Theater


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(L to R) Kalani Queypo (John Ridge), Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross), Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty. Photos by Tony Powell.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine Blog on January 10, 2018

As a student at Tulane Law School, activist, writer and lawyer Mary Kathryn Nagle once persuaded her Critical Race Theory professor to let her write a play as her final paper that was based on Worcester v. Georgia, an 1832 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that tribal nations have sovereignty over what happens on their lands. President Andrew Jackson, who appeared as a character in the play, refused to enforce the decision. That final project became the seed for Sovereignty, a new play commissioned by Arena Stage which begins previews on January 12 in Washington, D.C.

In the intervening years, Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation, became a lawyer for Pipestem Law—where she works for the restoration of tribal sovereignty, Indian civil and constitutional rights, and the safety of Native women—and an accomplished playwright. (This season, Nagle will have …

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Photo by Peter Lewicki.

Originally published by HowlRound on December 17, 2017.

A little over a year ago, America elected a president who bragged on tape about committing sexual assault. What a difference a year makes. Today, charges being made against men in entertainment and politics for abusing their colleagues, with a few prominent exceptions, are believed and action is being taken to stop the abuse.

The time is ripe for an examination of misogynist practices in theatre programs. Full on harassment and assault may not be happening in your department as far as you know, but places where women are devalued and set against one another are fertile ground for predators. Eliminating and preventing abuse requires more than riding offenders out of town on rails—it requires creating a culture in which …

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Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinched and vexed
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb, which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers.—Henry IV Part 1 III.i.25-31

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Hannah and the Dread Gazebo: Mother (Amy Kim Waschke) and Grandmother Tiger (Jessica Ko). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Originally published by HowlRound on January 2, 2018.

August 2017 saw Houston under water, Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, and large swaths of the Pacific Northwest on fire. In response, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt declared that now is not the time to talk about climate change.

In a way, he was right. The time to talk about climate change was decades ago. Now, the greenhouse effect has caused temperatures and sea levels to rise enough that coping with the seemingly endless succession of natural disasters made worse by climate change keeps us too busy to talk much about the underlying causes.

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR, climate is an inevitable topic. This summer, smoke from wildfires burning to the west, south, and northwest occupied the Rogue Valley on and off throughout August and into September, drastically decreasing visibility and often holding unhealthy levels of particulates in the air. As a result, the Festival had to cancel nine performances in its outdoor, twelve hundred-seat Allen Elizabethan Theater.

The man-made contributions to these fires are …

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Originally published on HowlRound on May 26, 2017

Johnny Saldaña, author and Professor Emeritus of Theatre in the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts’ School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at Arizona State University (ASU), began his plenary speech on the second day of the NYU Steinhardt Program in Educational Theatre’s Forum on Ethnodrama by asking what role ethnodrama has to play in a “post-truth” world. He identified President Trump’s personal driver as “the art of fabrication,” a description frightfully similar to the definition of theatre. Yet while Trump’s lies are fabricated with the purpose of deceiving, theatre lies to the audience in order to tell the truth.

Ethnodrama is, roughly speaking, the dramatization of data. It is theatre that is made out of research, often conducted in the form of interviews but also including primary sources like journal entries, field notes, and media artifacts. Saldaña calls it “reality theatre,” the ultimate goal of which is understanding.

In his speech, he urged ethnodramatists to blur genres and embrace aesthetics—to think theatrically even as they attempt to parse reality. The artistic offerings I saw in the course of merely the second day of the forum reflected the vast range of subgenres within ethnodrama. (In his seminal book on the subject, Ethnodrama: An Anthology of Reality Theatre Saldaña identifies more than eighty terms that can be applied.) I spoke with the chair of the forum, Joe Salvatore, clinical associate professor of educational theatre at New York University’s Steinhardt School, who said the performances along with papers and workshops digging into the what, how, and why of ethnodrama, ultimately raised a larger question for him: “What is ‘a play’?”

