The year is 2063 and American President Thom Valentine—the first openly gay head of state—is facing some tough times.
A massive flood has submerged the Eastern seaboard, driving the population into the heartland. Its economy crippled, America accepts a financial bailout from the British and reverts to monarchial titles in deference. The White House leadership dons crowns and capes. The First Gentleman enjoys a salacious affair with the royal butler, who happens to be a human clone.
In the American West, clashes over Cotton XP, a newly discovered and highly lucrative natural resource, threaten imminent civil war. Lacking means for an army, America calls in the world’s greatest superpower—The United African Nations—to act as peacekeepers. But will the promised riches of Cotton XP turn these peacekeepers into conquerors?
And I haven’t even told you about the zombies yet.
A few years ago, Katie Cappiello posed a seemingly simple question to a group of teenage girls. Alongside Meg McInerney, Cappiello is the founder of the Arts Effect NYC, an acting training program. The girls, part of the program's female empowerment arm, had just returned from winter break, so Cappiello asked them about their vacation.
She didn't get the response she was expecting. "We started noticing that the word slut was coming up a lot," Cappiello says.
The girls, ages 14 to 17, were using the word in different ways. Slut referred to friends who had consensual sex, but also to those who had been sexually assaulted. The girls used it to describe others, but also to describe themselves.
Cappiello decided to build a whole project around the word. She started listening to the girls' stories and typing them up. With her students, she wrote SLUT: The Play--about a 16-year-old girl who's sexually assaulted by three guy friends, and the backlash that follows. Slut debuted in New York in February 2013, with the same teenage girls who helped develop the project as its actresses.
It's more than just a play, however. A mix of theater and activism, Slut hopes to put an end to sexual assault and "slut-shaming"--the act of chastising women for their sexual practices and beliefs. Since the play's debut, Cappiello and McInerney have launched a "StopSlut" movement and are pushing for legislative change. They hope to get a law passed that requires sexual consent education in every high school across the country.
They're already in with the right people. After getting attention from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Amy Poehler, Cappiello is preparing for Slut's Washington premiere. On May 19 at the Warner Theatre, theatergoers will catch a glimpse of Beau Willimon, the creator of House of Cards and a big supporter of the project, who will be speaking alongside US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive, and others.
Willimon is no stranger to sexual-assault advocacy. He became particularly interested in the subject after watching The Invisible War, the documentary that inspired the military sexual-assault storyline in Season 2 of House of Cards. "I grew up on naval bases. That sort of crime was going on without me being aware. It was shocking," he says.
He had a similar reaction to the play. "When I saw the play in New York, I was deeply moved and angered," he says. "I wanted to get involved in any way I could."
That's when he started helping Cappiello and McInerney out. They organized an event in Washington that could attract policymakers to the issue of sexual assault. "He's not only a feminist, but he's also a playwright at heart," Cappiello says. "He has been involved in every step of the way--from how to brainstorm to how to reach lawmakers to putting us in touch with the network he has in Maryland and in DC."
The play has gotten a lot of attention everywhere it has shown--including the Midwest, where Cappiello says lines formed down the block. In Boston, however, Slut got a different type of attention. "We were a little surprised by the resistance in such a liberal place," Cappiello says. The reason? A lot of people don't want to have a conversation about sexuality, Cappiello explains, especially because problems can start as early as fifth or sixth grade.
"The first time girls are sexually shamed comes when they're 10 or 11 years old, when they're called a slut or a whore by a boy or girl in class," Cappiello says. "It becomes uncomfortable for people to talk about. This culture is touching our kids when they're young, and it's hard for parents to acknowledge that."
Cappiello cites sex education classes as an example. Students say they're taught how to use condoms at school, but there's no talk about consent or the nuisances of rape. "We're still talking about the mechanics, not the dynamics," Cappiello says. "People say this conversation is inappropriate yet all the young people in the community are hungry for it."
Watch SLUT: The Play on Tuesday, May 19 at the Warner Theatre at 7 PM, featuring a talk with Beau Willimon, creator of House of Cards, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, Sherelle Hessell Gordon, executive director of DC Rape Crisis Center, Jennifer Baumgardner, executive director of the Feminist Press, and the directors and actors from the show. Tickets are free for students and cost $20 for adults.
