Playwright Takes Risk with Thesis, Earns Selection to Acclaimed New York Musical Festival

The cast of Dorian Gray the Musical perform a scene during the dress rehearsal.

Dorian Gray the Musical by Christopher Dayett ’16 MA Runs July 12-14 at The Acorn Theatre in New York

Christopher Dayett '16 MA

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Some ideas come to us with a rush, only to fade into the background as more pressing concerns keep our latent successes simmering in the depths of our gray matter. Sometimes, though, we find a spark – that moment that ignites our passion and lays out a path to bring our idea to life. For Villanova alumnus Christopher Dayett ’16 MA, whose new work, Dorian Gray the Musical, won selection to this month’s New York Musical Festival, that spark began with Villanova Professor of Theatre Michael Hollinger’s playwriting class.

But the idea had to linger in the background for a time. It first began to take shape in 2013, when Dayett was living in Wilmington, N.C., and trying to make his mark acting and writing family-friendly plays. He came across Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray while contemplating crossing over into new work that was more edgy.

“I was drawn to the story, like everyone is drawn to Dorian when he enters a room,” Dayett says. “I wrote a few music motifs and took a crack at adapting, but the novel doesn’t flow like a stage play. It just wouldn’t work without completely changing the plot, and I had never taken a playwriting class before. So I gave up and threw my notes in a folder and transferred my files to an external hard drive.”

His idea remained, but hidden, just as Dorian hides the portrait that allows him to remain young. Dayett enrolled in the Master of Arts in Theatre program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and in the spring of 2015, he took Hollinger’s playwriting class.

“I wrote a whole play in his class. Michael taught us the tools we needed to write,” Dayett says.

He also found his thesis mentor and the spark that could bring Dorian back to life.

“I mentioned to Michael that I may try to write a musical for my thesis, and he said he would be my advisor if I moved forward with the idea,” Dayett says. “Michael is also a musical theatre writer, writing music, lyrics and the script to his musicals. I knew that this would be an opportunity for me to not only learn and grow with someone in my field but also someone who has experience adapting pre-existing material into the plays. I would be challenged, but I was going to be in the right hands. It was a win-win situation and an opportunity I wouldn’t have elsewhere. If I was going to take a risk, what better way to do than in grad school and under the wings of someone like Michael.”

Dorian Gray was quickly moving from vague idea to reality.

Dayett notes that Hollinger worked with him every step of the way, the student and mentor setting up biweekly meetings and strict due dates to plan time to troubleshoot problems as they arose.

“It was a joy to work with Chris on the development of his thesis project, which was one of the most demanding I’ve ever mentored,” says Hollinger. “Musicals are devilishly hard to write, bringing together three completely different skill sets — dialogue writing, lyric writing and musical composition. Moreover, a full-length musical is a feat of engineering, a structure designed to deliver songs, develop characters and tell a big story an audience is willing to give up two full hours to be told. Once Chris set the date for his thesis, he created a rolling countdown on his website, and his sheer commitment to that timetable gave me no doubt that he would complete this mammoth task.”

Complete it he did, transforming the brooding novel into a new musical in five months. Then Dayett took an even bigger risk and submitted his work to the New York Musical Festival, which, each year, picks 10 productions for off-Broadway runs.

“I actually submitted the show to NYMF as a dare to myself” Dayett says. “I knew that someone would actually read the show, and that was all that I wanted. I was shocked when we made it to the top 10 out of 200 worldwide submissions.”

Hollinger knew Dayett’s work had a chance to be special.

“Nobody in this business ever knows for sure how far something they’ve written might go; the life of a play or musical has as much to do with the subject, form and ‘theatrical marketplace’ as the quality of the writing itself,” he says. “What I knew was that Chris had created an adaptation of Wilde’s story that was inventive and stage worthy, and that his score was very tuneful and had a unified style throughout, so there should be an audience for it. I’m thrilled that it’s getting mounted as part of NYMF, and only a year after he completed his first draft — a stellar achievement.”

By the time Dorian Gray was selected, Dayett had earned his master’s in theatre and accepted a position directing the Performing Arts Department at Marco Island Academy in Naples, Fla., where he teaches and develops new performing arts programs, classes and activities. When Dayett got the news, he was overcome with emotion.

“I cried,” he says. “I was in my classroom after school. I ran out of the room and did a lap around our outdoor pavilion and then just started crying. I can’t describe how it feels.”

Now the hardest part began. Dayett had to rewrite much of the play to fit within the festival’s guidelines, and the contest winners are responsible for all production costs, which meant Dayett and a small team did everything themselves— from writing, marketing and fundraising to set design, set building, and production. For this new mammoth task, Dayett again turned to his Villanova education and his fellow theatre graduate program alumni.

“That was where our Villanova training came in,” Dayett says in an article on Philly.com. “We all have experience in set design and lighting, and we decided to build our own set. We said, ‘Let’s prove to New York that we can do it all.’”

Dayett learned technical skills in the Villanova scene shop, where he did his assistantship, and he learned to write grant proposals, press releases and balance budgets while earning a Certificate in Nonprofit Management in addition to his master’s.

“I think it is actually hard for some of the staff in the festival to understand how one person can do all of this, but that is the power of Villanova!” he says. “All of my professors, in Theatre and the Public Administration Department, didn’t just teach us. They cared about us and what we were working on and wanted us to succeed. They challenged me to think outside of the box and dig deeper into everything I learned.”

Four Villanova alumni are involved in the production: Courtney Boches ’14 MA plays Mrs. Vane and is costume designer; Lauren Davenport ’15 MA is stage manager; Brie Knight ’14 MA plays Madam Mientka; and Christen Mandracchia ’15 MA is director.

“I remember Fr. David [Cregan, OSA, PhD, Associate Professor of Theatre] telling us one day to look around the room at each other. ‘These are the people you are going to be making theatre with,’ he said,” Dayett relates. “Once you go through the program, you know the high levels of intensity, creativity and craftsmanship that each of your classmates share. We all know what it is like to do theatre under stressful situations. Producing at the festival is very stressful, and I’m proud of how we handled the stress.”

Most of the cast and crew is Philadelphia area-based, and the cast rehearsed in Villanova’s Vasey Studio. For many, this production is their first in New York.

“Watching the actors and my team as their dreams of performing in New York are coming true is incredible,” Dayett says.

Dayett’s new take on Dorian Gray has been deeply personal journey, and seems very much like a work of self-discovery.

“One of the songs Dorian sings is called ‘Seize the Moments.’ In musical theatre terms, we call this the character’s ‘I Want Song,’” Dayett says. “Dorian is reflecting on his life. He doesn’t know who he is, and he asks himself if he should seize the moments that may come his way because you never know where they will lead. I realized that I was writing about myself on the cusp of graduating grad school at the age of 33 and about to start a whole new life in the unknown. I seized the moments that came my way and they led me to Marco Island Academy, NYMF and back home to Villanova. To anyone who has been told that they could never accomplish something, I want to tell them to not give up, keep at it, take a risk, dare yourself to rise above.”

Dorian Gray the Musical runs July 12-14 at The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row in New York.

Dorian Gray in the News

Watch the CBS Philly segment about Dorian Gray.

Read the Philly.com article.

Visit the New York Musical Festival page.

Visit ChristopherDayett.com.

Learn more about Villanova's Graduate Theatre Program.

Dorian Gray in anguish as his portrait laughs in the background

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.