When a mysterious package showed up three years ago on the desk of Forward Theater artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, it held an opportunity.

The package contained a copy of “Learning to Stay,” the well-regarded second novel by Madison-area author Erin Celello. It was sent to Uphoff Gray by Don and Nancy Tubesing, two Forward fans who thought the story told in “Learning to Stay”— about a soldier returning from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and his wife, struggling to understand this man she no longer knows — would make a powerful piece of theater.

Happening upon that package “sounds like a movie,” Uphoff Gray recalled. Still, the Tubesings’ suggestion seemed daunting.

“We weren’t even five years old yet,” said Uphoff Gray of her theater company. “And my initial reaction was — oh, that’s very cool, but no way are we in a position to take on as big a project as commissioning” a play.

Then, she opened the book.

Fast-track to 2017, and Forward Theater is just about to stage the world premiere of “Learning to Stay” in Overture’s Playhouse theater. Gray was so struck by the book sent by the Tubesings, and by the fact that it was written by a local author, that she dove into the project as the play’s director.

‘Reads like theater’

Celello’s book “reads like theater,” said Uphoff Gray. “The very first prologue of the book is what basically is now the opening monologue of the play.”

Forward Theater commissioned James DeVita, a longtime core company member at American Players Theatre and well-known area playwright, to write the script.

The intense process of bringing the novel to the stage included input from author Celello herself, many public readings, and feedback from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and psychiatrists who work with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, Uphoff Gray said.

“Because of the subject matter, and our desire to serve Elise’s story, and her husband’s story authentically and truthfully — and not in a movie-of-the-week way, but in a hopefully real-life kind of a way — I think everybody working on this feels a lot of responsibility to get it right,” she said.

“(Not) that there’s one right way to tell this story or to relate this experience, but we want to be truthful and authentic and respectful. So it’s been a lot of work and a lot of conversations with an incredible community here in Madison.”

Getting a wider audience

Celello, whose book was featured as the first pick of the Wisconsin State Journal Book Club in 2013, calls Forward Theater’s interest in her novel “an incredible thrill.”

“As a writer, you always hope for something like this,” said Celello, an associate professor of English at UW-Whitewater.

“My agent had floated it to about six different film agents — and every one of them said, ‘This is great, we love the story, but we’re over the war. Nobody wants to hear about the war anymore,’” said Celello, who lives in Middleton and is the mother of two young boys.

“That was disheartening, because I really believe in the issues (the story) raises, and I think those issues are not talked about all that much. So a wider audience is a great thing,” she said.

“As a writer, you work in solitude so much,” Celello said. “We had a staged reading about a year ago. And to just sit in the audience and see people respond to a story I wrote — that’s nothing that any writer usually gets to experience. It was pretty amazing.”

The same Brad and Elise

DeVita’s own first reading of Celello’s “Learning to Stay” “spoke to me,” the playwright recalled. His adaptation of the 2013 novel is his seventh play for adults; he’s also written more than 20 plays for young audiences, he said.

Adaptations present their own challenges.

“I think the hardest part of adapting is figuring out what you can lose,” said DeVita, who also directed Theatre LILA’s recent original production “The Bed.”

“Novels, of course, can be epic in nature and (the action) can take years. That’s easy to do on stage, but the harder thing is when there are sub-plots or three or four themes running through it. So that’s the first thing — what falls away?

“I have to say it has to do with personal taste. Every playwright would adapt a book very differently,” he said. “So I trust the things that speak to me when I read the book at first.”

Through all of its many versions and evolution, the stage script for “Learning to Stay” keeps the main characters of Elise and Brad “very close to the novel,” DeVita said. “I’d say all of the characters are quite close to the book. It’s more some of the events that I’ve had to change, for the sake of time more than anything.”

The “Learning to Stay” cast includes Kat Wodtke of Milwaukee Repertory Theater as Elise and Jeb Burris, who has appeared at APT. Di’Monte Henning, Karen Moeller, Michael Herold and Malkia Stampley play ensemble roles. As for the dog who has a key role in the novel, audiences will have to wait and see, Uphoff Gray said.

Free performance for vets

Forward Theater has long been interested in producing a play about the aftermath of a 21st-century war, but had not found the right fit before “Learning to Stay,” Uphoff Gray said.

“We deliberately don’t say, ‘We want a play about this issue, let’s go find it,’ ” she said. “But we like plays that deal with what our community is dealing with.”

A free, private performance for military veterans, active service personnel and their families is scheduled for April 4. That special showing is designed to “make a safe space to see the play,” the director said.

“So if there’s anyone who doesn’t like being in a big crowd, to hear a story that might be very cathartic or challenging to sit through, they know they’re in a room full of people who understand,” she said. “There’s going to be a bunch of support staff from the VA there, as well. My goal is that for people who have gone through these experiences, either as veterans or family members, that us telling the story provides a cathartic experience.

“That’s the origin of theater, catharsis, and to be able to see your story on stage and have an emotional release from seeing that,” she said. “The other side of the power of theater is in building empathy. So we hope our more general audience, folks who just like to come to Forward Theater (but) might not have personal experience with the military, can experience this story and say, ‘Oh, I can understand now.’ ”

Because “Learning to Stay” is a new play, Forward added an extra week of rehearsal to its usual three to give the playwright, director and actors time to tweak the script. DeVita expects that process to continue even as he takes his script to other companies in the future.

“I’ll learn a lot from this first production, then I’ll revise again,” DeVita said. “And then I’ll start submitting (it) to other theaters, other directors that I know, and hopefully get a second production and continue to work on it.

“If I’m lucky enough to get two or three productions, it’ll be what it’s going to be, and I’ll try to get it published after that.”

For Uphoff Gray, working with DeVita and Celello on the project has been as lucky as getting that unexpected package with “Learning to Stay” inside, she said.

“I want every project I work on with writers to be like this project,” she said.

“Because the two of them are deeply, deeply collaborative, and deeply respectful of each other’s work. And not overly protective of their own work — they just want to make the best story possible.”

“We’re a company whose mission is creating a home for professional Wisconsin artists,” said Uphoff Gray.

“To be able to do what we hope will be a very universal play — but to have it be set in Madison, written by a Madison novelist and adapted by a local Wisconsin playwright — just seemed like kismet.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.