I recently reached out to Festival producers who will be mounting their “44P” shows before October to learn more about any side projects, community involvement, or creative undertakings they’ll be tying to their production. I mean – that’s what, at its heart, this Festival is all about: Conversation. Creativity. Action. (All in the name of history and political engagement!)
Gwen Rice, Director of Communications at Forward Theater Co., was ready with an answer. Several in fact. Madison, WI-based Forward Theater Co. already has multiple projects in mind, including pre-show talks before Thursday and Sunday shows to discuss historical background, source materials, and production elements; post-show talkbacks after every show with Artistic Director, Jennifer Uphoff Gray; a presidential portrait gallery created by local artists – to run in tandem in remount with an earlier exhibition of first ladies; educational outreach to get students in to see the show; and a possible addition of a “red night” and a “blue night” wherein audiences and organizations can come out in support of their personal political affiliation.
The amazing part? This sort of additional programming is nothing new. I just had to learn more.
GGB: You clearly have a strong connection to your community and a focus on civic engagement. How did you decide to be a part of the Festival? What drew you to it?
Gwen: As you may know, Wisconsin (and Madison in particular) has been embroiled in a lot of interesting politics over the last two years. We have a recall election scheduled for June 5th and Wisconsin is also poised to be an important battleground state in the upcoming presidential election. Clearly our political representation and the importance of the voting process has been top of mind for us, and for our audience. Madison is home to our state government and a major university, which means we like debate. We like discussing issues in depth and examining questions from all sides. In an era of increasingly polarizing state and national politics, we felt like this play was a great reminder of our nation’s history—what we’ve accomplished as a country, the questions we’ve wrestled with over the decades, the mistakes that were made, the good intentions that were doomed to fail, and the basic human frailty of the people we’ve entrusted with one of the most difficult jobs in the world—leading the US.
The refreshing thing about this project is that it educates and entertains in equal measure. No one is safe from satire. No overt political agenda is served. It’s a reminder of the responsibility we all have to participate in the political process and then work together to get things done—do the most good for the most people. It’s also going to be A LOT of fun, and in an election year, we all need more of that!
GGB: I think it’s amazing you do talkbacks after each show! What are some of the ways in which you’ll be focusing the talks for 44 Plays…?
Gwen: We try to leave the talkbacks as loose as possible so the audience is comfortable asking whatever questions come to mind. To prompt discussion, we’ll definitely ask about what overall impressions the audiences leave with, what they may have learned, what segments affected or surprised them the most, and how the evening competes with or complements what they already knew about presidential history.
GGB: You mentioned a First Ladies exhibit that you can connect back to in conjunction with the Hall of Presidents you’re creating. Tell me how those two projects will live together and what you hope it will do for the Madison community.
Gwen: Forward has prided itself from the beginning as an organization that engages our community on multiple levels. Last year we worked with fiber artists and photographers on an art exhibit inspired by a play about 1930s photographer Walker Evans, which was very warmly received. This year we recruited more than 50 visual artists to create a presidential portrait to complement 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. All of the artists were extremely excited and challenged by the project, and we can hardly wait to see what they come up with!
The great thing about this collaboration is that we’re not only exposing our audience to the work of Wisconsin artists, the artists are also getting the chance to know us better. And the art exhibit is in a public place – Overture Center for the Arts – so Forward will have a presence in the building even when we’re not performing. After the production is over, the art exhibit will move to another gallery; so again, our collaboration lives on after the final bows, and is presented to more and more people. It’s a really gratifying way to share our art.
One of the artists participating in the show had previously created an exhibit about first ladies—they are silhouettes of the women cut out of pictures of their President-husbands. I’m not sure where or exactly how we’re going to showcase them, but my partner in this process, David Wells, assures me that they will be on display.
GGB: What excites you most about your participation in this process?
Gwen: The cumulative excitement of being part of a nationwide project is thrilling, of course. The idea that one of our scenes will be permanently recorded and melded with those other productions is also amazing.
For Forward, I think this show will be a huge challenge. We’ve never done anything like this before (music, dance, comedy, audience interaction, direct address, slapstick, etc), so it will be a great opportunity for our actors, designers, and director to “play.”
Forward Theater’s production of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents opens September 20 and runs through October 7, 2012. You can purchase tickets online, as well as learn more about their full season, company history, and past events.