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Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

IU Feature: Flying high

Playwriting head Dennis Reardon raises the bar for himself and his students

NOTE: Last Days of the High Flier will be performed on Feb. 27-28 and March 1-6. All performances begin at 8 p.m. For ticket and other production information go to Reardon will give a pre-show lecture on Thursday (Feb. 26) at 3:30 p.m. in the Indiana Memorial Union's University Club. A post-show "curtain talk" will be held on Tuesday (March 2).

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- "I'm looking for originality, for passion, for talent linked with ambition. I need to find people who believe passionately that they have something they really want to say." -- Dennis Reardon on what he looks for in his playwriting students

Before he ever wrote a play, Dennis Reardon knew he had something he wanted to say. The award-winning playwright and head of Indiana University Bloomington's esteemed playwriting program knew that someday he would have to revisit the experiences he had as a young college student in the mid-1960s and the people who impacted his life during those turbulent years.

Now, Reardon, 59, is finally making his statement. His 13th and most intensely personal play, Last Days of the High Flier, will receive its world premiere at IUB on Friday (Feb. 27) at 8 p.m.

The play is a culmination of four decades of introspection and inquisition, years of research and several drafts, including one version almost completely scrapped after the tragic events of 9/11. To hear the playwright speak, completing the play required drive and determination, resourcefulness, idealism, courage and faith. These are the same traits that form the philosophical basis of IUB's master of fine arts playwriting program, which, under Reardon's leadership, has become one of the most elite programs in the country.

Here is a look at Reardon's new play and the playwriting program he has guided since 1987.

'I couldn't stop thinking about them'

Set in 1963, Last Days of the High Flier is the story of a young man waiting for his life to begin, the mysterious ex-pilot who enters his life, and the intricate dance of friendship, betrayal and forgiveness that takes place between the two men. Historically based and exhaustively researched, the story revolves around political conspiracies, including the CIA's secret war in Laos. It also addresses personal struggles that occurred almost half a century ago, yet still have relevance in an age where international intelligence failures and threats to civil liberties dominate the national news.

"I hoped to show in a dramatic way how gigantic global events can impact tiny individuals living in small locales," Reardon said, trying not to give away too much of the mystery plot. "We're not immune to the world. The global vastness and darkness can impact kids living in Kansas, in the same way 9/11 impacted so many people."

Through the process of writing the play, Reardon attempted to answer questions that have confounded him most of his adult life, even while he was completing other works that earned him wide acclaim, national awards and several major fellowships. Reardon's first play, The Happiness Cage (1970), had the honor of being the inaugural production in Joseph Papp's Newman Theater, the flagship venue for the complex now known as the Joseph Papp Public Theater. Subsequently, Reardon had a play (The Leaf People) premiere on Broadway, won the National Play Award (for Steeple Jack) from the National Repertory Theater Foundation, received a two-year playwriting fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and took over the playwriting program at IUB.

But throughout it all, he kept coming back to the same period of his life when a bright, young college student, the son of a college history and playwriting professor, searching for his way in small-town Kansas, somehow collided with cultural and global events beyond his control.

In 2001, after amassing large amounts of research, Reardon persuaded himself to finally put his thoughts on paper. He wrote the first draft over a span of four months in 2001, but then came 9/11, which caused him to toss out 91 of the 98 pages he had written. "9/11 exposed a lot of triviality in the first draft," he said. "It forced me to reconnect emphatically with things like the Kennedy assassination, which, in fact, was my generation's 9/11. I realized that the period of time I chose to write about did speak to this generation. There's an enormous amount of resonance in this play for our contemporary times. I just kept thinking to myself, 'history repeats, history repeats.'"

The heavily autobiographical element in the play was new to Reardon, though. "That's not how I usually write," Reardon said. "I don't like to insert myself in my work. I'd rather pretend to be someone else. But this particular set of events haunted me for four decades. I couldn't stop thinking about them.

