“This is not a political play in its aim. It’s an examination of a family and of a tragedy that involves hot-button political issues, but it is crafted in a way that the politics is kind of left to the audience to grapple with, instead of the play itself making a clear political statement.”
Michael Piazza is the director of One in the Chamber, which runs through Sept. 6th in the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint Gallery. He spoke to me during his rehearsals and before the play opened to passionate response.
On DCTS, Brett Steven Abelman”s review was a nearly unqualified rave: “One in the Chamber makes for a superbly dramatic whetstone on which to sharpen your thoughts and feelings.” Karen Shod (who describes herself as “an appreciative member of the theatre community”) concurred in a comment posted below the review: “Thanks to a strong script and several strong performances…there were many moments…where I forgot I was watching a play…the audience at my viewing was ‘pin-drop’ still throughout…it most definitely SHOULD be seen.”
You can’t ask for better press than that, can you? Well, I guess you could also hope that The Washington Post was on board.
The Post and its critics have frequently wondered why there isn’t more political theatre in this city, a nearly one-industry town whose major activities are government, diplomacy, journalism — and the related activity of politics, which provides legitimacy, distributes power, sets agendas, and establishes the boundaries within which the rest of the city must operate. Where better to find audiences for plays that tackle politically-charged issues, that deal with subjects torn from headlines?
Post critic Nelson Pressley has been wondering for years why there isn’t more politically-oriented theatre here. Sure, there are historical plays like Camp David at Arena. And maybe Arena’s recent The Originalist is an exception that proves the rule. But for every one of those exceptions there are more contemporary plays about politics (The City of Conversation by Anthony Giardina) or political controversy (Enron by Lucy Prebble) that companies in town don’t jump on in a hurry and that Washingtonians have needed an Amtrak ticket to see.
So interested in this phenomenon is Pressley that he wrote the book American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice: Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Perspectives (Palgrave, 2014). You’d think he would be happy to see a work that invites discussion about a subject as topical as gun violence, an issue so charged that efforts to restrict the access of violent or mentally ill people to weapons has had to be rebranded. It was called “gun control” when I was a kid, at the time when the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King were killed; now it’s referred to as “gun safety.”
But Pressley, who wrote the One in the Chamber review in the Post, objected to the very goal that Piazza had articulated: leaving the conclusions to the audience, as opposed to providing them in the script: “…theater people feel they’re not allowed to make overtly political art. They’ll be shouted down for ‘lecturing.’ It’s a form of soft censorship.” It was as if he was not critical of the quality of play or production — in fact he praised both. He seemed to object, instead, to the author’s decision about how to engage issues and audience.
It’s therefore apparent that the play and the production have not only engendered a discussion about the subjects involved in the story on stage, but also about political theatre itself.
ONE IN THE CHAMBER
August 8 – September 6
Forum Theatre co-production and Young Playwrights’ Theater
at Mead Theatre Lab
916 G St NW
Thursdays thru Sundays
It’s not unusual for companies to hold post-show discussions, often inviting experts to speak about and amplify themes explored during a performance. But audience engagement is so important to this project that every single performance features a talkback, an opportunity for the audience to engage the issues raised for them…or simply (in Shod’s word) to “decompress” collectively.
Piazza made clear that the concerns of the play reach beyond the conflict between public safety and second amendment rights. He told me that playwright Marja-Lewis Ryan is as or even more interested in another key aspect of the story, something as intertwined with politics and social priorities as is the gun issue.
A thumbnail description of the plot: a social worker visits a family that has been riven by gun violence. The play’s other major concern is “what kind of help has been available to help them [the family] through this tragedy.” That is, in fact, what “resonates most deeply in the play” for Piazza, coming, as he does, from an extended family that includes doctors and social workers.
I had begun by asking Piazza what brought the project to D.C. I had known from the producers that the D.C. run follows an extremely well-received production of the play in Los Angeles. That production was nominated for several prestigious awards. Playwright Ryan “was looking to continue the life of the piece, in preparation of it being published.” Liz Osborne, one of the producers of the D.C. production and one of its cast, had seen the L.A. version, expressed interest in bringing it to Washington, and that’s “how the script landed here.”
Ryan directed the show in L.A. and it was planned that she would direct it here as well, but she bowed out when another opportunity presented itself and “they tapped me to step in,” Piazza told me. Ryan and Piazza had met as undergraduates at New York University. Primarily an actor and educator, Piazza occasionally directs when he “becomes specifically attached to pieces” or when projects involve friends. Does One in the Chamber fit both bills? “Definitely.” When this opportunity came up, “I jumped on it. I respond to the play in a number of ways. She’s an incredibly gifted writer,” says Piazza about Ryan.
That gift, Piazza elaborated, is evident in that, within the conceit of the family members being interviewed by the social worker, the audience will get a “real sense of these people as full-bodied human beings. The play is dripping with subtext.” Extolling Ryan’s ability to delineate the humanity of her characters, he remarked on how “in ten or fifteen minutes, we feel that we know them really deeply. That’s what’s great about this play.”
