By Rocky Baier/El Inde
Patagonia’s Tin Shed Theater is a simple, intimate space, with a stage of interlocking black foam squares covering the floor and three rows of chairs in the audience that seat 100. Red curtains hang over the walls, sectioning off the front of the room to create a mock backstage.
The small space was alive with activity on Friday, March 6, as the audience took their seats for “A Catcher in the Rye: A Gluten Free Tale.”The audience quieted as the lights dimmed and the jazz song ‘Take Five’ began playing over the speakers. Nick Botz, a member of the tech crew, flipped the main spotlight on and the space transformed, ready for the show to begin.
Chesed Chap, the director, writer and lead actress of the show, stepped into the light, wearing a white shirt tucked into a green plaid skirt under a brown blazer, her backpack slung over one shoulder. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and all that kind of crap,” she said to the audience. “But I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Her line, adapted from the first paragraph of “A Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, was the beginning of 16 year-old Chap’s third show. She wrote her first play in fourth grade — a Christmas show that she can’t even remember now.
“The second grade teacher came to me as a fourth grader and said, ‘Hey, I want you to write this play for me based off of this book.’ She gave me the book, I wrote it, I directed the kids, we performed it for the Christmas pageant thing at school,” Chap said. “But I don’t recall what the play was called. And I really wish I remembered.”
In eighth grade, she wrote, directed and played the role of Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Now, as a junior in Patagonia High School, she decided to write an adaptation of her favorite book, “The Catcher in the Rye,” a story about teenager Holden Caulfield after he gets kicked out of school and his struggles as he becomes an adult.
To write the show, Chap based some of the characters on real people in her life, such as Duke Norton, Chap’s close friend from high school. In the play, Holly (Chap’s character) meets her friend Carl in a “hipster” bar, and they chat over kombucha and cauliflower “chicken” wings about his life at Columbia and his fraternity.
“I definitely do drink kombucha and I am in a frat,” Norton admitted.
Norton felt that Chap put a piece of herself into her own character as well. Norton said Chap feels stuck between “the bliss of being a young kid” and “where she wants to be beyond high school.”
“Being in such a rough place is something she can be so consumed by, but then by the end of it she always pulls herself out the same way her character does in the play,” Norton said.
Chap was guided in the writing by Matthew Lysiak — a journalist, writer and father of young journalist Hilde Lysiak — who served as her writing mentor. He helped Chap as she modernized the play, writing it from a female perspective and adding modern-day touches, like cell phones, frat parties and vaping.
“I was taking Matthew (Lysiak’s) writing class and he really challenged me to just expand on this play and make it interesting and not just the same old ‘Catcher in the Rye’ everyone’s read,” Chap said.
Lysiak believes Chap will ‘make it’ in Los Angeles or New York City when she grows up.
“I think people will hear about (her) in the future,” Lysiak said. “She has a different way of looking at the world. And I can’t speak for artists, but for writers that’s 99% of it.”
Chap said her perspective comes from the experience of growing up in Patagonia, a town with fewer than 1,000 residents.
“The person I am is because of the community I’ve grown up in,” Chap said. “What I think is really interesting about this community is there’s a lot of grassroots movements. It’s a lot of people taking initiative for themselves and building things from the ground up, and that’s sort of what I did with this play.”
Chap loved growing up in Patagonia. Even though it’s small, she considers it an arts community because it has so many resources like the art center, the theater, the opera house and the art galleries.
“You grow up amongst artists, and it’s really inspiring to see other people constantly crafting something new,” Chap said. “It’s really inspiring to be amongst people who care about the same things I do. It’s just difficult to accomplish some of these things.”
Chap’s school does not offer art classes, electing to focus on academics and athletics. During Chap’s sophomore year, the school administration switched to a block schedule that took another toll on the arts programs.
“Their plan was just to teach to the test, and really focus on core classes,” Chap said. “So the arts programs, therefore, suffered. I’m thankful that the art center actually took that over as far as the visual arts.”
Last year, her school did not have a drama program. Working with her friends, family and the Patagonia Creative Arts Association, which operates the Tin Shed Theater, Chap created an arts curriculum for herself, complete with directing, writing and acting.
“This is my passion, this is what I love to do,” Chap said. “And I was like, ‘I need to do this.’ It took this realization that I can’t depend on anyone else … I have to sort of take it into my own hands and look to the people who support me, right here and just go forth and hope that people will actually want to come see it and be a part of it.”
Chap grew up in this theater. She began going to camp at the theater when she was five. “My first play was actually in this theater, and I grew up with this theater’s after-school program,” Chap said.
Watching Chap grow up and perform has been a joy for her father, Peter Chap.
“When they would all be up in front of the school singing, she was the one that always stood out,” Peter Chap said. “I would tell her, ‘Don’t just go through the motions, just live that part. Live the song. When you’re acting, live it and be it.’”
Peter encourages her to follow her passion, but to also have a plan B, such as teaching drama at the high school level and chasing her dreams during the summers. However, that doesn’t stop them from spending hours in the living room discussing movies they would turn into shows and how to get a scholarship for college to continue studying theater.
Her father encouraged her to write this play.
“I was looking for a good book in 8th grade and he told me I would like ‘Catcher in the Rye,’” Chap said. “My dad has been a big part of my life, egging me on to write these plays.”
Her mother, Elia Manjarre, who lives in Tucson, is also proud of her.
“[Her father and I] were both English and P.E. teachers, and we’re so proud of her because we see students all the time, and Chesed just exceeds our expectations,” Manjarre said.
Chap visits her mom on weekends and whenever she has a tennis or soccer match in Tucson, getting a taste of what it’s like to be in a ‘big town.’
Her mom said Chap will do well in an even bigger town, if she chooses that path.
“She’s going to have the choice to go wherever she wants after this, and that’s great,” Manjarre said. “I want whatever’s gonna make her happy.”
Chap got a taste of the professional writing life when Lysiak invited her to join him and Hilde in Los Angeles for the table reading of the Paramount Pictures show being written about Hilde. The screenwriters liked Chap so much they wanted her to stay.
“They were blown away by her,” Lysiak said. “She got some one-on-one time with some of the writers and they came away very impressed by her to the point where one of the producers of the show mentioned, ‘I wonder if I could get her here to be an intern?’”
When some of the writers asked her to stay for a week, Chap declined, not wanting to miss that much school. However, she does hope to be able to make this a career someday.
“You always hear that you can never make a job in the arts and that it’s not possible,” Chap said. “It was really amazing to see the joy in that room during the table reading and I felt so lucky to be there, and everyone’s just laughing and having the best time ever and they’re so proud of what they did. I just really want to get to that point in my life someday.”
At the end of the show, Chap sat on a bench, one of the few set pieces in the minimalist production. She called each character by name, and the actors took their places behind her.
The cast took a bow as the audience clapped and cheered. Bouquets of flowers in hand, she smiled, spoke with all her friends and family, and went home to sleep and prepare for the next performance.
Editor’s note: A version of this story will appear in the summer 2020 special issue of the Patagonia Regional Times.