"It's why I write plays," he continued. "I try to answer these questions that nag at me, questions mostly about why people do what they do. I write plays to answer questions about character and reality."

'Please go do it'

Reardon asks each of the students he recruits for his graduate playwriting program a simple question. He admits that it's probably resulted in a few potential students walking away from the program, but he believes that it's important enough to ask.

"I ask them if there's anything else in the world they wish to do (besides playwriting)," he said. "If there is, I say to them, 'Please go do it.'"

"Learning to be a playwright is like learning to be a blacksmith or a shepherd," Reardon said, adding that it is just as challenging a skill to learn as any other technical profession. It requires a mastery of the fundamentals of constructing a script, an awareness of current theatrical conventions, and the ability to use those conventions for dramatic effect, according to the IUB playwriting program's Web page. It also calls for a solid knowledge of dramaturgical techniques developed over centuries and a deep respect for others who are part of the production process, including actors, designers, directors and administrators.

Reardon's main goal is to find playwrights who already exhibit talent and initiative, and then to hone that talent to the point of "survivability," which he defined as "the ability to do whatever one needs to do to financially provide for oneself while pursuing one's art." In addition to learning the fundamentals and the secrets of the craft, Reardon firmly believes that today's playwrights need to learn other skills to succeed. He said those skills might include doing the legwork to acquire a grant, learning to teach or networking in an urban environment or a professional realm.

Reardon accepts only two people into the playwriting program in a three-year period. Those select two are recruited from a nationwide search of candidates. "We recruit nationally and very carefully because of what we offer," he said, of which the hallmark is a fully budgeted, main stage production of each playwright's thesis project. "It's the defining quality of this program," Reardon said. The thesis plays are now staged at the recently constructed Wells-Metz Theatre at the IU Theatre and Drama Center. The theatre features two balconies, movable seating and a flexible performance space.

In recent years, the thesis play has become an indicator of where the best young playwriting talent is coming from, Reardon said. Some of the promising playwrights who have cut their teeth in Bloomington include Greg Owens, whose play Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild earned rave reviews in Chicago in 2001 and has received multiple productions around the country; David vanMatre, whose thesis play, The Oblong Man, went on to be staged in Los Angeles; Michael Chemers, a 1997 grad who captured the Sundance Institute's Young Playwright Award; Angeline Larimer, who served as an assistant professor of playwriting while studying at IUB and whose Fish in the Desert premiered in Bloomington during the 2001 theatre season; Jonathan Yukich, who won the Kennedy Center's 2003 Paula Vogel Award for Playwriting for his play Edible Shoes; and John Drago, whose Playing the Bones was the first student-authored work to premier in the new Wells-Metz Theatre.

"I grew up in southern Indiana and played basketball all of my life, and I think because of that there was something about Dennis' approach that I responded so well to. He never sugarcoated things," said Greg Owens, one of Reardon's first recruits who graduated from the program in 1993. "From our very first meeting, I knew I liked him. I appreciated his plainspoken way and found him very inspiring. I said to myself, 'This guy is never going to say anything he doesn't believe.' That's a rare commodity in life and in the theater."

Owens, whose Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild will soon be published by Broadway Play Publishing, credits Reardon with preparing him for life as a professional playwright. Reardon's teachings "have made all the difference in my career," Owens said. "He has a vast wealth of professional experience that he draws upon. And he gives his students a basis for understanding the larger mission of the theater and the tangible things to look out for. I haven't stepped into too many traps thanks to Dennis."

And yet the essence of Reardon's teaching is instilling a commitment to the love of playwriting and believing that what one has to say is important, Owens said. "I remember him saying that there's no reason to do this if you don't absolutely love it. That central commitment to the love of the craft ... I can't tell you what that's meant to me."

It seems fitting that the last word go to the playwright who has inspired so many students and serves as a living example of what he says and teaches. Reardon sums up his philosophy in typical straightforward fashion:

"We set the bar very high and then hope we clear it."