Between the play’s first two full productions, first in L.A. and now in D.C., One in the Chamber was workshopped in New York City at Atlantic Theater Company, where the musical Spring Awakening began. Both Piazza and Ryan are involved with the Atlantic, and Piazza told me that he sat in on the rehearsals of that workshop.
I asked if the script has changed much since L.A., and Piazza answered that it’s “pretty set; it’s pretty much as it was in L.A. There were some minor changes after the workshop.” And Ryan has been “very kind” in response to calls and emails asking about “specific confusions” or requesting minor changes.
“People associated with the Atlantic are very tight,” Piazza told me. One of the Atlantic’s most prominent founders is David Mamet, who hand-picked Ryan to direct the L.A. production of his recent play The Anarchist, a production which starred Felicity Huffman and Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon.
Mamet has become somewhat notorious recently after some public statements that demonstrate a shift rightward in his politics. Piazza used a question about Mamet’s connection to Ryan to circle back to the play’s desire to provoke discussion rather than to provide an easy answer:
“In this play, the politics are left to the audience. The format in which the production is presented, in the style of Forum Theatre, with talkbacks, is the perfect way of allowing what is political to come to the forefront, not in the piece, but by sparking conversations we should be having around medical health services for children, for people who have experienced a tragedy like this.”
Therefore, a person with strong views about second amendment rights wouldn’t necessarily feel that those views are being challenged by the play.
Multiple partnerships may be a new producing model for independent shows
The reference to Forum and its involvement in the show brought up a point made to me by Ian Armstrong, one of the shows producers. In an email to set-up the interview with Piazza, Armstrong (a long-time friend and colleague of mine) described “the model being developed here of a single-issue production entity using multiple partnerships to maximize production: in our case Forum Theatre, Young Playwrights’ Theater, and Cultural DC. Without them, we would not get first-tier press, Helen Hayes eligibility, and the audience synergy that, hopefully, will have a real impact in an otherwise rather densely populated scene.”
Forum Theatre is hosting the talkbacks after each performance; audience involvement is a strong component of Forum’s mission. Meanwhile, Young Playwrights’ Theatre held a playwriting competition wherein students wrote response pieces to the New York Times article that had inspired One in the Chamber. The winning plays will be performed by members of the cast and artistic team of One in the Chamber on its closing night, Sept. 6th, at 9:45 p.m. The third partner organization, Cultural DC, curates Flashpoint, the performance space.
Since playwright Ryan has also worked in film, I asked Piazza if he could see the material operating as compellingly in a medium other than theatre. Without dismissing the possibility of its working well as a film, he did stress the uniquely theatrical experience of an audience watching the story, live, in a small space like Flashpoint: “You really are there and immersed in the experience of the social worker. Stories like this, which are delivered in real time, are, on a dramaturgical level, the best plays. It’s great theatre.”
Piazza had only been rehearsing for a couple of weeks when we spoke, and he reported to me that it “feels like the richness of the text has increased tenfold by working on the play section by section.” The play is “very deep and rich. What I love about the play is that it really shows you the aftermath” of a devastating tragedy. Even if “you’ll never know if you haven’t been there, it teaches you what it could be like.”
Conceding “how incredibly sad the subject matter is,” he responded to the question about who should see the play: “People who like theatre that is really going to wake them up and put them through the wringer. People who want to do that without a three hour-long Eugene O’Neill play. [One in the Chamber runs about 90 minutes.] People who like plays about families, about people like them, or people they know. It’s a cathartic experience about normal Americans dealing with an abnormal situation: the worst fear, the worst case scenario.”
We ended our conversation by talking about his involvement with Woodshed Collective, the site-specific New York company that calls its work “installation theater for a new generation.” I remembered having read the New York Times review of its production The Tenant (from the same source material as the wonderfully strange 1976 Roman Polanski film) and was very interested to learn that he had been in that cast, and to learn more about the group. He talked about some of their more recent projects, and bemoaned the fact that other obligations will keep him from participating in Empire Travel Agency. That’s “an immersive adventure weaving through the streets, tunnels, and abandoned buildings of Lower Manhattan,” according to the Woodshed web-site, which also reveals that the initial tickets sold out almost immediately. Woodshed has “been around before Punch Drunk came to town,” he added, referring to the British company whose immersive version of Macbeth, Sleep No More, was a hot ticket. It’s always cool when someone with Piazza’s downtown N.Y.C. “cred” comes to town.
The uniqueness of the One in the Chamber producing model will no doubt inspire others interested in presenting theatre outside the formal seasons of established companies. The tickets are affordable, with a price range of $10 to $25. And, with a project that must have already exceeded its own expectations of provoking important discussion, both about the subject of the play, and about the usefulness of theatre as a cauldron for the examination of important political and social issues, it can be said that One in the Chamber has hit its target.