer, played by Michael Pemberton.
Sage, who is an adjunct theatre professor at the university, is impressed with the students’ flexibility in tackling the artistic demands of a world premiere. “The changing and ebbing and flowing—they’re learning and unlearning,” she says. “It’s a unique set of challenges, but the room stays buoyant and light. There’s a great deal of pride in what they’re doing. They’re proud of themselves for having the courage to delve into this. It’s really moving as an educator to see, it truly is.”
Cast member Alessandra Varon says the opportunity to originate a role was something she couldn’t pass up. “Among other things, this was a process of revisions and cuts and additions—with lines, songs, and intentions. It’s such a crazy gift to be involved in the process of creating the story.”
One of Dinkova’s objectives has been to make sure the students are practicing self-care and are able to sleep at night. With input from psychologist Thomas Pruzinsky, Dinkova has developed a pre- and post-show ritual that employ elements of Buddhism. “It’s a mindfulness-based journey to get focus at the beginning of rehearsals, and then to leave the characters and their experiences at the end of the process,” she explains. The students are instructed to put away their characters’ desks at the end of rehearsal as a way to say goodbye to their character for the night. The cast and crew then share a lesson or challenge that came up in the rehearsal, and are asked to rate their level of distress on a number scale. If it’s above a 7, they’re connected with professional resources. (Psychologists will also be on hand after the performances for students and audiences to talk, if need be.)
“Because of all the really tough topics covered in this show, it has really brought the cast together to try and support each other as we each find our character and uncover our emotions toward our characters’ given circumstances,” says cast member Emily Kane, who winds down from rehearsals with episodes of The Office.
Says Kevin Cathe, who plays the shooter, Charlie Decker, “Being a part of this show has made me develop much stronger friendships not only with my fellow castmates, but also everyone on the production staff.”
For her part, Varon invites the cast to her suite every Friday night to get together and have fun. “It’s honestly not too surprising that we’re so connected. Working on a show that brings to light so many of the issues in our society—many of which multiple cast members have dealt with over the course of our lives— it’s impossible not to bond. In fact, we really have to be close. We have to trust each other and know each other and understand each other to be able to handle this content in a safe and graceful manner.”
Daly is proud of the students’ camaraderie and the dialogue that the show has created on campus and beyond. “The work itself is pretty incredible, and that really is Beth and Fred, and the other artists working with her on the team,” he says. “It’s really turning into a meaningful experience for everyone involved.”
Dinkova is grateful for the opportunity to develop the project with student artists who are deeply invested in the work. “There’s a level of freedom in a commission at a university to explore things,” she says. “Theatre programs, and this program in particular, really do have the potential to provide an artistic home for artists to be able to work on projects that are really meaningful to them, and that are also really meaningful to the university community and the local community. There’s something beautiful, special, and unique about that confluence of factors that makes you see the immediate impact of work that is getting done.”