Tributes for the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's death at Ford's Theatre started at 9 AM on Tuesday morning and continued until Wednesday at 4:30 PM. In between, there were events best suited for insomniacs: a museum walk-through at 4 AM, a wreath-laying ceremony at 7, and reenactments all through the night. This Washingtonian reporter got up a few hours before sunrise to bear witness to these historic moments. Here's a play-by-play of what we saw.
4:48 AM: 10th Street Northwest is bustling. Outside of Ford’s Theatre, about 50 tourists have gathered around the exact spot where Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago. Meanwhile, right in the middle of the empty road, a couple wearing matching North Face jackets and sweatpants chats with a yawning Mary Todd Lincoln reenactor. National Park Service rangers are handing out replica newspapers from April 15th, 1865, and the Federal City Brass Band is tuning their instruments for a performance of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Inside, a full staff of docents and ushers are hurrying people along, trying their hardest to remain attentive despite having worked through the night. A sparse collection of tourists is inside the theater. A very audible and persistent docent stands in front of the stage and says to a young boy: “John Wilkes Booth was a real swashbuckler!”
In the balcony's front row, a gray-haired man is fast asleep. Next to the president’s box are two Union Army reenactors from Philadelphia. Robert Hicks, director of the Mütter Museum & Historical Medical Library, is dressed as a Union Army surgeon. Why is he here so early? “We felt it was the right place to be,” he says. His companion, Robert Fuller Houston, is a reenactor in the 3rd Regiment United States Colored Troops, a tribute to African-American Civil War veterans. Houston claims he's a descendent of James Booth, a slave to John Wilkes Booth's Baltimore estate. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he exclaims. “This all blew my mind, but I’m very tired, kind of groggy.”
A tourist asks Hicks and Houston to take a picture with his son, next to the presidential box where Lincoln was shot. Houston then returns to his seat. “I’m trying to catch a little sleep here now,” he says.
6:30 AM: It's sunrise. Local news crews and morning joggers have populated the street, right alongside men and women in period costumes. The Petersen House is running its final tour. A docent explains the debate over Edwin Stanton’s famous quote, which followed Lincoln’s last breath. Was it, “Now he belongs to the ages”? Or “Now he belongs to the angels”? “Either sounds good to me!” the guide concludes.
7 AM: A Union Army soldier reenactor in full garb is leaving the Cosi at the corner of 10th and E Streets Northwest. Service members from the USS Abraham Lincoln, a US Navy aircraft carrier, begin to form a line. An assortment of Civil War figures stand across from them holding candles. It's hard not to be moved by this kind of Civil War buff solidarity.
7:20 AM: A man at the top of the steps outside Petersen House reads the original announcement detailing Lincoln’s deteriorating condition--his collapsing pulse and bloodshot eyes. Actor David Selby reads, “O Captain! My Captain!” US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell speaks about the importance of this day, proclaiming “Lincoln belongs to us.” Color Guard members lead a procession that ends with the laying of a wreath at 7:22, the exact moment Lincoln stopped breathing. Dr. Hicks, my pal from the theater, is now proudly standing in the center of the action. All appear awed by how shattering this must have felt 150 years ago.
For the past four decades, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has traveled the country, interviewing politicians, journalists, and prison inmates, among others. These characters later become fodder for her plays. “I was very influenced by something my grandfather said when I was little, which is, 'If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.' In some ways I would say that I’ve been trying to become America one person at a time,” Smith says. “Everyone I talk to is drop-by-drop helping me increase my understanding.”
On Monday, Smith—who is known for her roles in the West Wing and Nurse Jackie—will perform several of her real-life characters for this year’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Kennedy Center. Every year, the lecture celebrates the federal government’s highest honor for accomplishment in the humanities. The free event, which has featured cultural figures like Wendell Berry and John Updike in the past, gives speakers a platform to discuss their careers, ideas, and influences. Smith, a champion of stories told from the perspective of many, will use the stage to showcase her unique style of theater.
Smith's monologues are drawn word-for-word from interviews—a form known as "verbatim theatre." For the lecture, she had to narrow down thousands of recordings and select only a very few. “I just want us all to think about the best in what we are. I think of each one of these people as a champion of our values,” she says.
