Promising New Playwright Eytan Derays Unique Road To A World Premiere Of Educating Asher

If you’re a regular in the South Florida theatre scene, you may know Eytan Deray from his appearances in plays and musicals with various local companies over the past six years, including a most recent turn as Eugene in MNM Theatre Company’s iteration of Grease. But what you may not yet be aware of is that the experienced actor also has a passion for playwriting—which he is eager to finally get a chance to share with the wider South Florida theatre community starting July 29th, when his full-length play Educating Asher is set to make its world premiere.

“People have slowly been catching the buzz that I’m a writer, and it’s been really thrilling to surprise people, break the mold, and show a different side of me as an artist,” he describes.This will mark the first full-scale production of one of Deray’s plays, his second finished full-length piece and one he first began work on about five years ago, in 2017. Starting as a 20-minute one-act, the play slowly developed into a cohesive 75-minute piece, an achievement that he says initially stunned even him. But over time, and after two well-received industry readings of Educating Asher in early 2020 and in the fall of 2021, Deray’s confidence in the piece deepened, as did his determination to share it with the world.

“It’s just been me, I think, banging on doors for two years to get somebody to produce it,” he described.

But opportunity finally did come knocking when Deray was offered the chance to become a producer of the piece himself in collaboration with Wilton Manors’ Empire Stage. To pull together the funds for the project, Deray is making the most of the digital age and has started a GoFundMe page, a venture that he has found surprisingly successful. In a period of approximately two months, Deray has managed to raise almost $6,000 of the play’s projected $10,000 budget. “That includes paying the actors, the director, stage manager, lighting, sound, and building the set⁠— the set is going to be a huge portion of the budget,” he explains.   “I legitimately thought I wouldn’t make this much money by the time we started rehearsal, but thankfully we got some very generous donations, and that’s helped us reach our progress so far. I’m hoping we can raise the $10,000 by the time we open. It’s a huge feat, but, I mean, never say never!” So far, the donations have mostly come from Deray’s friends and family, which he attributes partially to his relentless efforts to raise awareness of the project.

“It’s my first time producing anything I’ve written, so everything I’ve done has kind of been a labor of love. . . The only way I know how to get people’s attention is to just post on social media all the time. I post the fundraiser every single day, saying, ‘Hey you guys, it’s a world premiere, I wrote this thing, I’m starring in it, and I’m raising the money for it, so help a poor Jewish boy out!’” he joked. The decision to take on the starring role in Educating Asher as well is also one that Deray came to gradually. “I thought for a long time ‘This is too close to me’, and I think there were just a lot of things with the character that I wasn’t willing to confront yet,” he explains. But after discussing the idea with his friend and collaborator Seth Trucks, who directed Educating Asher’s 2021 reading and will helm the upcoming iteration as well, the two realized the casting simply made sense, especially given the play’s admittedly highly personal content. “Asher is so much me, so I just tried to infuse him with as much of my heart and soul as possible,” Deray says.

More specifically, the play explores the main character’s relationship with a teacher named Elliott, who served as a formative mentor to him, in the wake of that teacher’s unexpected death. The story was inspired by a similar experience of Deray’s and by a real-life teacher of his, named Michael Greenspan. “The play is really dedicated to his memory, because he made middle school so much more bearable for me,” Deray describes. “It was a really tough time for me as a gay kid finding myself, and he was my biggest fan. I’d never met a teacher more passionate about what they were teaching than Michael. And when he passed away, it was the biggest shock to me⁠—and it had been quite a few years since I’d seen him. When I found out he died, the only way that I could really process my grief was to write about it, and to create these characters.”

Though he says the writing process began as his own “personal therapy,” he later realized the experiences that Educating Asher explores are fairly universal ones, which is why he’s hopeful that the play will have a cathartic impact on a wide array of audience members, both those who may identify with the story’s queer themes and those who may not. “I want everybody to gravitate towards it,” he describes. “And I’m hoping that my play says something about grief, about the importance of teachers and mentors in our life, but I also hope it changes the landscape for queer theatre a little bit. Because I had seen a lot of LGBT theatre in South Florida, and a lot of it was very good, but there were moments I longed for a little bit more, in terms of representation. And I think, this time around, though my characters are gay, them being gay is not the conflict of the story. It’s really just a story about people⁠—how they learn to accept things in life, to grow up and not take life and friendships for granted.” Deray, however, is also excited by the possibility of appealing to Wilton Manors’ sizable gay crowd as a potential audience base, and is working on getting together a benefit night taking advantage of the area’s talented selection of cabaret performers to continue to promote and raise funds for the production.

Though Deray is hopeful that this premiere will be a stepping stone to a life for Educating Asher beyond his home region, for now, he is mostly just “elated” to see his hard work finally coming to fruition with the help of what he describes as an amazing cast and creative team, a feeling that he says mostly outweighs his worries about sharing something so personal with a wider audience. “It feels really good to have such support for the project, and to have a lot of close friends working with me. No matter what the audience takes away from it, I think it’s going to be a really beautiful piece,” he says.

“I’m excited just to say it, to put it out there, because it’s been on my chest for the longest time.”

With any luck, Deray’s good crowdfunding fortune will continue, and the community will remain eager to embrace his work as opening night approaches and as tickets for the production are set to go on sale shortly. If the playwright’s words are any indication, Educating Asher is shaping up to be one special story⁠—and one that might be only the beginning of an equally exciting writing career to come!

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