As an increasingly divided country retreats into increasingly disparate social bubbles, the University of Wyoming Department of Theatre and Dance seeks to enter the fray, challenge its audience and ultimately promote dialogue between society’s warring factions.
“A Bright Room Called Day” — which opened Tuesday — focuses on everyday people in 1932’s Germany and the way they respond to a creeping Nazi threat. Assistant Professor Kevin Inouye, the production’s director, said the department first considered the play in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
“With some of the things that were happening during the presidential election last year — debates about the appropriateness of endorsements from avowed Nazis and things like that — it reminded me of that script,” he said. “I think it’s actually become more relevant since then. The deeper I look into the historical parallels, the more that I see the same conversations going on now as were going on in 1930s Berlin for the characters of this play.”
In November, the department put on “Fascism! The Musical” — a play written by UW faculty, attacking corporately controlled news media while lampooning capitalism, religion and other aspects of American culture.
One month earlier, in October, Assistant Professor Patrick Konesko directed “Other Desert Cities” — a play advocating cross-aisle dialogue and featuring a family torn apart by disagreements.
“It was a great time for it — it dealt with some of the issues, but we thought it dealt with them in a fair way,” he said. “You always run the risk of things being too one-sided when you’re dealing with politics in theatre — and in that play, there were strawmen on both sides. Both had their exaggerated points of view.”
The 2017-2018 academic year has seen a slew of plays at UW specifically chosen for their relevance to a modern audience living in a unique era of American history — when old, seemingly defeated notions such as fascism and communism are back in the national body politic, and the U.S.’s two main political parties find themselves ideologically farther apart than ever.
Limiting the choices
While the department enjoys considerable freedom in the subject material it chooses to address on-stage, it also faces various constraints, said Department Chair Leigh Selting.
“It’s a very complicated mix of practical considerations, curricular needs and artistic goals that determine which shows are chosen,” he said. “We have to consider, of course, first and foremost, the needs of the students.”
The department cycles through various genres and formats to give students exposure to
Shakespearean plays, musicals, operas, contemporary plays and classics, as well as original plays and new work, Selting said.
“We have another piece of the pie that we have to consider in terms of what we can actually accomplish, in terms of our budgets and our design capabilities here at the university,” he said. “We have a fantastic design staff in costuming and lighting and scenic and sound areas, but resources don’t always allow us to do very large technical shows.”
Selting added the department is able to do some larger shows, but must balance large builds with smaller ones.
Some plays are simply not a good fit for the department, Assistant Professor Kevin Inouye said.
“We’re limited some by the gender and racial diversity within our own program and the age of our typical student,” he said. “So, we’re unlikely to do a show that is set in a senior home with all older actors.”
Constraints such as these are more frequent in older plays, Selting said.
“More and more, there are plays that allow for non-gender specific casting, but those are mostly contemporary,” he said. “You can also (do) what we call ‘gender-bend(ing)’ in Shakespeare productions. But to honor the playwrights, on most shows, you have to honor the character they wrote, whether it’s male or female.”
The department — and the performers, stagehands, directors and other artists who compose it — also feel an obligation to join local and national conversations, Konesko said, and this factors into the season selection committee’s choices.
“We also want to make sure that as one of the primary arts organizations in the state of Wyoming — as a result of the size of the Wyoming population — we want to be able to speak toward things that people are currently thinking about and talking about and perhaps worrying about, in a way that hopefully opens up a conversation,” Konesko said. “That’s what we’re all about.”
When the season selection committee met during spring 2017, UW student Daniel Daigle was there, representing his classmates in the department.
“What they started doing last spring was allowing the submission for plays (from) students, as well as the professors … so students could have more of a say in the shows we produce and would be doing more work that students are excited about and want to really engage in.”
Daigle suggested a few plays, one of which, ‘Other Desert Cities,’ was chosen to open the 2017 fall season.
Konesko, who directed ‘Other Desert Cities,’ said it was the sort of play that challenges audience, actors and directors.
“What I tell my students, in that regard, is — regardless of what area — try to pick something that scares you,” Konesko said. “Pick something that has at least one element that scares you, that makes you nervous, that you have to figure out how to do. And that’s what creates vital work.”