Smith’s most famous plays have focused on historical conflicts—like the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, or the schism between the Orthodox Jewish and black communities in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the 1990s. Through her work, Smith explores the American desire to build a better country. "Even if they seem to be critical about something in our country, many of us believe that this more perfect union is possible,” she adds.
For her next venture—the Pipeline Project—Smith draws attention to another issue: the disproportionate number of young people of color who are suspended from school and later end up in prison. Statistics, she says, say "these young people will end up, at least for part of their lives, incarcerated,” she says. “What does that mean in terms of the talent we’re putting behind bars? What does it mean not just economically and politically, but what does it mean morally, spiritually?
“When I was growing up, there was a great belief in all of our potential, even though we couldn’t go certain places. I pretty much lived in and grew up in an almost entirely African American community,” Smith continues. “How did we lose that part of the dream?”
Though she has spent her career bringing light to racial and cultural issues, Smith says she's still focused on working primarily as an actress and writer, rather than a policymaker. “As a theater artist I just want to draw attention" to these issues, Smith says.
Tickets for Smith’s lecture “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” are free, but reservations are fully booked. The National Endowment for the Humanities, who hosts the lecture, will release stand-by tickets at 7:20 pm the night of the lecture.
When Round House Theatre artistic director Ryan Rilette approached Joy Zinoman about a role in a new production of Uncle Vanya, she laughed and dismissed the idea. After all, Zinoman hadn't been on that side of the footlights for 40 years.
Zinoman, who left Studio Theatre in 2010 after 35 years as its founding artistic director, admits that she scoped out director John Vreeke and read the script, a contemporary adaptation of Chekov's play by Annie Baker. Adding to lure of the offer: Zinoman's close friend, actress Nancy Robinette, who appeared in all four of Studio's Chekov productions, had already been cast.
But Zinoman still had doubts about her ability to pull off the role of Vanya's mother, Maria Vasilyevna Voynitskaya, despite her family's encouragement. She has been teaching acting for four decades--she still leads the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, which is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary--but the 72-year-old's last acting gig was a star turn in the New Playwright's Theater production of Penelope, directed by Molly Smith, then her classmate in grad school at American University.
Finally, what motivated Zinoman was her own advice: "I've told thousands of students, 'You have to put yourself out there,'" she says.
As a child in Chicago, Zinoman got a suggestion from a neighbor subjected to her repeated over-enthusiastic, off-key piano practices: Maybe she should pursue a different artistic endeavor. She started acting at 9, and as soon as she found roles in industrial films, commercials, and local productions, Zinoman "knew immediately" that she had found her true calling. "I felt at home. It made me," she says.
The budding actress won an acting scholarship to Northwestern University at 16 and left to get married two years later. Her husband Murray was a China scholar in the Foreign Service. The Zinomans spent 13 years in Asia. Joy Zinoman had opportunities to teach acting and direct theater in Thailand, Laos, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
These experiences, alas, didn't help her land a job in Washington. "I took my résumé to every theater and they laughed," she recalls. American University accepted her into their graduate theater program, despite the fact that she didn't have a bachelor's degree. From there she started to teach, started her acting school, and three years later, co-founded the Studio Theatre on 14th and P streets, Northwest. (The curriculum she developed in Asia would become the basis for the conservatory.)
There went the neighborhood--in reverse. Zinoman is widely credited with sparking the rebirth of the 14th Street corridor. The once trash-strewn streets are now home to million-dollar condos, upscale restaurants, and boutiques. Today Studio Theatre is a three-theater complex with a multimillion-dollar annual budget.
Will Uncle Vanya be the start of a new acting career? "I just want to get through this run," she says. Acting again has given her renewed respect for her students, Zinoman says. "I knew, but I forgot, how hard it is to be an actor. The low pay. Being on call all of the time. But I also rediscovered how wonderful it is to be in a rehearsal room as a community of artists."
Round House Theatre's production of Uncle Vanya opens April 8.
