By Collin Green
Edited by Ben Hurst
When you find yourself stranded, floating on the high seas, there are a few important things to remember: rescue is uncertain, be wary of the sun, and above all, don’t pop the bouncy castle. Of course, a bouncy castle is better than nothing and at least you have your best friend by your side.
This seemingly ridiculous situation serves as the foundation for a new play making its theatrical debut at the Tennessee Stage Company as part of their annual New Play Festival. Co-written by former UT students Carolyn Thomas and Harrison Young, “RAFT” is the story of two friends stranded in the Pacific Ocean.
More than that though, “RAFT” is a symbolic and humorous take on the journey from adolescence into adulthood for the millennial generation. Both Tennessee natives, Thomas and Young say that more than anything the play is about the way that relationships can help guide us through times of transition.
“It’s got humor. It’s got heart. It’s going to sound cheesy, but it’s a lot about friendship,” Thomas said. “It’s about aging and reflecting and going into this wild unknown of adulthood and just deciding that it’s ok if we don’t know all the answers and we don’t know how this is going to work out.”
Just as friendship plays an integral role in the play itself, it can also characterize a years-long relationship between Thomas and Young that began at UT.
Coming to school, they both had ambitions outside of the drama department. Thomas says that theatre has always been a part of her life, but it wasn’t until she got to college that she started working seriously in the medium. Still, she never intended to study theatre. During her time at school, she bounced around from major to major before finally settling on media arts.
“I realized I'm an artist, that’s never going to change,” Thomas said. “I thought I might as well hone the skills I have, the skills I love, and make something of it.”
Young also came to UT with goals outside of the performing arts. He was in a few plays in high school but never sought to make a career in the industry. Nevertheless, he too was pulled back into the world of theatre. “I ended up majoring in theatre,” Young said. “But those first two years I really tried not to.”
Try as he might, the now accomplished playwright couldn’t ignore his calling for the one subject where he was seeing measurable success. After those first two years, Young managed to secure his first leading role, and he’s been working in theatre ever since.
Their shared love of theatre is what destined the two to meet. Carolyn was doing a play on campus as a part of All Campus Theatre and needed someone with choreography experience to develop some fight scenes. Harrison was just the guy she was looking for.
After college the two fell off a bit, but later reconnected to discuss theatre projects. From there the idea of “RAFT” was born.
Thomas, who lives in Phoenix and has worked for The Phoenix Theatre Company, wanted to submit a play to a local festival but didn’t have anything that fit the bill. That’s when Young and her decided to put something together.
Under a tight deadline the two got started immediately. They worked remotely—over Google Docs and a program called WriterDuet—work-shopping the play one piece at a time in a frenzy of collaborative effort.
“We would talk, just message each other and talk about where we wanted it to go with each particular scene,” Thomas said. “Somebody would start it off and the next person would jump in and take it over.”
It was a whirlwind process. Less than two months after they’d started, the two had a fully formed play ready to submit to the festival.
But, of course, the creative process didn’t end there. “RAFT” has been in development for years. They’ve held table readings and stage readings where they first previewed the work to a live audience. From those experiences the playwrights were able to gather real feedback from a live audience that would go on to inform the final version of the play.
On top of that, Carolyn and Harrison have built themselves into the play in a way that they say is both personal and universal. As the entirety of “RAFT” relies on just two cast members, it was important that they got the characters right.
The goal was to create a relationship that everyone could connect to. They wanted to build characters that were both flexible enough to remain gender-blind and realistic to the point that audience members could see themselves on stage.
The result is a pair of fictional friends that everyone seems to know. Morgan Vargas is cynical, a practical thinker and straightforward. Hedgehog (full name Heath or Heather Hodge), on the other hand, is easy-going, lovable and optimistic. The duo of personalities is one that the writers hope audience members will be able to connect with wherever they are. Both Thomas and Young said that they see themselves in each of the characters, and that’s what gives the play legs.
“I think the strength of it is that it’s universal in its core themes. It’s something that everyone can relate to regardless of age,” Thomas said. “People have found something in it no matter which walk of life they were coming from.”
Now, the characters are ready to connect with audiences in a way that they never had before. The Feb. 7 premiere at the Tennessee Stage Company’s 25th annual New Play Festival marks the true theatrical debut of “RAFT.” Young, who recently joined the board of the Knoxville nonprofit, said he’s honored to see how far the play has come.
Friday’s debut is the first show in a three weekend run from that ends on Feb.23. But on top of that, it also represents a significant first for Carolyn Thomas. “RAFT” is her first play to make a true world premiere.
“It’s really exciting to be a part of this process. That’s something that’s beautiful about theatre” Thomas said. “I just really hope people enjoy seeing it as much as we enjoyed bringing it to life.”