Seattle U Theatre: 45 Plays for 45 Presidents
Does the idea of a play about US presidential history bring back flashbacks of memorizing them, in order, in grade school? (The older you are, the easier it was.) Or maybe school plays with kids in powdered wigs and stovepipe hats, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?
45 Plays for 45 Presidents by Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston, and Karen Weinberg could not be more different. Following closely on President’s Day this year, Seattle University’s theatre program offers this decidedly 21st Century perspective on our country’s leaders and American history. The play comes to the Lee Center for the Arts at Seattle University, February 19 through March 1, under the direction of Jane Nichols. Tickets are available online here.
"Hilarious, difficult, insightful, revelatory and totally unforgettable. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, (the play) helps illuminate, in [a] speculatively subversive manner." David Cashman, Chicago Weekly News
“Our production of this remarkable collection of 2-minute plays is particularly timely,” said Rosa Joshi, who points out that Washington State’s newly scheduled primary is March 10. “45 Presidents clearly supports the message of civic participation, and we are excited to promote voter registration and participation during the run of the play.”
Dr. Jasmine Mahmoud, Professor, Arts Leadership, is spearheading efforts to develop talkbacks after most performances of the play. “We are partnering with other SU departments like Political Science, Women and Gender Studies, the Institute of Public Service to offer a wide variety of perspectives and engage audiences in further discussion,” she said. Additionally, Lily Noto, ’21, and Stefania Giroud Zuluaga, ’22, the program’s Theatre Communications Fellows, are developing plans for the voter registration and participation activities.
In 2002, the writers and performers at Chicago’s Neo-Futurists premiered what was then 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. “The idea and development of the play were informed by the push and pull of the personalities in the 2000 election,” explained co-creator Chloe Johnston in a recent conversation. “It expanded as we explored the importance of the figurehead and symbolic power.”
(Chloe Johnston will be in residence at Seattle University during the opening of the play, as part of a parallel event with the SU Arts Leadership Book Club, featuring “Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide to Devised Theater” coauthored by her and Coya Paz Brownrigg. See below.)
Over the past 18 years, the play has expanded, first in offering the audience the opportunity to choose between candidates’ plays during each election year, and then adding plays for our 44th and 45th presidents. A number of the plays have also been rewritten during that time. Johnston says, “How we feel about history has changed and evolved since the play premiered in 2002. There was an original major oversight in not acknowledging that President Washington owned slaves. The two President Bush plays have also changed.”
"Deeply moving, stealthily patriotic... (the creators) have delivered a dramatic work of considerable originality and comic integrity." Wendell Brock, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Neo-Futurists’ website describes them as “a collective of wildly productive writer/director/performers who create theater that is a fusion of sport, poetry and living-newspaper and non-illusory, interactive performance that conveys our experiences and ideas as directly and honestly as possible.” Johnston explains, “In the Neo-Futurists, you never play a character. You are not stepping into this other persona and you’re not trying to suspend audience disbelief.”
This means that any performer may play any role in 45 Presidents. The Neo-Futurists have long embraced casting beyond gender and ethnicity (well before Hamilton became renowned for its remarkably diverse representation of America’s Founding Fathers and other historical figures.) “We are creating a visual of ‘this is our shared history, if I’m on stage, I can play the character’. You aren’t doing an impression of Bill Clinton or imitating Barack Obama.” One recent production even featured an all-female cast.
“This play is an incredible opportunity for our students to stretch their skills in ensemble based work,” said Joshi. “The actors are challenged to play multiple roles in a fast paced, physically driven, hyper theatrical world.”
At a time when politics and elections feel more divisive, a question of partisanship rises when talking about 45 Presidents. Johnston comments that responses have not necessarily fallen along partisan lines and that push back is part of the conversation. “We couldn’t have imagined the incredible life of this play, largely with colleges, high schools, and small theatres,” she said. “It has been produced in small towns all over the country. Based on location, I have to believe it has been staged by people of all political bents.” She also says that the creators see push back as part of the conversation they hope to prompt.
"The creators juxtapose the word with image, sound with light, humor, with sentiment, with just the right touch of insight and sociopolitical commentary." Tim Sauers, Gay Chicago
There have been interesting moments unrelated to current politics. Audience members certainly have “favorite” presidents; in Massachusetts, the theatre received numerous angry emails about the portrayal of John Quincy Adams. President Carter attended a performance in Atlanta. The cast was a little nervous, meeting President and Mrs. Carter afterwards, only to have her comment that “you were so hard on all of the presidents but you were so kind to Jimmy.”
“45 Plays for 45 Presidents is a statement of history, of being American, of being in America,” said Johnston. “It is kind of feel good, which feels weird to say, considering there are certainly dark parts of history, especially at this moment when we are really reckoning with that. There is a lot for a lot of people to get out of the show, but the play changes so quickly, it’s very energizing.” She also pointed out that the play is pretty all ages and many families have attended together. “You can tell when a kid’s favorite president comes on stage.”