On Monday evening, a group of local theater notables gathered at the National Theatre to announce the nominees for the 2015 Helen Hayes Awards. Of the 50 theaters and 188 productions that met eligibility requirements, 264 actors, ensembles, and productions received nods, representing 31 theaters. Leading the pack with 28 moninations is Arlington's financially troubled Signature Theatre—the top productions were Beaches and The Threepenny Opera with seven each and Sunday in the Park With George, with six nods. Synetic, also in Arlington, wasn't too far behind with 23 noms—its movement-based production of Twelfth Night garnered an impressive 11 nominations, tying with Theater Alliance's Black Nativity, Imagination Stage's The BFG, and Spamalot at Toby's Dinner Theatre for highest number of nominations per production. Six companies earned their first-ever nominations: No Rules Theatre Company, which led the newbie contingent with six nods, followed by Factory 449 with four, Landless Theatre Company and Unexpected Stage Company with three each, Creative Cauldron with two, and Molotov Theatre Group with one. Among those at the tail end was the National Theatre, which hosted the nomination announcements and received a single nod for its holiday production of Pippin.
This year the awards, now in their 32nd year, are divided into two categories—“Hayes,” which include primarily Equity shows, and “Helen” for mainly non-Equity productions. The awards ceremony will be held Monday, April 6. Read on for a full list of the nominees; you can also watch the nomination announcements via webcast.
America has never quite made up its mind about Mary Todd Lincoln. Honest Abe was a hero. His wife, on the other hand, has been variously accused of being bipolar, overly decadent, a Confederate supporter, and a rube. January 23 through February 22, Ford’s Theatre offers a fresh perspective on the Civil War’s most famous spouse with the world premiere of The Widow Lincoln, written by James Still and directed by Stephen Rayne.
The two first collaborated in 2009 on Ford’s The Heavens Are Hung in Black, about the President during the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Rayne says he and Still had always planned a follow-up, which evolved into the story of Lincoln’s widow, whom Rayne sees as “one of the most maligned and misrepresented women in history.”
The play—featuring an all-female cast—stretches across a 40-day period after Lincoln’s assassination in which Mary shut herself in a room in the White House and refused the company of all but a trusted few. Still’s work, while based in fact, isn’t a retelling of history but, Rayne says, “an imagining of what occurred psychologically during that period and what happened that ultimately led to her being able to leave the room.”
It might seem counterintuitive for a drama about a woman’s innermost thoughts to come from two men, but Rayne says his and Still’s perspectives provided a good balance; workshopping the play with women scholars and actors also helped. And though Widow chronicles a devastating period in Mrs. Lincoln’s life, it also reflects that “she was an extremely ebullient, lively, intelligent, witty woman,” says Rayne.
Ultimately, the director thinks focusing on Mary Todd Lincoln helps paint a richer portrait of the former President. “His wife was the person who grieved him the most on a personal level,” he says. The Widow Lincoln will, he hopes, help audiences “understand him better through understanding her.”
Tickets ($15 to $62) are available through Ford's Theatre's website.
Made for $5 million by first-time director Barry Levinson, the 1982 comedy Diner introduced a loquacious, improvisational style that laid the groundwork for such successors as Seinfeld and Judd Apatow’s oeuvre. Now Levinson, with singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow and director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, is reinventing the cult hit as a musical, which has its world premiere at Signature Theatre December 9 through January 25.
The story, about a group of twentysomething male friends in 1959 Baltimore who reunite for a wedding, has autobiographical elements—Levinson grew up in Baltimore—which helped keep the characters fresh in the writer/director’s mind. While the musical is largely faithful to the original, fans will notice differences, including more developed female characters. Levinson’s goal was to expand the film’s universe: “I’m not that interested in simply doing Diner, because I already did it. The challenge was to see if we could create something above and beyond what we did.”
He began discussing the musical with Crow and Marshall more than three years ago, and plans for a 2012 San Francisco premiere and a Broadway run last year were canceled. Still, Levinson has embraced the ups and downs of his first theatrical production, including ceding a movie director’s tight grip on every element. “With a film, you control it, period,” he says. “Onstage, you have other entities you work with, so it’s a different process.” On the plus side, “in a movie, once you finish a scene, you move on, but here I can keep revisiting certain things.”
Despite his Washington ties (he graduated from American University and worked at Channel 9 and Channel 5), he says premiering Diner at Signature is merely a coincidence. As for his hopes for the inaugural run: “The ideal reaction would be ‘Quick, get this to Broadway as fast as you can.’ We’ll play in Washington, do the tweaking and all the things that happen when a musical is getting up on its feet, and see where we go from there.”
Tickets ($40 to $105) are available online.