Salvatore’s own most recent ethnodrama, Her Opponent, just closed at the Jerry Orbach Theater at the Snapple Theater Center in New York. An early staging was presented at NYU in February, and for that event Salvatore embraced the term ethnodrama. Yet when moving Off-Broadway, he found that “documentary theatre” made more sense to theatregoers than the more academic term. Her Opponent is, regardless of what the press release says, ethnodrama. It restages excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates with gender-reversed casting in an attempt to understand how reception of the two major candidates was influenced by gender. Salvatore and his partner-in-creation, Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD, discovered that their experiment reveals as much about politics in general as it does about gender.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one thirty-five-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s technique, in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. Trump’s character is known as Brenda King, and Clinton’s as Jonathan Gordon. A twenty-five-minute post-show discussion follows the performance, in which Guadalupe and Salvatore have been continually amazed to find that even as a woman, the Trump character still comes out the favorite.

Audiences are finding King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they find Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacks, Gordon doesn’t fight back; she just nods and smiles. In the body of a man, this response is disconcerting at best and, at worst, at least one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

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Rachel Tuggle Whorton as Brenda King and Daryl Embry as Jonathan Gordon. Photo by Justin Rogers / One March Photography.

At the performance of the off-Broadway production that I saw, audience responses largely repeated these same tropes: Gordon was received as too wonky and phony, while King was easier to understand and more emotionally appealing.

Emotions ran strong in everyone’s responses, with one audience member going so far as to call the performance a “horror show” that felt like a “slow-motion replay of a murder.” Guadalupe, who moderated the discussion, noted that these emotional responses might stem from the fact that this is a theatrical performance and not a real debate. In other words, there are no real world consequences for policy or governance for an audience watching Her Opponent, only the space and time to revisit the election with a little distance, with that distance being provided not only by the passage of time but also by the gender-flipped casting. As with Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect, the emotions of Her Opponent’s audiences are not removed from the equation by this distance, but are, rather, heightened.

Audience members note that King, not being a man, is less threatening than Trump, which allows them to see Trump’s pacing less as stalking and more like a toddler on the verge of a tantrum. The fact that he simply exercised much more ownership of the space than she did also becomes more apparent when the threat is removed. Audiences also note Gordon’s tendency to use uptalk—a feminine tendency to use an upward inflection at the end of a sentence, a tactic we use in order to invite a response from our listener—when they had never noticed it in Clinton before. It was always there, but only once embodied in a man did it come into stark relief.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that some audience members assume that the actor playing Gordon has been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. In reality he has not been directed that way; that impression arises purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

All of these responses reveal that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.

Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she likely has been told all of her life to smile more. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it doesn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King—a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump—may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as bitches.

Aside from the performance of gender, what becomes crushingly clear from this experiment is that even when the debate has real-world consequences in terms of policies and governing, voters are swayed as much by their emotions as by which candidate’s positions they agree with. In a fascinating twist, Salvatore told me that multiple female audience members have been shocked by their dislike of Gordon and their like of King and have realized as a result that perhaps they give women candidates a free pass because they want to have more elected women in government. Indeed, I heard this very comment the night I attended the performance.

One other audience response has fascinated Salvatore: On Show-Score the audience reviews have been largely positive, but even the people who liked it the most have said, “But…it’s not a play.”

What, then, is a play? Does everything have to be entirely made up for the show to be a play? Under that rubric, even Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by Lynn Nottage and the Broadway hit Indecent by Paula Vogel would not count as plays, as they are firmly based in research.

Just as the term ethnodrama includes at least eighty subgenres, the idea of “a play” needs to be thought of as broadly containing many types of performance. In today’s post-truth world, no doubt we need as many of them as we can collectively muster. In fact, I would argue that ethnodrama, as a kind of play, might be the perfect mode of theatre to meet the moment. If the excitement around Sweat and Indecent tells us anything, it’s that audiences are hungry for theatre that tells them the truth about our past and our present, and this is exactly what ethnodrama aims to do.

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photo by Richard Termine

In the aftermath of the presidential election, economist and political science professor Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD wondered, like so many people, whether Clinton would have lost if she were man and whether Trump could have won had he been a woman. Hypothesizing that in a gender-flipped race, Clinton would have come out the winner, she devised an experiment: To restage the debates with the roles flipped, so that Trump is a woman who not only said everything Trump did, but also acted the same way he did, with Hillary becoming a man who spoke and acted just like her. Guadalupe turned to NYU professor Joe Salvatore to direct while she created the script for Her Opponent, a debate between Brenda King (a female version of Trump) and Jonathan Gordon (a male version of Clinton), performed on January 28.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one 35-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s ethnodramatic technique in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. A 25-minute post-show discussion followed in which Guadalupe and Salvatore were amazed to find that even as a woman, Trump still came out the favorite.

