What does an award nomination mean to an artist? Middlebury College playwright-in-residence Dana Yeaton learned last week that his new play, Redshirts, is up for a prestigious Helen Hayes Award: the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical. He admits that the news provided him with "that half an ounce more confidence" about his writing when he hung up the phone and went back to the keyboard.
The Hayes prizes recognize achievement on the professional stage in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. The region now "has more professional theater than any other city in America except New York," according to former Middlebury resident Blake Robison, artistic director of Maryland's Round House Theatre, which coproduced Redshirts' premiere last fall. Longtime collaborators Yeaton and Robison helped found Burlington's Vermont Stage Company in 1994. Robison has also directed Yeaton's plays, including his adaptation of Chris Bohjalian's Midwives at Round House.
In Redshirts, black football players at a Southern college become ensnared in a plagiarism scandal. Both Yeaton and Robison realized the importance of reaching outside their white, New England backgrounds to research and stage the project.
"I've grown up in New Hampshire and Vermont, so my life experience in black culture is infinitesimal," says Yeaton. He spent a semester at the University of Tennessee "pretending to be a theater teacher," he jokes. He had freshman football players develop monologues about their lives and deliver them to high school students. Seeing their speech on the page helped Yeaton "reach into the authentic bag" during the playwriting process.
Lou Bellamy, of Minnesota's Penumbra Theatre Company, directed Redshirts' debut, which opened in St. Paul before transferring to Maryland. "The play deals with race and academics on a college campus," notes Robison. "We thought for the play to have the resonance and authenticity that it needs, we should seek out an accomplished African-American theater company with whom we could collaborate."
Bellamy brought "a kind of sensitivity that I just never would have had," Yeaton admits. Modest script revisions during the rehearsal process incorporated the director's insights on how language and power relationships translate differently depending on one's point of view.
Yeaton's fellow MacArthur nominees this year include some of his favorite playwrights, such as Sarah Ruhl and Moises Kaufman. "A committee of people who watched a lot of theater in the D.C. area agreed that this was a good enough play to be in a group with some people whose work I think the world of," he says. "It's very cool."