This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
OPENING THIS MONTH
At Round House Bethesda through December 28 is a musical version of The Nutcracker, complete with puppets.
Beginning December 2 at Shakespeare Theatre, Ethan McSweeny directs the Bard’s magical comedy The Tempest, with Helen Hayes Award winner Geraint Wyn Davies as the sorcerer Prospero. Through January 15. Don’t forget the theater is now giving away 1,000 free tickets per production; here’s how to snag them for yourself.
Synetic Theater presents a movement-driven adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, directed by company member Ben Cunis, that goes back to the French fairy tale’s darker roots. December 3 through January 11.
The Virginia Opera celebrates its 40th anniversary at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts with a production of H.M.S. Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan’s first big international success. Director Nicola Bowie makes her debut with the opera. December 5 and 6.
A Drag Salute to Motown Review, created by former America’s Got Talent contestant Shi-Queeta-Lee, comprises familiar tunes by Diana Ross, Rick James, the Temptations, and more brought to life by local drag performers. December 7 at Howard Theatre.
Famous Puppet Death Scenes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is pretty much just what the title says: Calgary’s playful Old Trout Puppet Workshop presents death scenes “culled from the absolute best puppet shows in history.” The company promises the show will, among other benefits, “cure your fear of death.” December 9 through January 4.
Beginning December 10 at Studio Theatre is Terminus, a supernatural work by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe (which won a Scotsman Fringe First Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe) that follows three characters over one frightening night in Dublin. Through January 4.
Want something different from your Dickens this year? WSC Avant Bard—performing at Theater J—offers A Klingon Christmas Carol, a staged reading of the classic tale in the fictional Star Trek language, with English supertitles. December 15.
At the National Theatre December 16 through January 4 is Pippin, the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical. Directed by Diane Paulus (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), it tells of a young prince on a journey of self-discovery.
Andy Blankenbuehler, a Tony winner for Broadway’s In the Heights, directs and choreographs the Biblical musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Kennedy Center. This touring production stars husband-and-wife American Idol alums Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo. December 16 through January 4.
Julius Caesar is at Folger Theatre until December 7.
Sex With Strangers closes December 7 at Signature Theatre.
As You Like It closes December 14 at Shakespeare Theatre.
Bad Jews is at Studio Theatre until December 21.
A Broadway Christmas Carol is at MetroStage until December 28.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid closes December 28 at Olney Theatre.
Five Guys Named Moe is at Arena Stage until December 28.
One Man Two Guvnors closes December 28 at 1st Stage.
The Gift of Nothing is at the Kennedy Center until December 28.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is at Theater J until December 28.
A Christmas Carol runs through January 1 at Ford’s Theatre.
Improv requires quick thinking and a willingness to follow a story wherever it goes. But creating an entire 75-minute play—in Elizabethan English? That's the gist of the Improvised Shakespeare Company, an all-male troupe that comes to Artisphere December 5 and 6.
ISC specializes in Bard-style plays inspired by a single audience suggestion. Recent prompts have included riffs on existing works—"Henry V Element," "Richard III Part 12"—as well as topics such as "Justin Bieber." Founder Blaine Swen lends authenticity by assigning actors to read Shakespeare plays, quizzing them on vocabulary, and arranging seminars with professors from Chicago's Loyola University, where he studied. While shows don't adhere strictly to iambic pentameter, he says the actors often fall into rhyming couplets that approximate the rhythm.
Cast member Joey Bland appreciates the structure: "We serve the improv gods before the Shakespeare gods, but having the canon to look back at gives us a shorthand, something to play to or against."
Swen founded the group in 2005, and Thomas Middleditch, now the star of TV's Silicon Valley, was an original member. They began with a five-show run on the student stage at Second City, the improv training ground, and by 2006 they had a regular gig at Chicago's iO Theater, still their base.
The cast now numbers 19, allowing for three home shows a week plus about 100 days of touring a year. Swen hopes to expand the touring schedule, and Chicago performances have gotten a boost lately thanks to occasional collaborations with a big name—Patrick Stewart, whom Bland met on another project. Despite such a heavyweight actor's involvement, Swen emphasizes that humor is the bottom line: "Some people get put off by the word 'Shakespeare' because they think it's going to be too highbrow, but it's definitely often lowbrow. Though the show goes off the rails all the time, it always comes together—that's the excitement of it."