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Learning to Stay: Madison Author's Novel Comes to Life at Forward Theater



Learning to Stay: Madison Author's Novel Comes to Life at Forward Theater
Photo Credit: Forward Theater

“I’ve always been intrigued by relationships and marriage – why some succeed, or simply survive, and why some unravel,” local Madison author Erin Celello shared when asked what had helped inspire her latest novel. “Because so often, over the course of a marriage, people change.” 

Celello is no stranger to the challenges a couple may face. When she attended military funerals with Governor Jim Doyle’s press office, she witnessed first-hand a side of war most civilians never do: the impact on veterans’ loved ones. 

It’s those relationships, not war itself, that take center stage in Learning to Stay, which opens at Forward Theater in March. 

The world premiere, which is the eight-year-old company’s first commissioned work, focuses on Elise, a 30-year-old lawyer in Madison excited for her husband Brad’s return from Iraq. The two have plans to start a family and pick up where they left off before his deployment.  Those plans change when it becomes clear that Brad is suffering from PTSD.

Celello’s book was adapted for the stage by local actor, director, and playwright Jim DeVita. Forward’s Artistic Director (and director of Learning to Stay) Jen Uphoff Gray approached DeVita about potentially adapting the work when he was starring in Forward’s 2014 production of Red

“A little over three years ago…we were sent a package,” Gray stated when asked how the commission came into being. “The package contained a copy of Learning to Stay, a published booklet of essays for veterans (edited by the package’s sender), and a letter saying ‘I think this is a wonderful novel, and I think this would make an incredible play’.” 

Forward was only in its fifth year of existence at the time, and in no position to commission their first world premiere. But that didn’t dissuade Gray.

“Our literary committee and advisory company had been on the lookout for a play that dealt with our 21st century wars and their aftermath,” Gray explained, but until Celello’s novel, nothing had seemed like the right fit. However, when Gray read the book, she concluded that it could be a great play, and a great story for Forward’s audiences and the Madison community.

DeVita thought so, too – and began collaborating with Celello and Gray.

The process from page to stage has been an elaborate one, but an enjoyable experience for all involved. Forward’s Artistic Associate Karen Moeller, who returns to the stage as a cast member after her involvement with the play’s 2015 staged reading, spoke highly of both author and playwright. 

“They are, as far as writers go, two of the most ego-less, generous people,” Moeller stated, impressed with DeVita’s incredible intuition. “Where some playwrights may be resistant to suggested changes from a director or an actor, [DeVita] was the opposite – even encouraging feedback from the cast themselves if any of their lines didn’t feel right or came across clunky.”

Gray agreed. “He writes the way I direct – I just want to find the best idea, and I don’t care who it comes from, whether it is a staging or script idea. We just want to make the best art we can.”

Both DeVita and Celello also weighed in on their team dynamic with nothing but positivity. Having done multiple adaptations of classic works, DeVita relished the fact that this time he could work with a living author. “I felt immediately at ease with Erin,” he shared in an email. “She trusted me to bring her book to the stage while maintaining the integrity of the original novel.” 

DeVita took the responsibility of adapting Celello’s story to heart, harboring upmost respect for the text. “It’s a continual balancing act of trying to stay true to the author’s original intent, yet also making the book viable for the stage. I often say that adapting a book is like a house of cards – how many cards can you pull out of the house before it collapses?” 

But Celello has been quite pleased with DeVita’s work, as well as Gray’s guidance.

“It’s been a fun collaboration, and I’ve learned so much about storytelling, and how a story can change and grow depending on the medium it’s told in,” Celello expressed, adding that DeVita has truly captured her story. “I joked with him a few weeks ago that I’d love for him to take everything I write from here on out and just improve on it, because that’s what I feel he’s done here.” 

It’s that core story of Learning to Stay that will hopefully resonate with audiences, especially for those in attendance at a private performance for veterans, their families and service providers.

Thanks to underwriting from American Family Insurance and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, these individuals will have the opportunity to experience Learning to Stay in a private and safe environment. Volunteers from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum will serve as support staff, available to anyone who might experience difficulties with the content of the show and assisting afterwards with a guided talkback. 

Forward has also offered several outreach programs for the general community. From a discussion panel hosted by the Wisconsin Book Festival, to book clubs and relevant film screenings at local libraries, Forward has taken steps to educate audiences in advance so as to build on the messages and emotions associated with Learning to Stay.

“Either you’re going to see something very personal and familiar to you, and it should be cathartic, or you’re seeing something not familiar to you, and hopefully seeing the story builds a sense of empathy in you,” Gray explained. “Hopefully with a lot of laughter, and sometimes tears – we’ll run the gamut over the course of the evening – but our goal is to entertain, and send you away thinking. Just like with every show we do.”

Learning to Stay runs March 23-April 9 at The Playhouse at Overture Center, and stars Kat Wodke, Jeb Buress, Karen Moeller, Malkia Stampley, Michael Harold, and Di Monte Henning. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit forwardtheater.com.

Want to learn more about Learning to Stay’s playwright and author? Then head to footlights.com for exclusive Q&A conversations with both Jim DeVita and Erin Celello.

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