As promised, this week I spoke with Festival Co-Chair and several-time director of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, Sean Daniels, to learn more about his upcoming production at Geva Theatre Center.
So how’s it going?
Great! I think it’s always best when doing a large national project to make it a bit larger in scope and more complicated.That’s my signature move.
That’s a good lead in. You’re casting for the Geva production right now, right?
Yes. For the Louisville show, we used all professional actors, casting mostly out of New York, and the show was really top notch… a fantastic cast. But I didn’t just want to chase that production again. So, for this production, the idea was to work with local college students as a way not only to increase the exposure of the play to their peers, but also to use this show as a civic and education engagement tool. That’s why securing the national partnership with Rock The Vote was equally exciting and important to me, so that we can use this production as a way to increase voter education and registration in the Rochester area – and in the country. Win and win… and win!
In addition, our production of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents will be kicking off the first-ever Rochester Fringe Festival. It will run the fringe and then continue to play for the subscribers and the few lucky people that’ll be able to get single tickets… ’cause it’s expected to sell out.
Why the decision to cast college students?
I just think it’s such a great piece of theatre. It’s an American history lesson in an hour and a half. Perfect short-attention-span theater. We were doing the show in Louisville on the day the economy collapsed. Wilson came out and announced that he deregulated the banks, and the audience booed him. Who boos Wilson? And the poor actor, Nick Cordileone, handled it like a champ; he ad libbed, “Well, I tried.”
The great lesson to take away from that—and it was a conversation that started immediately afterwards and was continued in the lobby until we kicked the people out—was the realization that the events of that day were set in motion decades ago. And then the next question: What choices were we making now that future generations would feel? And would Nick Cordileone have to play those presidents?
Any special plans for the ending?
I did it before and I want to do it again. I want to let the audience vote for the ending: Who gets to be the 44th President? In the Louisville production 4 years ago, Obama won on all the night shows, and McCain won all the matinees. We really should have seen that coming.
Every time, it was palpable, like this surge of energy at the end of the evening. And the great thing was that everyone who saw the show got a chance to respond – the post show conversation started during the show.
One night, we had an older African-American woman get up and start banging her walker on the floor, getting the audience to chant “Obama.” The next night, one guy walked out when Obama got chosen – giving the bird to the rest of the audience for selecting him. I was like, “Really, you’re gonna leave with 2 minutes to go?” But it caused the rest of the audience to want to stay and continue to talk about why that just happened, and was this audience a good representation of the community?
So, yeah, I’d love to do the same for this one – have a second term Obama piece and a Romney piece. If each election is the country’s opportunity to decide its own story and narrative, then this play is good practice.
And hey, if you don’t like the way the show ends, you can come back the next night and bring louder friends… or perhaps start volunteering for the candidate you wish had won.
Sean Daniels is the Artist-At-Large and Director of Artistic Engagement at the Geva Theatre Center after spending five seasons at Actors Theatre of Louisville as the theater’s Associate Artistic Director, directing yearly in the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Mr. Daniels is the former Associate Artistic Director/Resident Director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and before that spent a decade as the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Dad’s Garage Theater Company in Atlanta, Ga.
Sean has been named “One of the top fifteen up and coming artists in the U.S., whose work will be transforming America’s stages for decades to come” and “One of 7 People Reshaping and Revitalizing the American Musical” by American Theatre Magazine. In Atlanta, he was named “Best Director” twice. In the Bay Area, he’s earned the Bay Area Critics Circle and Dean Goodman Choice Awards for Best Direction and Best Production. In addition, while leading Dad’s Garage it was awarded “Best Theater Company” 5 times in a row.