Many people know Gavin Kayner as the guy who taught with a puppet on his hand, spoke with theatrical flair and wore funny hats.
In 27 years as an educator for Amphitheater Public Schools, Kayner often used theater to interest energetic children in learning. A government lesson became an excuse to hold a school election. Lessons about civil rights inspired Kayner to write plays such as “Civil Wrong Righted” and “Drum Major for Freedom.”
These days, the retired teacher enjoys a less-raucous type of theater — the theater of the mind. He’s spent large portions of the past six years in quiet repose, writing plays for adults.
“It’s pure heaven,” he said. “I am obsessed by writing.”
Kayner’s handful of plays have achieved notable success. “Noche de los Muertos” was a semi-finalist for the Ashland New Play Festival, a Top 10 finalist for the Reva Shiner Award and third-place winner of the Chicano-Latino Literary Prize at the University of California in Irvine.
And on Saturday, Nov. 1, the play will debut at Beowulf Alley Theatre, where it will run through Sunday, Nov. 16.
“Noche de los Muertos,” which is in English despite its Spanish title, incorporates recognizable elements of Southwestern culture. Its theme came to Kayner during a trip to Mexico.
The retired teacher and his wife often travel to Magdalena de Kino, a town in Sonora, on vacation. One year, they arrived during a festival.
Each October, the festival of St. Francis Xavier draws people from Mexico and Southern Arizona, alike, who seek healing from a reclining statue of the saint. Kayner watched as people cupped their hands under the statue’s head solemnly, trying to lift it. According to lore, those who succeed are right with God.
The experience gave the playwright an idea.
“That thing with confronting your relationship with God in such a dynamic way got to me in a big way,” he said.
The result was a short story set during the Cristero War — a 1920s uprising in Mexico so named because the revolutionaries believed they were fighting for Christ. The war was one dark chapter in Mexico’s history of trying to sort out the roles of church and government.
In Kayner’s story, a school teacher named Magdalena shows up at a school to take a teaching post away from a priest. The resulting drama raises questions about the roles of the church and government, and the ritual of lifting the statue’s head plays a dramatic role at the end.
Kayner said he has ideas about the roles of the church and government, but he woudn’t share them.
“The play doesn’t answer any questions,” he said. “I put out the story and leave it to you.”
Kayner has attended rehearsals of Beowulf Alley Theatre’s production of “Noche de los Muertos.” He said part of him finds it challenging to write a play but not direct it — something he didn’t have to worry about during his days of teaching at Holoway Elementary School, working with the district’s Career Ladder program and serving as assistant principal at Keeling and Prince elementary schools.
But he said it’s also fun to see other people interpret his script. Tucson’s production of “Noche de los Muertos” will include a guitar player and a skeleton mime that he didn’t create, for example.
“You write it, and others are adding their own layer onto it,” Kayner said. “It’s magic when that happens.”
If you go
What: “Noche de los Muertos”
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 1-16
Where: Beowulf Alley Theatre, 11 S. Sixth Ave.
Cost: $20 for general admission, $18 if paid online