He added theatre is not about agreeing with the piece, but about empathizing with the characters — whatever their perspective.
“One of the ways we refine our view of the world is by facing opposition,” Konesko said. “Sometimes, you don’t know what you think until you see something and you go, ‘Oh, I think that’s wrong,’ and that’s another service the arts sort of provides — helping you understand yourself in that way.”
Taking the stage, taking a stand
“A Bright Room Called Day” and “Fascism! The Musical” both take unambiguous political stances — the first denouncing Nazism and modern movements with similar features, the second denouncing corporate greed, the philosophy of Ayn Rand and gender inequality.
Inouye said “A Bright Room Called Day” — which he directed — has become more relevant since it was first presented in 1985. Though the play primarily takes place in 1930s Berlin, it features periodic interruptions from a 1980s American, who draws parallels between Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan.
That comparison was “a bit of a stretch” when the play was first produced, Inouye said, but rings much truer today.
“You look at the response to Richard Spencer last year — you know, ‘Is it appropriate to punch Nazis in the streets?’” he said. “Those kinds of debates were happening in 1930s Berlin, as much as they were happening on Facebook in 2017 and 2018 America.”
Inouye added the German Institute for Sexuality Research, which was destroyed by the Nazis, shares similarities with Planned Parenthood. One of the flags used by Antifa — a left-wing militant protest group which gained notoriety throughout and after the 2016 election — sometimes uses flags previously used by German communists who opposed the Nazis, Inouye said.
“I think theatre is really good at tackling these challenging topics and issues and making people have these conversations on the way out of the theater,” he said. “I think that’s something that theatre tends to do better than mainstream cinema. I say this as somebody who likes making movies, too, but I think theatre is usually more willing to tackle the difficult subjects.”
“Fascism! The Musical” — created by UW Playwright-in-Residence Bill Downs and Assistant Lecturer Sean Stone — took a strong stance against a wide range of topics, mocking capitalism, religion, safe spaces, trigger warnings and guns on campus, while celebrating free speech and socialism.
Downs and Stone declined to comment for this story.
Taking strong political stances is not always the best way to make friends, but many in the UW Department of Theatre and Dance speak highly of the principle of free speech and theatre’s ability to start dialogue.
“While it’s sometimes hard to see if we have those kinds of responses, we hope to always create positive and productive conversation, but the fact that conversation is created at all is, I think, central to our mission,” Konesko said. “We want to be careful, we want to be safe with that, but just the nature of live performing arts, the nature of embodiment, means that there’s always going to be issues that challenge people.”
This commitment to free speech is doubly important for a university theatre program, Inouye said.
“Two weeks before ‘Fascism!,’ we had a controversial conservative radio personality on campus as well, so I think that’s also part of what universities can do — expose people to different perspectives and viewpoints and allow those conversations to happen and facilitate them,” he said.
The department’s June production of “The Fantasticks” unintentionally launched a conversation about race after Native American high school students visiting UW for a summer camp walked out of the theater during intermission.
The 1960 play is the world’s longest-running musical and contains a scene in which characters dress up as and villainize Native Americans. Following the walk-out, other summer camps, which had planned to attend, boycotted future showings, and a statewide tour of the production was canceled.
The department later apologized for failing to provide context for the outdated scenes in the form of program notes — a standard practice for the department, which often handles works it is legally obligated not to alter — and expressed a desire to dialogue with all members of the community, including the offended individuals.
“You never know what’s going to catch flak from where,” Inouye said. “It’s hard to know what will cause problems and what won’t. Ultimately, you have to do something you feel okay about and you do your best job at approaching the material and try to frame things and have those conversations so people can benefit from it and not just walk away saying, ‘Oh, there was something offensive there.’”
Covering such a wide range of topics and perspectives, it’s both impossible and unwise to try to please everyone with every play performed by the department, Selting said.
“We serve the community as one of the major cultural outlets in terms of theatre in Laramie — in terms of audience engagement and the variety of offerings for our audience both in Laramie and the state,” he said. “We know that a broad variety of offerings doesn’t meet everyone’s tastes and that’s absolutely OK. Our audiences and students at the university can pick and choose which shows they would like to attend — and there’s a little bit for everyone.”