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John Kinzer
IU Theatre and Drama

Last modified: Monday, November 25, 2002

IU graduate student to premiere haunting new play

First student-authored work performed in Wells-Metz Theatre

EDITORS: A special Web page devoted to Playing the Bones, featuring an interview with John Drago, can be accessed at

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- John Drago is hooked on reality TV.

The Indiana University graduate student just might need a few "survival" skills to make it through the days leading up to the world premiere of his first major playwriting effort, Playing the Bones, on Dec. 6. It will be the first student-authored work to be performed in the new Wells-Metz Theatre of the Indiana University Theatre and Drama Center.

Drago admits he is terrified -- which is surprising coming from a young man who, not long ago, spent his days touring graveyards in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. There, among the tombstones, shadows and howling winds, the third-year M.F.A. student from Louisville began formulating the idea for his new play. Playing the Bones is an eerie, haunting Appalachian tale about an orphan girl discovering the secrets of her past and coming to terms with her own mystical powers.

A relative newcomer to playwriting, Drago, who studied musical theater in college, cites everything from the theatrical works of Henrik Ibsen and Paula Vogel to reality television shows like Survivor as his primary influences. Reality TV? Despite its superficiality and questionable realism, Drago won't write off the modern-day art form. "Even though it's pretty artificial, I love the sound of real people talking," he said. "I love hearing people talk the way they really talk. I think it's a very important skill for a playwright to have."

A coming-of-age story set in the mountains and steeped in the supernatural, Playing the Bones tells the story of a teenage girl, a grieving widower and a scheming crone, all of whom live in a haunted landscape inhabited by a band of restless spirits. Drago says audiences can distinguish between the dead and living by listening to their respective speech patterns -- the dead speak in iambic pentameter; the living in an indigenous dialect that the playwright picked up during his mountain travels.

"My friend, who was a genealogist, and I would go up into these strange towns in the mountains and talk to people you don't necessarily encounter in normal society," explained Drago, who recently turned 25.

The play is being directed by Dale McFadden, director of theatre in the IU Department of Theatre and Drama. McFadden praised Drago's talent for writing effective, accessible dialogue and structuring a story around such a sympathetic main character. "I think the audience will really sympathize with the struggle of this girl and identify with those people in our lives who may be dead but still have a role in our well-being. It's a play that contains an imaginative use of language and transports audience members to a setting that's not in the realm of their usual experience," McFadden said.

McFadden added that he has enjoyed collaborating with Drago as the two prepare the play for its debut in the 236-seat Wells-Metz Theatre, which opened its doors in February. The theatre includes two balconies, movable seating and a flexible performance space that opens up a world of exciting staging possibilities to both playwright and director. "It's been an effective collaboration because John is seeing the play on its feet and learning what can and can't be done in this particular theatre," McFadden said.

McFadden encourages audiences to seize a somewhat rare opportunity to witness the initial production of a new play and "to enjoy, ponder and consider its possible value. In that way the audience is truly serving as the first responder and litmus test of the play's strengths and weaknesses," he said.

Reality has begun to set in for Drago, so forgive him if he suddenly feels alone on a remote island. This is his first "full-throttle" production, and the learning curve has been tremendous, he said. He also knows that in just a few days his play will be judged by a couple of hundred jury members and voted up or down based on whether they are inspired by the language, characters and imaginative world he has created.

It's no wonder Drago is just a little worried.

"It's a very emotionally distressing situation to be in," he admitted with a nervous laugh. "But I certainly believe in the language of this play, in the images, in the world I've created. I have to think that it will be a really effective and moving experience for everyone."

Performances of Playing the Bones are Dec. 6-7 and Dec. 9-14 at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on both Saturdays in the Wells-Metz Theatre. Tickets can be purchased in person at the IU Auditorium box office or by phone from TicketMaster.