After agreeing to direct a show at his alma mater, Augustana College alumnus Philip William McKinley was given his choice of dramas.
Initially agreeing to "Agnes of God," about a pregnant nun, McKinley changed his mind and went with "A Green River," which had its premiere in July at the Q-C Theatre Workshop.
Written by St. Ambrose University alumnus Aaron Randolph III, "Green River" is a present-day story about a soldier returning home and facing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"I enjoy doing originals far more than revivals," McKinley explained in an interview last week.
"I also thought it was important that educational theater educates, but also causes some kind of dialogue with the audience," he continued. "When I saw 'Green River' at the Quad-City Workshop, I was really taken with its power and its relevance in terms of PTSD."
It's the latest addition to the directing resume of McKinley, an Avon, Ill., native who oversaw Hugh Jackman's Tony-winning role in "The Boy From Oz," handled a reboot of Broadway's "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the score for which was written by Bono and The Edge from U2, and has directed more editions of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus than anyone in its long history.
"A Green River" opens Wednesday night and continues through Sunday afternoon at Potter Hall on the Augustana campus in Rock Island.
McKinley said he had already been working for a few years on a series of plays about wounded warriors and got Randolph's blessing to revive and expand "Green River."
He said a college-produced version of the play is an ideal situation.
"The subject matter is very relevant to the student because so many of the soldiers who volunteered and enlisted are the same age as students," he added.
McKinley said he has interviewed several soldiers through the years who were using the GI Bill to pay for their college once they left the military.
"They said it was the hardest decision to make, to be willing to face death in order to get an education," he said.
"That stayed with me so strongly. I don't think we realize the sacrifice and the dilemma many of these men and women face," he continued. "I'm very, very interested in wounded warriors and those coming back. That was a natural match."
The biggest change he's made from the Q-C Theatre Workshop version, he said, is to have an actor for each of the roles rather than putting performers in more than one role. Through that device, he said, the characters talk over each other in a cacophony of sound.
"I wanted to make sure the audience has the same feeling the soldier has when going through a PTSD episode and what it's like to live with it — how certain words and certain phrases said to them can trigger another memory," he said.
Recent veterans have been invited to the show, he said, and a talk-back with the audience will take place after each Augustana performance.
The cast of "Green River" is all new and all college students, with the exception of Thomas Alan Taylor, who returns in the lead role of Erik White.
"Having worked in several educational situations, it's really great when the students can work with who I consider to be more of a professional actor, to see their process," McKinley said. "That has been true in this case."
Praising Taylor, he said, "I have great hopes for him, quite frankly. The other students have watched his process and really picked up on it."
McKinley said more work goes into an original production versus an established title.
"They can't go to see a video of the play or a film based on the play," he said. "They have to create the characters themselves."
A play's second staging, he said, continues the evolution of the piece.
"When you do a new piece, rarely, rarely on the first time out do you get it correct," said McKinley, who is also thinking of developing the play into a short film.
While hard at work staging a newer version of "Spider-Man" for Las Vegas, McKinley, who lives in the Village of East Davenport with his husband, said he intends to incubate other new shows in this area.
"It's great that I can find a safe haven to develop new work, like Augustana, and some things I've done at Ambrose," said McKinley, who directed the premiere of a stage docudrama about fashion designer Coco Chanel at St. Ambrose in 2007.
Because of his name recognition among theatergoers, McKinley said he couldn't, at this time, take on a show in a major city as easily as he could here.
"If you go to any of the main cities, because of the Internet, you cannot stand under the radar," he added.
"I've been looking for a place where I can develop new works and have an open-minded audience who wants to see new work. Certainly the Quad-City Workshop is developing these, and they've had some really supportive audiences who want to see originals."