For Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington’s Theater J, it was a no-brainer. As an offering in the company’s upcoming season, he’d been mulling “Sotto Voce,” a play by the Pulitzer-winning Nilo Cruz concerning the SS St. Louis, a German ocean liner filled with hundreds of Jewish refugees, that at the start of World War II was turned away by the United States and other nations. As a result, many of its passengers wound up back in Europe, and ultimately in concentration camps.
Then the Trump administration announced its plan for a temporary ban on refugees and on people from seven majority-Muslim countries. And staging the play went in Immerwahr’s mind from intriguing to imperative.
“The theme of the refugee crisis is not a new one,” the artistic director said. “And it’s a huge issue in Europe. So it felt to me that, as a Jewish institution, it was an important contender for our season — and then, really recently, it solidified its spot. It felt like we had to get it produced as soon as possible.”
That sense of urgency has begun to take hold at any number of theaters across the Washington region and the country, as artistic directors and theater producers — positioning themselves as first responders in a time of political and humanitarian upheaval — grapple with how to jump-start a current-events conversation with audiences, sparked by the controversies that President Trump’s initial actions have stirred.
Although theater companies and commercial producers sometimes plan years ahead, some schedules are being shuffled and new projects inserted far more rapidly than normal. The response is only beginning to take shape, but in the coming months and perhaps years, it has the potential to propel the theater community into politics with an intensity not seen since the 1960s, when opposition to the Vietnam War inspired a library full of antiwar plays and musicals.
While Theater J will push up “Sotto Voce” to its opening slot for 2017-18, Silver Spring’s Forum Theatre is moving even more quickly. This spring, the company has decided swiftly to add to its calendar “Building the Wall,” by Robert Schenkkan, the Tony-winning author of the procedural drama about Lyndon B. Johnson, “All the Way.”
The two-character piece, the dystopian story of a terrorist attack that triggers the imprisonment of millions of immigrants, is hot off Schenkkan’s computer. Interest around the country is so intense that the work, supported by the Washington-based National New Play Network, already has been scooped up by Los Angeles’s Fountain Theatre, Denver’s Curious Theatre and Tucson’s Borderlands Theater, which also plan to present the play in the coming months. Michael Dove, Forum’s artistic director, says that he’s hoping to mount “Building the Wall” in April in a space he can find in the District. “Things are moving quickly,” Dove said, “and we all want to get this up as soon as possible.”
Projects taking a metaphorical measure of the times are also suddenly gaining momentum. Producers in New York announced last week that the new Broadway season will launch in June with a new adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” — at a time when Orwell’s 1949 novel about a dark, authoritarian future has reemerged as a nationwide bestseller. The Broadway mounting at the newly renovated Hudson Theatre, a transfer from London of an adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, will have its official opening on June 22.
Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz has decided to open next season with Max Frisch’s early 1950s “The Arsonists,” a dark parable about liberals paralyzed by infiltrations into their homes by arsonists (originally suggesting Nazis or communists). Shalwitz will play the central everyman character, appearing onstage for the first time since 2009.
The decision was made the morning after the election. Director Michael John Garcés, who had brought the idea to Shalwitz earlier, emailed, “Do we really have to do this damn play?”
“It’s a play we need to remind ourselves of when we feel we see something dangerous walking in the door,” Shalwitz says. “Leaning into relevance is what we do anyway. But when you change your opening play, you’re changing the temperature of what you’re putting out there pretty dramatically. … It’s not just about how horrible Trump is. That’s not an interesting statement. It’s about challenging liberals, to say, ‘Where’s your backbone? What do you do?’ ”
Officials at other companies say that it may take a year or two, as more playwrights have a chance to digest events in a changing political landscape, for theaters to provide deeper insight into what’s happening. Washington area artistic directors such as Arena Stage’s Molly Smith and Round House Theatre’s Ryan Rilette note that their seasons already touch on political realities, sometimes tangentially, sometimes literally. At the moment, for example, Arena is producing a revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1941 drama “Watch on the Rhine,” about Washington awakening to the threat of Nazism in Europe, and Round House is presenting “Caroline, or Change,” a musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori about the civil rights-era struggles of an African American single mother, working a minimum-wage housekeeper’s job to support four children.
In some cases, Trump’s surprising victory in November forced a rethinking of future productions already on the books. Rilette said he has had plans to produce next season a British play about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and the late prime minister Margaret Thatcher. When he selected it, he was intrigued by the idea of women in power and thought, “Won’t it be amazing, doing this play a year into Hillary Clinton’s presidency?” After Trump won, “we had to go back and think about it, again.” Ultimately, he decided to go ahead with the play, finding newly compelling the idea in the relationship between the women, “how civilized they are to each other.”
Smith feels vindication in what seems an ever-increasing awakening of the theater world to turbulent times. “I don’t know how you get much more in the moment than we are,” Smith said, noting that the company announced in the fall a 10-year initiative to commission 25 politically themed plays. People ask her, she says, how she knows when to produce plays with the right topicality. “I say, ‘I read the newspaper.’ “