Recession, war, restrictive immigration laws: Students of history know we've been here before. Different leaders, same old issues, say the Neo-Futurists, the innovative theater collective behind the fast-paced “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” an anthology of two-minute shorts that contain the history of POTUS in one brisk 88-minute production playing across the United States this fall.
The Neo-Futurists (creators of the acclaimed, long-running show “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”) create theater under the principles of brevity, honesty and speed. Would that our political process would take the same approach.
Written by Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Gevenvra Gallo Bayiates, Chloe Johnson and Karen Weinberg, “44 Plays” encourages us to take the long view this election year. The project has grown into a nationwide election season festival, with 45 productions in progress across the country, from New York to Little Rock Central High School, where President Eisenhower dispatched the National Guard in 1957 to escort the Little Rock Nine to class. (Find a production here.)
Even hardcore political junkies know the conventions are theater -- comedy and tragedy, broadcast live. So why see a play about the past when the future is dancing for our approval on TV?
Because when we're disappointed in the right and the left, it's helpful to think of our Founding Fathers as wigged troublemakers, not vaunted demigods we trot out when we want to convince the other side that our views are the true American way. In the hands of the Neo-Futurists, Benjamin Franklin roasts Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren is “Jackson's Bitch.” It's smart historical commentary with a heart, and you don't have to spend more than two minutes with any one leader.
The play originated in Chicago in 2002 as “43 Plays for 43 Presidents.” Sean Daniels, now a co-chair of the festival, directed an early production in Atlanta (Jimmy Carter came and reportedly laughed long and hard at the Ronald Reagan segment) and a 2008 production in Louisville, Ky., adding an optional No. 44 ending put to audience vote (Obama tended to win evening performances, McCain swept the matinees). Spirited post-show debates spilled out into parking lots over the merits of FDR and other long-dead presidents; that doesn't happen after most shows.
Daniels says: “We often say that we want to create theater that forces conversation and challenges our thinking about stories similar and different to our own — and this was it. We wanted to see if we could take the conversation to a national level.” He'll direct again for the festival at Rochester's Geva Theatre next month.
The festival has partnered with Rock the Vote to register voters at each production, and each production has selected one of the 44 plays to film for a composite video project. There's even a new Mitt Romney segment in the works, so the audience can vote on the outcome of this year's election with applause — something you can't do from the safety of your couch.
“We make the same mistakes, again and again,” says Daniels. “And we make the right choices, again and again.” That could be comforting during the relentless campaigning ahead. Brevity, honesty, speed. This election season, too, shall pass.