This week I decided to interview my hubby, Festival Co-Chair, 44 Plays for 44 Presidents Founding Father, co-author, and history nerd. Here’s what he had to say about why this Festival is so important to him.
What gave you the idea to take something like this on?
It was after I saw the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville production in 2008, and the audience reaction to the alternate ending they had us write… there were all these disenfranchised, theatre-going Kentucky Democrats, vehemently screaming for the Obama play at the end. They were just so into that—and the play in general. I was moved by the effect the play could have during an election year. It seemed to make people feel the opposite of how they usually feel when bombarded by negative advertising and insipid media coverage: They were excited about history being made. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could spread this feeling all over the country during an election year?”
So what is it that excites you most about this Festival?
This is hard to answer because there’s a LOT. I think if I had to pick one, it’s the potential magnifying effect our Festival could have… the idea of taking something that’s usually a small, hyper-local, temporary, but very communal affair that has the power to move people to action (a play), and significantly magnifying its nature in such a simple way. Everyone does their part and mounts their show, but because we’re all doing it together, what is usually small becomes big; what’s usually hyper-local is shared by thousands of theatre-goers from around the country; what’s usually temporary is made lasting by tangibly connecting all the productions with our video project; what’s usually communal by virtue of it being a social act of art, explodes into a national communal experience connected by social media (and the video project). And because we’re doing it during an election year, the action we hope to inspire is voting, conversation and – of course – getting out to see some theatre.
What’s been the biggest surprise so far?
Two things (and both will make me sound like I’m totally contradicting myself). One is the response by producers… I was both amazed by how willing and excited so many people were, and at the same time surprised at how hard a sell it remained. It never really had an avalanche moment like I expected it to. Almost every single production was hard to get and involved lots of one-on-one interactions and patience. But I do totally understand. Theatre is a hugely risky business for many, and good reviews and box office numbers don’t necessarily come guaranteed with a show, despite it’s history, despite coming with a built-in national connection. You still have to nail it. It’s not like your production of Cats will be awesome just because it was such a huge hit. (Not like our show is a Broadway legend or anything… also I kinda hate that show so I wouldn’t come no matter what… OK bad example.)
The other thing totally contradicts the amplified HUGENESS I alluded to in the answer to your last question, or at least modifies it. When I saw 44 Plays… at Lake Forest College, what I found moving was how much of an afterthought the Festival was, even during the talk-back. Despite all our really hard work promoting the Festival, it’s still nothing compared to putting on this show and seeing this show. When you’re up close to a production, that direct experience is really what’s at the heart of the Festival. In the end, we’re promoting live events that people still need to go see in person.
I’m hoping people find out about the Festival and that makes them curious, but eventually it motivates them to show up and put an ass in a seat; then once they’re there, I hope they go home and help register a friend to vote. I hope they’re less likely to stay home on Election Day themselves. I hope they geek out over their role in history and feel less like they need a shower the next time they see an attack ad… and maybe they come back to the Festival online and see the video, contribute to the conversation on Facebook, etc. But we (the Festival) bookend the experience and – at most and at least – we’re just a cool thing to know about that helps each show get a little more press.
If you had one big wish for this thing… some “wow” moment you idealize as possible… what would it be?
Hands down: President Obama coming to see the show in Chicago. Or elsewhere. But especially Chicago. Yes. There. I said it. I would say Bill Clinton too, but I think he wouldn’t like his play and then I’d get all squirmy about it. A sitting President seeing this show, though, that would be beyond unforgettable. Talk about a magnifying effect. Illinois is not in play. It would be hard to get a campaigning President to show up on his home turf. There will be a Boulder production, though, and Colorado is a swing state so who knows… you hear that, square product theatre?
I also think that Dad’s Garage in Atlanta should try to get Jimmy Carter to appear as himself in their video. I don’t see why not. He’s seen the show before and loved it. It’s a flattering play. It’s an easy part to deliver that you can read off of note cards… snd it would make all of Atlanta scream. Like really scream. Very loudly. They love him there. Plus it would make Dad’s Garage even more famous than the time they pissed off Burt Reynolds.
What are you going to do when it’s over? Will you be mourning or celebrating… or both?
Honestly? I’m going to be planning for 2016 and what happens in between. I’m hooked. And I have lots of big ideas and so many wonderful, excited and talented people I’m blessed to know that I can brainstorm with. (I’m married to one of them, you know? She’s wicked awesome.)
I also think it will be important to promote the finished video project as a teaching tool for classrooms. I can imagine a pretty rad lesson that involved just watching one or two Presidential plays and asking students to go forth and figure out what they meant, what historically the author was drawing from, ask them to challenge or support the author’s take. The possibilities there are endless. I’d love to think everyone’s work will live on in that way and we should be working to promote it for sure.