In playwright Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” a private prep school student named Charlie finds himself in a situation that mirrors some current events. When his application to Yale is deferred and his best friend (who is biracial) gets accepted, Charlie’s parents take actions that they find at odds with even their own liberal beliefs. This set-up recalls the scandal nicknamed “Operation Varsity Blues” that's made headlines this year: Several wealthy families, including some celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have been accused of bribing their children’s way into college. Huffman recently was sentenced to 14 days in prison.
However, "Admissions" was written before that story broke. As Harmon describes the play, it is “is an examination of whiteness: white privilege, white power, white anxiety, white guilt, all of it. Conversations on matters of race are happening with greater frequency and intensity all over the nation, which is so necessary, and there are so many ways to have them, and so many different aspects and views to consider and digest. This play is trying to hold up a mirror to white liberalism, while remaining very conscious of the fact that this is just one narrow slice of a much larger conversation.”
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Austin audiences can see "Admissions" in a mounting from Jarrott Productions, which opened Sept. 19 and runs through Oct. 6 at Trinity Street Playhouse. We spoke to David R. Jarrott, the show's director and the company's artistic director, to find out more.
American Statesman: There seems to be a "ripped from the headlines" aspect to this production, given the Operation Varsity Blues scandal of this past year. I know the play was written prior to these revelations, but where did those revelations fall in respect to when you were choosing and planning your season?
David R. Jarrott: I was initially denied the rights to “Admissions” when I first applied for them in February of 2018. More often than not, particularly with plays that have played prominently on or off Broadway, the publishing companies are interested in having the plays produced by the larger theater companies which pay higher royalty fees, and they hold them back from smaller theater companies or theater companies in secondary markets. This was the case with “Admissions.” And then in March of this year, I was granted the rights to produce the play. I’m not sure what happened in those intervening time, but my guess is that a larger Texas theater company had been holding an option and then released it.
Of course I had applied for the rights more than a year earlier because I thought the subject matter and the writing was perfect for Jarrott Productions, and I really wanted to bring this play to Austin. But the college cheating scandal had just broken less than two weeks before I received the rights, and I had just become the luckiest producer in Texas.
How did you find Tucker Shepherd, the young man playing Charlie in this production?
Johanna Whitmore, his high school theater teacher and a very accomplished actor herself, sent him our way. Tucker just graduated this past spring from Round Rock High School, and Johanna was aware of our auditions for “Admissions” and that there was a role for someone his age. He sent me a request to audition, showed up to audition, got a call-back, and we cast him.
He was not without some very fine competition for the role. We had several very strong candidates, all of whom had more experience and each of whom could have played the role well. That’s one of the hardest things about casting — if you are lucky, really lucky, you have to make very hard decisions and choose among many strong candidates. Sometimes it comes down to some almost intangible factor, maybe just a gut feeling that one particular person is the person.
As artistic director of Jarrott Productions, it has been one of my goals to bring dedicated, gifted high school and college students to our tent and to include them in the process when possible. So far we have had over a dozen high school and college students working on our productions, some of them backstage, some of them on stage. We have had three production stage managers who were college seniors at the time they stage-managed our plays. It means a great deal to our company to be able to give these aspiring theater folks a “real world” credit for their resumes. The awesome responsibility on our part is not lost on me, and I am very proud to give Tucker his first professional contract and paycheck.
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What does "Admissions" have to say about contemporary issues surrounding prestigious learning institutions?
“Admissions” is not focused on prestigious learning institutions themselves, or even a greater network of parental influence or newsworthy scandal, but rather on one particular family and their attempts to get their son into Yale. Harmon himself says that the play is not really about applying to college. He calls that the container, "to be able to ask the larger questions with which the play is trying to engage.”
There’s no real “cheating” on the part of the adults in this play, but rather an expectation, and an examination of that expectation — the expectation that many white, upper- and upper-middle-class families have come to perceive as their right. A right to the best opportunities, to be able to reach their full potential, a right to a seat at the table. Are they the best? Or have they just had the best advantages?