Student playwright for ‘Paradise Lost’ retells epics through modern lens

Nov. 4, 2013

Eleanor Skelton
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This past July, “Paradise Lost” was the production with the season’s largest audience at Theatre d’Art. Jeff Keele, a senior English major at UCCS, was the scriptwriter.

Keele started his “Paradise Lost” script four years ago after he had taken a John Milton class with Joan Ray, professor emeritus of English. He plans to continue working in theater even though he’s studying literature.

He experimented with short stories in creative writing classes before launching into longer works for theater. “Unlike … writing fiction or short stories … doing it in theater allows you to sort of see the stuff come to life. You kind of get to meet your characters in a way,” he said.

“I also like the way that it’s very collaborative, where basically I only go halfway and the directors and the actors take it the rest of the way.”

Keele took an independent study with Kevin Landis, an assistant theater professor, to work on the “Paradise Lost” script. “It didn’t seem to be a work that had been given a dramatic life when I felt it was something that would be very suitable for it,” he explained.

Keele has sent his adaptation of “Paradise Lost” to two other companies so far: City Light in Chicago – but discovered they only did original adaptations – and the Public Theater in New York for its emerging writers’ program.

He grew up in a military family and has lived in primarily Maine but also in Chicago, Hawaii, South Carolina and Australia before settling in Colorado Springs for the last 10 years.

Currently, Keele works as a night clerk. “That’s where I write a lot of my scripts, at the night shift. It also gives me a lot of opportunity to work lines out loud because I’m alone most of the time. I can just do full scenes out loud,” he said.

“Sometimes people wander into the store, though, without setting off the door bell, and there’s this awkward moment where I was just reciting Milton to myself out loud, but they probably don’t know it’s Milton, they don’t know what the hell I’m saying.

“It’s Milton, so half the time I’m talking about Satan. We kind of have this awkward moment where they pretend that they didn’t just hear me talking to myself.”

When asked what kind of atmosphere Colorado Springs provides for his creative work, he replied, “There’s not a lot of companies doing original work in this town … TDA [Theatre d’Art] is the only company I’m aware of that does full-length works of this scale.”

His friends and former roommate were involved with Theatre d’Art and Theatregasm, in which local writers create 10-minute sketches. After submitting two of his own, Keele said audiences liked them and he received a strong response.

“I like the fact that you can immediately read the reaction of your audience,” he said. “Reading is very solitary … but theater, it’s possible to sit in your audience, as the rest of your audience and see … where they’re engaged, where they’re interested and also where they’re flipping through the program.”

Keele described his artistic goals as a blend of Phillip K. Dick and Shakespeare. “I’m all over the place. I like doing big stuff, I like doing stuff that’s loud … Before ‘Paradise Lost,’ I was primarily writing comedy. ‘Paradise Lost’ is the first major dramatic thing that I’ve done. Everything else has been very silly or over the top.”

He prefers epic fantasy to modern theater, which he described as “kitchen-table dramas,” and is planning his next production to be science fiction. His script now has 10 pages of monologue and two to three scenes written.

Keele cited the popularity of superhero films as evidence that this kind of theater can succeed. “As far as what is popular right now, it’s superhero stuff, it’s supernatural beings clashing in these big, epic fights, and I see ‘Paradise Lost’ as very much in the same vein … but also that does it in a way that’s much more complex, much more intellectual.”

After graduation, Keele plans to move to New York or Chicago to continue his creative work.