Several years ago, Matthew Caron was in the audience during an acting competition at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
On stage was a scene from New York playwright Jenny Laird's "Sky Girls," a historical drama juxtaposing the experiences of five women training to become Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) against the efforts of aviation pioneer Jackie Cochran to get full military recognition for the organization.
Finding himself compelled by the intersection of history and personal drama, Caron jotted down the name of the play and its author in a notebook.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Superior with a master's in communication arts (previously attending Bethany Lutheran College and Minnesota State University for his undergraduate work), Caron returned to MSU to obtain a master's degree in directing theatre. Like other candidates in the program, Caron submitted a list of plays he was interested in directing. Though it had been years since he'd seen the play, Caron include "Sky Girls" on his list.
"Of course, we all know about World War II — but what I find really fascinating is to fill in the details of the war," said the Mapleton native who is directing the play that opened MSU's Studio Season on Wednesday and continues through Saturday.
"The WASPs just sort of captured my imagination. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became."
Caron spent months researching the organization that, from 1943-44, gave military training to female pilots in order to conduct non-combat missions such as ferrying new planes from factories, towing aerial targets for gunnery training and transporting cargo. After disbanding in 1944, it wasn't until the women pilots' military records were unsealed in 1977 that the they were granted full status as World War II veterans.
To get a first-hand look at the airplanes flown by the WASPs (who piloted every military aircraft in production during the war), Caron attended the Wings of Freedom Tour that brought a series of period war birds to the Mankato Regional Airport in July. He also visited the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum in Granite Falls. When he presented his research at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in January 2013, he received the top regional award for dramaturgy.
"This is all happening at a time when very few women even had a driver's license," Caron said. "These women are trying to figure out how to fit into this changing culture. The place where a lot of these characters feel the most at home is in the sky."
As Caron notes, however, "Sky Girls" isn't meant to be a "museum piece."
Rather, the interplay and dialogue between five WASP trainees grounds the piece at the human level. For these five women — who are not historical figures themselves, but composite characters distilled through regional archetypes — becoming a pilot is a chance to give back to their country, protect their sons and husbands and prove the abilities of women in times of hardship.
"It's a tricky balance," the director said. "It's important to understand the history, but it's not an historical reenactment."
In addition, MSU's productions represents the first since a recent batch of revisions to the script by the playwright.
"Sky Girls" debuted in Chicago in 2003 before a string of performances at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
If You Go What "Sky Girls" Performances 7:30 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday Where Andreas Theatre of MSU's Earley Center for Performing Arts Tickets $10 regular, $9 discounted and $8 for current MSU students. The box office is located in the lobby of the Earley Center for Performing Arts and open 4-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; call 507-389-6661. In addition, tickets are available online at MSUTheatre.com.