Like your typical high-schooler, Tessa Williams ’10 read “Catcher in the Rye” in English class. Like your typical nerd, she loved it. But unlike the typical passive reader, Williams chose to expand upon the literary classic by developing her fascination for one of the novel’s unseen fringe characters, Jane Gallagher, into an original play. The result is “With Kings in the Back,” a fun show with many a plot twist, going up this weekend in Nick Chapel.
The script’s genesis was an early assignment for Donald Margulies’ “Advanced Playwriting” class last spring, though Williams said the seed was planted long before. In fact, it was Margulies who recognized the passion she had for the subject, which was originally at the end of a long list of possible projects.
Though the first draft was finished on academic deadline, the revision process spanned the next 12 months. Williams held three readings with friends and mentors at home in Los Angeles and one on campus in the fall. Throughout the process, she consulted with Marshall Pailet ’09, whom she had enlisted as director back in May.
“Marshall really helped mentor the script through drafts,” Williams said. “He would give me exercises for the week, like ‘write a monologue in so-in-so’s voice that will never appear in the show,’ just to get the voice down. Also detailed chronology and backgrounds — I would never have thought to do that myself, but it was all incredibly helpful.”
Both writer and director focused their efforts on developing the show’s characters. Williams said one of her greatest challenges was reconciling her own creative vision with the facts and tone of J.D. Salinger’s story, animating a Jane that could interact believably with the characters in the book. Much of the early rehearsal process was dedicated to character work, culminating in a senior society-esque bio night where each actor presented his or her character’s life story.
While he enjoyed all the characters, Pailet said one of the highlights of his work was directing the iconic anti-hero Holden Caulfield, played by Mark Sonnenblick ’12.
What makes working with a new show so exciting, Pailet said, is getting a chance to help shape where the piece is going.
“It’s different than rehearsing Shakespeare,” he said. “With Shakespeare, you don’t ask, ‘Is this character Mercutio really necessary to the plot?’ The show is the show. With a new show, you’re keeping an eye out for the acting and the writing, and anything could change.”