On Thursday, the Western-inspired play “Outlaw Jean” makes its debut at the Iseman Theater. Written by Martha Kaufman DRA ’13 and directed by Jack Tamburri DRA ’13, “Outlaw Jean” tells the story of a scheming bandit returning to her “bedbug-infested” hometown to confront her family. The play, which runs through Saturday, is part of the Yale School of Drama Studio Series, a program that brings together Drama students from different concentrations to collaborate on original productions.
Q Why write a play about outlaws?
Martha Kaufman I was teaching through the O’Neill Playwriting Program [in which local high schoolers receive playwriting instruction from Drama School students], working with students from [New Haven’s] Coop High School, and we all went on a retreat in the spring. Someone presented an assignment where the students had to write an outlaw story and it had to have a moment of redemption. It got me thinking about why the outlaw always has to be redeemed in this sort of American narrative. Why does the extreme individual — the cowboy or the outlaw — have to be delivered from the ways of sin?
Jack Tamburri They either have to be brought into the fold, or killed. Those seem to be the two things that can happen.
Q The lives of outlaws are drastically different from those of graduate students. How did you go about creating Jean’s world?
K I was interested in the figure of the outlaw and how that evolved from the cowboy, and I studied those narratives from early American literature. I read a lot more theory than I did plays, but I looked at [American playwright and actor] Sam Shepard and the French playwright Jean Genet who wrote about outlaws and good and evil. [I also studied] characters like Billy the Kid and novels, films and poetry about outlaws.
T She went all the way back to the pilgrims, through 20th century Westerns.
K I was looking at the roots of American cowboys and outlaws in early Puritan narratives. But there are arguably other origins.
Q How did you guys end up working together?
T The drama school paired us up!
K Let’s get it straight — we’re not friends or anything!
T I’ve been following Martha’s work since we got to school together, and, last year, I worked on a scene she wrote, which was really fun.
Q What was the process like, adapting this play for the stage?
T When I came into the process, she had a complete draft. Emily Reilly DRA ’13, our dramaturg, Martha and I had a series of meetings about the play, increasing in specificity. First we just sat on Martha’s porch with a few drinks and talked about outlaws. Then we had three-, four-hour meetings when we looked at the play line by line and identified its structure and events just to make sure we all knew what we were talking about before rehearsal.
Q You’ve got writing and directing covered, but what about the production aspects of the play?
T We don’t have any designer support, so we had to be our own producers and designers, building all the light cues, integrating sounds, lights and costumes. The thing about this festival is the process is incredibly fast because the point is to get the script onstage as it is and show everyone what the play is right now. From there, Martha can go into the next phase of the script, whatever she wants to do with it.
Q Is the tone of “Outlaw Jean” goofy and light-hearted, or dark and serious?
K We’re starting out more clownish, over-the-top, kind of “Kill Bill,” but we’re ending up a bit more naturalistic, like Sam Shepard. The play’s actually structured like a Greek tragedy.
T In the first scene, the lead outlaw walks in and says, “I’ve got 12 dead bodies in my truck, help me hide them.” That’s the world we’re starting from. Then we gradually move someplace else.
Q What are you hoping audiences will take away from “Outlaw Jean”?
K I hope that they enjoy themselves — that’s important when you go the theater — and I [hope] they reflect [on] their beliefs about individualism and family and how those relate to American values.
T I want the audience to have experienced a surprising journey from this cartoonish, guns-blazing Western world to something that I think is kind of shattering. I hope that they’ve experienced a story in which they are compelled by all sides and there’s no clear hero or villain.