In the discussion and in an online survey completed later, audiences found King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they found Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacked, Gordon didn’t fight back; she just nodded and smiled. In the body of a man, this response was disconcerting at best and at worst, one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

Cut to one-month later and an article about the show on NYU’s news page goes viral. Salvatore is drowned in press inquiries and requests to see the footage they captured when they filmed the performance. Much of the coverage is from right-wing sites and individual bloggers, where they rejoice that two liberals were proved so wrong by their own endeavor. This proves, they argue, that Trump’s win was not the result of sexism but rather of the strength of his message and the inherent unlikability of Clinton.

That Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis was wrong does not, by itself, prove that Trump deserved to win. Rather, it shows that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that audiences assumed that the actor playing Gordon had been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. (Commenters on right-wing websites that picked up the story were thrilled to call him a faggot.) In reality he had not been directed that way; that impression arose purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she has probably been told all of her life to smile more, and even planned when to smile during the debates. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it didn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King – a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump – may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as a bitch.

Guadalupe and Salvatore are remounting the experiment for an off-Broadway run beginning March 22 at the Jerry Orbach Theater and are working on a film that replicates, shot by shot, the debate broadcast. They hope that the discussions after the next round of performances can help them further unpack why Gordon’s femininity was quite so off-putting and how even people who reject Trump’s policies could have found themselves inclined to vote for King, whose policies are exactly the same, rather than Gordon, whom they had in many cases already voted for in the form of Clinton.

Guadalupe told me that her theory is that their experiment says nothing about the appeal of the two candidates’ platforms, because when audiences watch a play instead of an actual debate with real world consequences, they are free to react almost entirely emotionally rather than intellectually. She believes that this decontextualization reveals not the power of Trump’s ideas but rather the power of the way he conveys them. The film, she hopes, can be used as a teaching tool, whether in political science or gender studies classes, to show how deeply reception of content is shaped by context.

Though Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis that Clinton would have would won were she a man was wrong, their experiment still proved that it is sexist assumptions – in this case, the one that women can be liked only when they act super feminine – that brought her down. Had Clinton had the liberty Trump had to act in a manner as bold as her ideas, or had Trump been forced by coaching to smile the whole time and nod even as his opponent beat the crap out of him, the election might have turned out differently. Trump didn’t win based on the power of his message, nor did Clinton loose on the issues. Trump won because he came across as the most direct, strong, and yes, masculine, candidate.

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Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame in Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Intelligence at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, February 24-April 9, 2017. Photo by Tony Powell.

Originally published by HowlRound on February 24, 2017.

Exactly eight days after Donald Trump was elected president, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth”—defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—as 2016’s international word of the year, citing a 2000 percent increase in usage compared with 2015.

However, those of us who followed the second Bush administration closely became familiar with what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” much earlier. The sixteen words George W. Bush used in the 2003 State of the Union address, for example, claiming that Saddam Hussein had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” could have been called a lie, but, given that Bush says he believed they were true when he spoke them, they have instead gone down in history as “contested.” As playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton explores in her new play Intelligence, the ensuing Plamegate scandal—involving the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame—was full of its own deep truths not just about American politics but also about life in America at the time.

Our audiences were flocking to—hungry for—stories about politics and power in the whole diversity of how those are told—drama, musicals, all of that. These were the stories we were seeing our communities be inspired by. I think we’re all really hungry to understand who we are as Americans, in all of the delicious complexity, contradiction, beauty, and joy that that identifier can hold.

Lawton’s play is inspired by real events …

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Originally published on HowlRound on September 10, 2016

The original idea behind Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle was to commission a new play for every American president. But when Artistic Director Bill Rauch brought in his longtime colleague from Cornerstone Theatre Company, Alison Carey, to direct the program, she steered it towards a more inherently dramatic premise: To commission thirty-seven new plays about a moment of change in American history. Associate director of the program, Julie Felise Dubiner, told me she thinks the idea is working because “it lets playwrights follow their passions and that moment-of-change imperative implies dramatic action.”

