Serendipity surprises and shapes our lives unexpectedly. For Utah playwright Julie Jensen, it took the form of two phone calls.
The first came from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., asking her to write a play adapting Kathryn Erskine’s “Mockingbird” for its Theatre for Young Audiences.
Caitlin, the book’s central character, is a 12-year-old with autism. As if her world is not confusing enough, her older brother, chief supporter and protector, Devon, unexpectedly dies, and she must cope with the consequences.
Jensen didn’t know the book but was delighted to discover that although “it was a little too episodic for a play structure, the scene work in it was really good. Not all novelists write with scenes in their head, but [Erskine] does.”
She also relished the challenge of telling the story entirely from Caitlin’s point of view.
“There are a couple of plays about autism, but they tend not to show you the experience in the autistic kid’s head,” she says. “A film like ‘Rain Man’ — you’re watching him from the outside.”
She was inspired by the British National Theatre’s production of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which “helped me understand how you might move from scene to scene.”
The second call came from Tracy Callahan, theater professor at Weber State University in Ogden.
Callahan said Weber planned on doing an entire season of new plays and wondered if Jensen had anything she was working on. When Jensen mentioned “Mockingbird,” Callahan was immediately excited because her son has autism, although he is much more high-functioning than Caitlin. The two decided they wanted to collaborate on a production.
The problem was convincing the Kennedy Center, because its production had to be the world premiere. When Jensen explained that “if we could get work on this from young people, we could work out how it looks because it’s going to take more than 3 ½ weeks [the average rehearsal time] to figure it out,” the center saw the benefit and agreed.
Weber’s production is described as a workshop, even though it will be fully staged with costumes, lights and a set. It also features projections of Caitlin’s drawings as she creates them.
Callahan and the students have been working on the project for more than three months. To convey the chaos of Caitlin’s world to the audience, Callahan enlisted Rodolfo Rafael and Sarah Pickett to choreograph the actors’ movement in the playground and classroom scenes. Jensen describes the result as “a combination of chaos and control so it looks off-center and weird, but it is not dancey. It doesn’t look as if it is choreographed, but it is.” Actors move and freeze, and their gestures and facial expressions seem odd and mismatched.
The effect at a recent run-through was surreal, ritualistic and emotionally powerful.
As Caitlin assumes more control of her life, the movement settles down and becomes more normal. Callahan says she tried to counterpoint the chaos of Caitlin’s world against the stillness and heaviness of her father’s. A major part of making all of this work is sophomore Camrey Bagley’s poignant portrayal of Caitlin.
Weber’s production opens just in time for National Autism Awareness Month. Jensen and Callahan will receive special recognition from the city of Ogden, and a panel focused on autism follows the opening night’s performance. A special daytime performance for area schools will include students with autism. Marketing director Christie Denniston says the production is envisioned as a regional, community and campus event.
Callahan points out the production’s particular relevance to Utah: “The state of Utah has one of the highest rates of autism of any location in the country. Our aim with this play is to bring together teachers, community members, civic leaders and parents of children with autism to promote dialogue on these important topics and seek ways we can collaborate with one another to find solutions, which promote acceptance and understanding.”
“Mockingbird” will play at the Kennedy Center next January and February, and Jensen will continue to work with Callahan, who is slated to direct that Equity production.
Jensen is excited at the prospect; she praises Callahan as “a director who can do half of the work, if not more. She’s really a collaborator of the first order.”
‘Mockingbird’ at WSU
When • Opens Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Plays nightly at 7:30, except Sunday and Monday, through April 5, with extra 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, March 29 and April 5, and a special daytime performance for area schools on Wednesday, April 2, at 10 a.m.
Where • Eccles Black Box Theater, Val A. Browning Performing Arts Center, Weber State University, Ogden
Running time • 80 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets • $9 to $12 at www.weberstatetickets.com or 801-626-8500.