As election-season tension mounts and we march ever-closer to November 6, 2012… 44 Plays for 44 Presidents productions across the country are coming up with increasingly creative ways to contribute to the Festival. This week, I spoke with Bilal Dardai, Tif Harrison, and Dan Broberg of The Neo-Futurists to discuss their intentions to create an audience-interactive installation: The Electoral College Prep Academy.
I think you’re the first company we’ve been able to highlight for an interactive installation! Give me a rundown of the Electoral College Prep Academy.
Bilal: The ECPA was the invention of [Managing Director] Dan McArdle, after the initial idea of a basketball court in honor of Barack. At our initial brainstorming session, this idea led us to the idea of a court in a school gymnasium (as opposed to a street court or YMCA court), and that led us to the idea of other fun elements such as the trophy case and images of Obama and other presidents as “illustrious athletes” who had passed through the “Academy.”
Among the things we’re hoping to include are a cart full of basketballs marked with specific policy fights, bills, and other incidents from Obama’s past term, and an invitation to the audience to shoot these balls into the basket…so you can symbolically try to score on health care reform or the elimination of Bin Laden. The “bipartisanship” ball, notably, will be deflated. We also want an old-school, flipping manual scoreboard that we can hopefully use on Election Night to keep track of the Electoral Count while the show is going on.
What inspired this idea in the first place? How did it come to be?
Bilal: I think this story is both wonderful and remarkably dull at the same time. I approached the ensemble and asked if anybody would be interested in helping brainstorm our Special Project for the Festival. I swear not more than ten seconds after I finished talking Tif suggested we turn the State Park into a basketball court. Everybody there agreed that it was a super idea a few short seconds after that and it took off from there. In the history of Neo-Futurist project decisions, I’m sure it holds some kind of record.
Tif: In a nutshell, I was being an ass. Not really an asshole, but definitely an ass. Bilal just mentioned that we needed to create some sort of “event” in tandem with the play. I was kinda unclear what he meant, we had a short Q&A and then I just said, “So like, if we wanna turn the State Park into a Basketball Court, that would be our thing, ya?” And a star was born…
For those unfamiliar with the “State Park,” how would you describe the space pre-makeover?
Tif: Like your screened in front porch. You don’t spend much time in there, personally. You store things there when you don’t have the heart to toss them. It’s sometimes an after thought, but it also happens to be how everyone enters your home. And when you get your tax returns, you might fix it up.
Bilal: It’s our “lobby,” but it’s more like a 1920s dance hall (the wooden floors were also an inspirational point in making it a school gymnasium court). There’s a lot about it that’s kinda dumpy, from the light fixtures in the ceilings to the paint and plaster peeling off the walls. But it’s also a second space about the size of our theater, so we’ve used it as a rehearsal room, playground, and art gallery as well. Like many other rooms in our labyrinth, it has its own unique charms.
What challenges do you face in transforming the space in this way?
Dan: The State Park, when not filled with miscellaneous debris, is actually very easy to picture as a basketball court. It is shaped like a court – a long rectangle. The wood floor is there. The lip on either side can even feel like a very natural place to set stadium seats. The challenge is mostly about clearing out and finding a place for unnecessary set pieces for which the State Park serves as storage. Beyond that – it feels pretty simple.
What aspect of the design are you most excited about?
Dan: I am most excited to see what ideas continue to develop along the lines of banners and trophies. Our high school basketball courts typically house a history of past success which are hung from the rafters – state champions and what not. I think that the fun will come when we brainstorm ways to turn political history into state champion-like banners/trophies. With a witty team like the one which Bilal assembled, I am sure that we may run out of time before we run out of ideas.
What do you hope audiences will walk away with after experiencing this interactive installation?
Bilal: Two things: One, I want the interactive portion to remind people of both the trials and accomplishments of this current president, and two, I want to reinforce the notion that politics is largely gamesmanship and sport.
I will settle for “That was clever.”
Bilal Dardai has been a Neo-Futurist ensemble member since 2004, and in addition to regularly writing and performing for their long-running show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, he has also created or contributed to the company’s shows Contraption, A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol, and CRISIS: A Musical Game Show. He is a member of the cast for the company’s 2012 production of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. He has been married since 2006, a dog owner since 2006, and a father since January of this year.
Tif Harrison is a writer and a homebody. Her hometown has one stoplight. She currently lives in Chicago.
Dan Broberg began working with the Neos in 2004 running tech for Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. In subsequent years he has also designed and built multiple Neo-Futurists shows including Roustabout, Burning Bluebeard and Daredevils’ Hamlet.