Lisa Loomer and Bill Rauch in rehearsal. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

If the number thirty-seven sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the number of plays generally accepted as written by Shakespeare. According to Rauch, “Both canons—Shakespeare’s and our American Revolutions plays—are composed of relatively large-cast epics that employ a variety of tonal and stylistic devices.” But, he added that the new plays offer at least one very important thing that Shakespeare’s plays are missing:

As a large classical theatre, with the overwhelming preponderance of male playwrights in the classical canon, we have to work even harder to include women’s voices in the work that we commission ourselves. Women are the majority of ticket-buyers, theatre attendees, and of course the population of the world in general. Our field’s lack of respect for gender equity is appalling.

Dubiner agrees that choosing which playwrights to commission has been at least partly a product of their desire to diversify their stages:

There’s a specific way of handling plot and drama, there’s a specific type of passion for history, there’s the kind of passion someone needs for character when writing a history play. And we are deeply committed to the idea that, when we’re done, we will have created diversity in every way—diversity of ethnicity and religion and gender as well as of style and storytelling.

Other than three targeted commissions, the American Revolutions Cycle has allowed playwrights to choose the moment of change about which they want to write. The process has been guided by what Dubiner calls “passive curation,” in which the theatre brings the writers together to talk to each other about their projects, ensuring as little overlap as possible. The program has yielded instant classics, like Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, about LBJ passing the Civil Rights Law and running for reelection, which became a Broadway show and an HBO special, and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat about the deindustrialization of America, which was a co-commission and co-production with Arena Stage. Currently on OSF’s boards, audiences can find Lisa Loomer’s rollercoaster ride of a play about reproductive rights, Roe, directed by Rauch.

Roe begins just before the meeting of Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade, and Norma McCorvey, the woman who is usually known as Jane Roe. It tells the story of the case, the relationship between the two women, and the dramatic changes that McCorvey has undergone in her life, right up to the present. In fact, for a history play, the piece is very much a product of its current moment—Loomer even wrote a new line based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the Court ruled that Texas cannot place restrictions on the delivery of abortion services that create an undue burden for women seeking an abortion.

Operation Rescue member Ronda Mackey (Amy Newman, center) tries to convince a woman (Gina Daniels) not to have an abortion at the clinic where Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) works. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Neither Loomer nor Rauch initially realized that they had chosen a moment of change that not only makes a great story, with a number of little known twists and turns, but also provides opportunities for all kinds of diversity in addition to great roles for women. In fact, they didn’t know a lot about their topic when they started out. Rauch told me that,

Before directing this play I knew very little about the history including the divergent paths of Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey. Some of my colleagues at OSF also helped educate me about the role women of color in particular played in the battle for reproductive rights justice.

Loomer echoed those sentiments:

When I began to do research, I did not know the points of Blackmun’s decision, which have come to influence subsequent cases on abortion. I did not know that Sarah Weddington clearly stated, at twenty-six, in the Supreme Court, that she was not advocating abortion, she was not saying that it was “good” or “bad.” She was advocating choice. Something else that surprised me was how race and class are bound up in the larger subject of reproductive rights. In the very first moments of the play, one of the protagonists says that one’s account of “history” is colored by factors such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. This idea is a predominant theme in the play and I saw it played out again and again in my research.

Like the creators of the show, the audience for Roe might leave knowing a lot more about Roe than they came in knowing. They will discover, for example, that the Roe baby was McCorvey’s third child, but before that pregnancy, she had never even heard of abortion. With the third child, she tried to self-abort but failed, and, as the case took its time making its way through the courts, “Roe” eventually gave birth and gave the baby up in a closed adoption. Two weeks after giving birth, McCorvey tried to commit suicide. Audiences might also be surprised to learn how prominent a role women of color play in the reproductive rights movement and to see those women onstage alongside their white feminist counterparts.

Informed by all of this, Loomer has written a play that refuses to oversimplify what is obviously a very complex topic. Using a variety of structural components, such as narration, direct address, and on stage costume changes; other actors staying on stage to observe and help with transitions; projections; and suggestive props and costumes, Loomer has intricately depicted not just the complexity of the story, but also the complexity of telling a complex story.

