The DC playwriters’ collective The Welders is taking a new direction with their latest offering, Our National Museum of the Unforeseen Tragedy. While their previous productions have been full stagings of their member playwrights’ plays (happiness by Bob Bartlett, Not Enuf Lifetimes by Calleen Sinnette Jennings, The Carolina Layaway Grail by Ally Currin), Welder Renee Calarco has chosen to use her time at the helm to develop her play, hereafter referred to as Museum of the Unforeseen.
This Saturday, December 12th, will be the first of 2 presentations of this work-in-progress, and, as the performance approached, I sat down with Renee to dig into the process of writing, the complex world that she’s building, and how to avoid the apocalypse.
Alan Katz: Did you come to the Welders with this piece in mind?
Renee Calarco: Not specifically. I knew I wanted to do a site-specific piece. First I wanted to do something in this Chinese restaurant right by my place, but it closed down before we could get started. Then I thought about doing something about Voyager [the interstellar robotic probe, not the spinoff Star Trek television series]. The hubris and hopefulness of humanity putting an LP record on the side of a spaceship and launching it out for alien civilizations to find endeared me. So, I looked for a planetarium. Unfortunately, that fell through.
So I just started thinking about my obsessions. One of my biggest obsessions is with museums. How do we decide what artifacts tell our stories? Who gets to pick those artifacts? What is the stuff that isn’t picked? In essence (especially in this town), who gets to tell the story of America?
AK: So how will that translate into what you’re presenting on December 12th?
RC: There’s installation art and theater that is happening in that installation. There’s 8-10 artifacts with descriptions that audiences can tour and look at, then there will be a dedication ceremony for this newly opened museum. It’s immersive, but not totally so. The audience won’t be asked to take on roles [whew], but they’ll be surrounded by the experience.
We’re going to be creating and inviting audiences to the opening of the Museum of the Unforeseen ( in the future (in 2027) which commemorates a domestic terrorist attack that happened 10 years earlier (2017), an attack on the Mall by a shooter and suicide bomber.
When I first started writing this, it was difficult and depressing. I thought, “This seems kind of far-fetched. How could this possibly happen?” Given, sadly, the buildup of recent events, many things that I did not put in the play (because they seemed too ridiculous) have wound up in the play. Political types inciting violence, etc. And it’s happening right now. The piece has gotten timely fast.
AK: Tell us about those artifacts. Walk us through the museum.
RC: There’s a photograph of a character who was on the Mall the day of the attack. It’s a selfie. He’s a tourist from Senegal, and he wants nothing more than to experience the cherry blossoms and Washington in the springtime. And we see the moment, the split second before everything goes crazy.
There are artifacts of belongings that were recovered after the attack. Things that survived the day. Like the shoes in the 9/11 museum worn by women who walked through the dust that day.
Then there are artifacts from the time before and after. Protest signs. Pieces of art created during the dark times.
It’s a small exhibit, but in an ideal world I envision it expanding. I don’t know what those new artifacts will be, but I hope to find out.
AK: In many ways, this play is about the future political ramifications of this terrorist attack. Tell me about the inspiration for the world that you’ve built and how your vision of this future plays out.
RC: While I’ve been working on this piece for more than a year, I didn’t engage with the political future aspect until I wrote a piece for a Welders’ fundraiser where we all wrote monologues that had to include a welder or welding in the piece. I wrote a monologue called “Blue Collar Insurrection” for Rick Foucheux, where he played a downtrodden and unemployed blue collar guy, a White man who sees his world slipping away from him and crumbling around him. He’s taken his truck and his gun and gone to the National Mall to give a speech. At the end he lights himself on fire with a welding torch to make his statement. So as I began Museum of the Unforeseen, I thought, “What if this guy is the guy who starts a kind of backward revolution? What if he starts an American Spring?”
AK: What do you mean by an American Spring?
RC: We see people right now who are followers of the Republican party and certain presidential candidates, Donald Trump in particular, who are aggrieved people, who have seen the world change around them. They don’t like it. They’ve been left behind. So, I thought about what would happen if one of these people made a political statement by killing themselves and others, saying that America is no longer great and liberalism is destroying America. Starting a conservative revolution.
