Professor Dave Rabinow shares how he created “A Brief History of the Earth and Everything In It…..,” which the theater department will be performing for their first play of the season. Contributed by Tony Pacitti.
A year after Dave Rabinow began teaching at the University of Rhode Island, his play will be performed as the first mainstage show of the season.
“A Brief History of the Earth and Everything In It…..,” his original 2011 play about a group of third graders putting on their own musical to save their school’s curriculum from their fundamentalist principal, began as a playwriting challenge.
Rabinow is one of the founders of the Elemental Theatre Collective in Providence. Every year, they issue a challenge to playwrights to begin writing a show immediately with a few disparate elements chosen at random that they must include. That year, one of the elements was a song, and that’s how his play became a “mini-musical,” as he calls it.
For the musical elements, Rabinow gives thanks and credit to his friend and piano player, Vicki Dorazio, as he thinks of himself as a playwright and an average musician, with his instrument of choice being the guitar.
“Once I started [writing], I started to tap into this really deep well of animosity coming out of the George W. Bush presidency,” Rabinow said. “It was infuriating how often and how obviously that administration would issue a religious point to drive up voter engagement. I was really getting worked up about the denial of science and I just started putting that into the play.”
However, he knew that if he wanted to get people to really listen to his work and take it seriously, he couldn’t just present audiences with a “laundry list of complaints,” as he said. The first step in that process was to make it funny. For Rabinow, the next step was to make the main characters children.
“It’s harder to get angry at [children],” he said. “If I say it, people can dismiss it very easily, but if a 9-year-old says it, it’s funny because how did they arrive at that place? You kind of listen in a different way or even listen at all in a way that isn’t dismissive.”
He found himself inspired by the William Finn musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” where an ensemble of middle schoolers tackle deeper issues through comedy in the context of their county’s spelling bee.
Something Rabinow feels strongly about and teaches his students is that there is a clear difference between plagiarism and inspiration.
“There’s no original ideas,” he said.
While the play premiered in 2011, it was only a one-act version of the show. In 2014, it was first staged as a full-length play. The full-length version, directed by Rachel Walshe, will be performed in J Studio at the Fine Arts Center from Oct. 10 to Oct. 20.
Rabinow has been friends with Walshe for years and jokes that at this point, she may love the show more than he does. He knew she was a big fan of the play, but he was still “really excited and a little bit surprised” when “A Brief History of the Earth and Everything In It…..” was chosen as part of URI’s Honors Colloquium “Religion in America.”
“I keep thinking [the] play’s time has come and gone,” Rabinow said. “But politically, it seems to have unfortunately found a little bit of staying power in terms of its relevance to where we’re at for society. It’s good for me, but maybe not great for humanity.”
The truly exciting part for him about this production is getting to see the creative process of the actors and Walshe and see how different each production of the show has been over time, with this being the third staged production of the full-length musical version.
“It’s amazing for me to think that this is the same play over and over,” Rabinow said.
Currently, he is directing a play for children based on the “Judy Moody” books at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick along with being in rehearsals for a play at the Wilbury Group in Providence that he’s acting in called “You Got Older,” which opens in late November. On top of all this, he is developing a new play in 2020 entitled “The Many Lives of Fancy Devereaux.”
Although he wishes he could be at every rehearsal, even with his busy schedule, he still manages to stop by rehearsals once or twice a week when he can to see the show come to life.
“I love being in the rehearsal room, that’s like dessert,” Rabinow said. “I did the hard work of writing this play and developing it and now I sit back and watch artists.”
Tickets “A Brief History of the Earth and Everything In It…..” are currently on sale online and in the box office at the Fine Arts Center.