The larger structure of the play is that of a memory, created by the characters beginning the play in the present, telling the audience who they are and what they’re going to be reenacting for us, and ending the play back in the present. These bookends dramatize the idea that memories, the material out of which history is made, are themselves imperfect and often contradictory. References to a variety of sources, such as books, historians, obituaries, and Wikipedia, remind the audience that even with a great deal of research, history is still a product of a many different forces and not fully understandable from any one point of view. An accompanying stylistic blurring of reality, especially in the scenes in which McCorvey is using drugs and drinking, reminds us that reality itself, at any given moment, might not be what we think it is.

This combination of epic devices, the structure of a memory, moments of surrealism, and a focus on the character of Roe all keep Roe from being didactic docudrama. In fact, Loomer and Rauch have been pleasantly surprised by how much empathy the audience feels for Norma, given her difficult life and sometimes questionable choices. Loomer says this came from her desire not to oversimplify:

A man I respect a great deal and conferred with, Father Greg Boyle, talks about the value of having a “reverence for the complexity of human beings.” What surprised me in my research, what never ceases to surprise me, is how complex we are. When you see that … well, for me at least, it’s the beginning of compassion. Even compassion for “the other side.”

Nevertheless, abortion itself is such a polarizing topic that OSF planned ahead for the potentiality of pushback and/or emotional responses to the play. They sought and received a grant from the General William Mayer Foundation to bring in a trainer to help them create emergency protocols and procedures to deal with, for example, a company or an audience member being triggered. Most of OSF’s post-show discussions are led by actors, but with Roe, the company decided to also always have a staff member from the education department or the Revolutions Cycle there to field questions that the actors might not want to or be able to address. Oregon is an open carry state, so OSF made sure to clearly define that patrons cannot bring guns into theatre.

Connie Gonzalez (Catherine Castellanos, left), and Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) find love and stability, two things that have been hard to come by in her life. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Dubiner says most of these measures will remain in place as part of a larger effort to practice good “company and audience care” and better engage in all kinds of dialogue. In fact, though the connection has not been explicit, Dubiner sees this training as part and parcel of the work the theatre is doing on diversity, which also involves a lot of trainers, and is essentially about answering the question, “How do we talk to one another?”

What better play to do this work around than Roe, a play on a topic about which America has almost completely lost the ability to dialogue? Loomer says she gets letters every day from patrons telling her the ways in which seeing the play enabled them to talk about abortion, sometimes for the first time:

One woman who is “pro life” told me that she talked about the issues with a “pro choice” friend on the car ride back from Oregon to California. They had never broached the subject before. It is my hope to get people talking. In this country, we yell, we obstruct, we wave placards. We don’t talk.

Perhaps the quality of the play’s dialogue and the dialogue it creates are a result of how much dialogue went into writing the play and mounting the production. The American Revolutions Cycle was able to support Loomer on a research trip to the University of Texas at Austin where she did a reading of the play, solicited feedback from students, attended women’s studies classes, and otherwise engaged with the people and culture about which she was writing. Moreover, the production itself is a three-way co-production with Arena Stage and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, necessitating an additional layer of dialogue between three different institutions in three different cities.

In fact, all of the American Revolutions productions have been produced or presented elsewhere by design. Knowing that it may take quite some time to produce thirty-seven plays, the Cycle has been encouraging playwrights to identify where their home theatres are (or where they wish they were). Then the theatre reaches out on their behalf, ensuring that writers are getting the opportunity to work with people they want to work with and to have their plays seen by a wider audience.

The level of complexity involved in producing Roe was present in Loomer’s writing process as well, and she is celebrating that:

The more I thought about the issues in the play, the more I questioned why we want to take what is complex, what is difficult in life, and make it simple. Why should it be easy?

My guess is that none of the American Revolutions Cycle plays make history especially easy—because history is not, in fact, easy—but they do make it dramatic, present, and human. Rauch put it simply:

In these crazy political times, [these plays] are a reminder that who we are as a country and the choices we make are important and impactful, and will be affecting the lives of Americans for decades, if not centuries to come. Countries and their histories are serious business, and we treat them with the importance they deserve.

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