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A short story of success

By Jessica Moes '14
October 31, 2011

One Ole's latest story of success begins much like you'd expect a dramatic tale to:

"It was a gloomy winter day," laughs David James Peterjohn '13. "I was sitting in my room, and was particularly struck by a movie I was watching. So I went to look up the literary version."

The movie Peterjohn was so enamored with was based on the story "Why Don't You Dance?" by renowned American short story writer Raymond Carver. It was housed in a collection of short stories by the author titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. After consuming the story he had come to find, Peterjohn kept reading, discovering the depth and beauty of Carver's works.

Little did Peterjohn know that this seemingly inconsequential trip to Rølvaag Memorial Library would set him on an incredible journey. Over the next few months he would tackle writer's block as he adapted the Carver stories he was most enthralled with for theater. He would face large copyright executives in his efforts to obtain the rights to produce these adaptations. He would meet with Tess Gallagher, Carver's widow, on campus to discuss his work. There would be temporary setbacks and moments of personal struggle, but Peterjohn's journey would ultimately lead him to the triumph of directing not one but two plays on campus this fall: adaptations based on Raymond Carver's short stories Cathedral and Viewfinder, both premiering November 4–6 in Haugen Theater.

The art of adaptation
Peterjohn's journey began with a love for the original written works. "I was struck by Carver's powerful minimalism," he says. "I knew I wanted to adapt the stories, if only for my own personal benefit." A theater major with a concentration in management studies, Peterjohn has long been interested in how the literary and real world around him can be translated to the stage in a practical way. His adaptations of both Carver's Cathedral and Viewfinder were originally intended to be a mindful exercise of this translation. But after long hours spent on a script he felt especially passionate about, Peterjohn knew he wanted to share his work with an audience.

The adaptations draw heavily from the original short stories, in order to give the audience a reaction to the plays that is as close as possible to the reaction a reader would have to Carver's stories. "Carver doesn't need any of his words changed," says Peterjohn. "The original story is like a diamond. I just have to pull it from the earth and polish it a bit so that the right audience can see its sparkle."

Both plays have similar themes that hint on the inevitable tragedy of the human condition and the human reaction to physical and emotional suffering. Cathedral, one of Carver's most famous stories, focuses on the uncomfortable interaction between a man and his wife's blind acquaintance. Viewfinder centers on a similar interaction between a man and a handicapped traveling salesman. Peterjohn hopes that the juxtaposition of the two plays will allow for deeper contemplation and conversation on the topic. He also adapted a third story, Fat, but chose not to produce the play at this time due to the large cast it would require.

David James Peterjohn '13 watches a cast of St. Olaf students rehearse his theatrical adaptations of Raymond Carver's short stories Cathedral and Viewfinder.

Obtaining the rights
To legally begin the adapting process, Peterjohn had to acquire the rights to the short stories. His original intent was to produce one of the plays at this summer's Minnesota Fringe Festival. Peterjohn contacted the Wylie Agency, the internationally known literary agency that works with the Raymond Carver Estate on copyright use requests. The agency works with many notable clients, including Bob Dylan, the Gates Foundation, Al Gore, Sean Penn, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and King Abdullah II of Jordan. "I was overwhelmed," says Peterjohn. "So I was not entirely surprised when I didn't hear back from them right away."

Peterjohn pulled his request and instead decided to work with other Oles to produce an original play for the Fringe Festival. In the back of his head, however, he kept coming back to the Carver adaptations, and at the end of the summer decided to reapply for the rights. This time he asked to use the stories for a nonprofit, educational purpose. "I received a very quick response from Carver's Estate, and they were very supportive, charging me only a nominal fee to produce the plays," says Peterjohn.

An unexpected visitor
After receiving the rights and completing his scripts, Peterjohn began putting the show together. He cast the show, began working with a technical staff, and settled into his directing duties. Soon after getting started, he received some very unexpected and exciting news. Tess Gallagher — famous poet, Raymond Carver's widow, and the copyright holder of Carver's estate — wanted to visit with Peterjohn and sit in on one of his rehearsals.

After only a week and a half of practice, Peterjohn presented a preliminary run of the show for Gallagher. "She seemed pretty pleased with what we had so far," says Peterjohn. "However, she did provide excellent personal insight into the origins of the stories. It was a powerful experience for me and my cast to come so close to Raymond Carver through her stories and encouragement."

Dreaming in the Deep End
To gain the rights and put together the project, Peterjohn worked with Deep End APO, an on-campus organization that serves as an extracurricular theater opportunity for St. Olaf students. The student-run club sponsors 3–5 student productions each year, helping students acquire the rights to a production and funding for their projects as well as dealing with other technical logistics for the play, including announcing auditions and finding crew members for a production. This semester the club will sponsor Peterjohn's two plays as well as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, directed by Sterling Melcher '14.

In addition to Deep End APO, Peterjohn also received support from a number of theater faculty at St. Olaf, many of whom spent countless hours providing feedback on the two scripts. "They have helped me develop my directing aesthetic and pushed me to be more creative and innovative," he says. "They've taught me that each play is a learning experience, and I can't wait to see what else I will learn from this one."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or