To be honest, because this piece is still in development, I don’t know exactly what the American Spring is. In the world of the play, conservative Christians have been making their feelings known about what they see as the secularization of American society. There’s reference in the play to a rally called the “Keeping Christ in Christmas” rally which gets out of hand. So there’s a buildup of tension until one lone wolf guy commits an act of domestic terrorism on the Mall.
There’s a set of terrifying events that show the division of America. Things fall apart A disputed presidential election. Artists and writers are imprisoned. Free Speech is curtailed. Texas and Ohio secede. It gets really awful. By the time the museum opens, things have magically gotten better. At this point it is still an exploration. I don’t know how yet, but that is part of why we’re having this presentation [December 12].
AK: How is having an audience going to help you with that?
RC: I’ll be able to tell when people are paying attention. When they’re confused. After the presentation, we’ll be having a moderated post-show discussion where audience members can talk about what they think the piece is, whether America is headed in this direction.
Politically, where are we headed? I want to know how people feel about it and what they’re burning to talk about. It will be interesting, too, to see how they engage with the artifacts that we bring in. How do they see the museum? How do they fill in the gaps of the story?
AK: What will the audience get out of the deal?
RC: I want to allow people to ask themselves, “How close are we to a social meltdown in America today? Could this happen? Is it really that far-fetched? What makes this different from the other social meltdowns we see around the world today? What makes us so special that this can’t possibly happen?”
We talk about American Exceptionalism, but are we really an exception to the house of cards falling down? I often wonder about the 1960’s. What was that like? When it seemed like the fabric of American society would fall apart, what the hell was everyone thinking? Did they feel as strained as we do in the wake of 9/11 and terrorism in the world? I remember doing the duck and cover in school. I remember the fear that the Russians could drop the bomb any day. Maybe our little brains weren’t equipped to deal with the enormity of that reality, but I think we’re more frightened now.
AK: You’re vision of this future, I don’t want to call it apocalyptic, but would it be fair to say that it nudges at and rubs elbows with the apocalypse?
RC: It does. One of my favorite books is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it and couldn’t sleep for weeks. The epilogue is a scholarly symposium set after the traumatic events of the book that discusses those events. While I can’t compare myself to Margaret Atwood, that epilogue is what I had in mind when I was writing this piece. You have to give the audience hope. Knowledge that things could get better. Otherwise, they want to stab their eyes out. I’m not sure that hope happens right now, actually I know it doesn’t because the piece is still in development, but I want it to. It’s my own hope for Museum of the Unforeseen.
AK: Most apocalyptic fiction is written because the writer sees society going down a terrible path, whether it’s nuclear war or fascist White Christian Nationalists taking over, the message is like The Lorax. Unless. If we don’t do X, these terrible things will happen. My question for you is, what is X for Our National Museum of the Unforeseen Tragedy?
RC: Don’t be lazy citizens. Pay attention. Vote. Stop apathy.
When did we stop paying attention to the important things and start paying attention to the crap? Maybe that’s always been the case. When did we stop holding the press accountable to report objectively? Just saying that, it sounds so naive.
AK: What does it mean to you, personally, to make those things happen?
RC: When I was growing up, TV was always on in the house. It made me crazy. When I was 11, I wrote a very very bad short story about how television separates us from each other. Instead of engaging with each other and engaging with our world, we engage with this machine.
So, from a very young age, it’s been important to me that we collectively decide what the important things are. That we hold each other accountable. That we hold politicians accountable. And while I say that as a left-of-center person, I know there are plenty of people on the other side politically who say the exact same things. But what does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. No one seems to have the answer.
But figuring out the answer to that. Figuring out how we can have civilized discourse. It touches my 11 year old self to present the questions (often in a terrifying way) that challenge us to find those answers. But the actual answers? I just don’t know.
The Groundbreaking Ceremony for Our National Museum of the Unforeseen Tragedy by Renee Calarco . Directed by Paul Douglas Michnewicz . Featuring Elliott Bales, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Jonathan Feuer, Stan Kang, Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang, Lolita Marie, Hyla Matthews, Nate Shelton, and Yasmin Tuazon. December 12 at 7pm at The Human Rights Campaign, 1640 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036. Free admission. Click here to reserve your space.