Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Private Manning Goes to Dramaturgy: Matt Steiner @: Edfringe 2016

the representatives
“this is radically intimate theatre”

The Representatives will be premiering their latest production, Private Manning Goes to Washington, at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, running from 15-27 August, at theSpace @ Niddry Street (V9).

Private Manning Goes to Washington
is a new play by Stan Richardson, imagining a secret meeting between US President Barack Obama and whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, as told through the eyes of hacktavist Aaron Swartz. The play explores the parallel contributions of these two activists while exposing the agonizing and sometimes deadly human consequences of the Obama Administration’s unprecedented crackdown on whistle-blowers, hackers, and the media.

The Representatives is a New York City-based theater company founded by playwright Stan Richardson and actor Matt Steiner. Since 2012, they have presented 14 new works, ranging from their signature apartment plays to larger site-specific pieces, on subject matter such as the financial crisis & Occupy Wall Street; Chelsea Manning & WikiLeaks; the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre; online dating; nihilism in 19th century Russia; the persecution of gays in Uganda; urban homelessness; the Fathers’ Rights movement; ISIS; the death of Whitney Houston; the forgotten victims of Ted Bundy; the riots in Ferguson; and the plight of transgender youth. 

Performances of Private Manning Goes to Washington run from 15-27 August, Monday - Saturday, at 22:10pm at theSpace @ Niddry Street in Edinburgh, Scotland.

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Our latest production, Private Manning Goes to Washington, deals with the Obama Administration’s crackdown on US media, whistleblowers and hackers, and highlights the tragic human consequences of those actions, namely the overzealous sentencing of transgender Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning and the suicide of Internet hacktivist Aaron Swartz. 

The show questions how to effectively inspire people to engage with their fellow human beings in a lasting way, how to make people realize how powerful they could be if they came together, and challenges the notion that any of this can actually be accomplished through theatre.

We’ve always been interested in the intersection of theatre and political & social commentary and our company had previously explored the life of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning in our 2012 apartment play Incredible Things, Awful Things.  But what we really love to do is tailor our shows to specific actors, a specific space, and to a specific audience.  That’s part of the “radical intimacy” that we’re always experimenting with.  And so it excites (and intimidates!) us to bring a show that questions the efficacy of the theatre to the largest theatre festival in the world!  But that’s what has driven our creative process over the years: identifying what scares us, walking into that fear, and bringing our audiences along with us.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
Stan always writes the shows and I always act in them.  And for the past couple of years we’ve been directing them together as well.  

The show is being designed by Paul Hudson, who designed the lighting for our site-specific show Veritas, which was about the tragic true story of a secret gay witch-hunt at Harvard in 1920.  

I have to pimp Paul out right now because The New York Times said of his design for Veritas, “Praise must be paid to the lighting designer, Paul Hudson; the interrogation sequences are bravura pyrotechnical displays, a stark, staccato latticework of sonic and visual textures.”  So, yeah, he’s a bit of a genius.  And the other actor in the piece is E. James Ford who was the lead in our last apartment play, The Rakes Die, is a bit of a fixture in the downtown experimental theatre scene in New York, and is a pretty incredible person to boot.

How did you become interested in making performance?
I met Stan over ten years ago and we clicked immediately.  He began writing parts for me in all of his shows and after a while, we started to get really frustrated with how slow and impersonal the theater making process was in America.  New work seemed to get stuck in a sort of “workshop purgatory” and by the time a play did actually get produced, the subject matter was no longer timely and any sense of danger that was present in the creative process was removed by the stale, “go to dinner, go see a show, go home, repeat” process that seemed to be prevalent in the mainstream theater community in New York.

We desired a space where we could put up our plays up as soon as they were written and wanted to find a way to take the intimacy and the immediacy of those late night, alcohol-induced, conversations about politics and art that Stan and I had been having over the past decade, and which really brought us together, and give that experience to our audiences.  

So we formed The Representatives in 2012 and began doing invite-only productions of Stan’s plays in people’s apartments and throwing a party after every single show.  Fast forward to four and a half years later and we’re fortunate enough to have built a community in New York City that is committed to hyper-intimate, socially-relevant theatrical experiences.  We’ve been dubbed by TDF as "an underground theatre sensation" and were also recognized as one of the "Top 10 Theater Experiences" by

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Well, don’t tell anybody, but we’re still in the middle of our process!!  As I said, we like to present our work as soon as it’s written and so Stan is literally finishing the play as I type these words.  We’ll rehearse in July, bring it to the Edfringe in August, and then we’ll return to the states for a US tour.

But, I would say that the process, thus far, has been similar to other processes of ours.  It may seem a little backwards but the play is usually the last thing we have in place.  Ideally, we have a rough idea of what the subject is, we gather the actors and designers we want to work with, get the space (which is usually donated by people in our community), and then Stan begins to write the thing.

The big difference about this go around is that it’s basically the first time we’ll be performing in an actual theatre and we haven’t seen the space in person!  So Stan is writing the piece for a space in the round and for the Edfringe audience specifically, but just like everyone else in the festival, we’ll only have a couple of hours to fit the piece into the actual performing space.  Being a company whose work is usually built in the actual space, this is a first for us, but we’re excited about that challenge!

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I always find myself really taken with art, in any form, where I go in believing I know how I feel about something and walk out not knowing what the hell I think anymore.  And I’d say that we, as The Representatives, are always trying to creating a space of “not knowing” with our audiences.  Because if we can get a room full of strangers to that dangerous place where we’re all admitting together that none of us really know the answers to anything, if we can all willingly walk into that uncomfortable space together, then that’s when something truly surprising can happen.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We like to say we’re in the business of creating “radically intimate” theatre.  And that intimacy pertains to subject matter of the piece, how we use the actual theatre space, and also really being committed to continuing the conversation with our audiences after the show.

Since we literally have a party after every single show we do in New York, we’re used to having this very direct relationship with our audiences.  And that’s the intimacy that is missing from most theater experiences.  You put the piece up and never really know how it lands with people. And the audience never really has a chance to affect you in return.  So we’re really looking forward to sharing a pint with some audience members after each show and exchanging ideas on anything from life to art to love.  We’re coming to the Edfringe to be affected by our audiences as much as we’re coming to affect them.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
That’s a great question, because honestly what excites us is challenging the traditional theater structure here in the states!  But if I had to say what tradition we aspire to be a part of it’s the tradition of activists and whistleblowers that are the subject matter of our show.  These are people who have given their lives, both literally and in terms of serving a 35 year jail sentence, in order to share information with the country and the world that they would never have access to otherwise.  These are people that have sacrificed themselves in order to bind the rest of us together and to set us free.  And if we can, in any small way, be a part of that movement, we’ll have considered it a great success.

TDF dubbed The Representatives "an underground theatre sensation" and they were also recognized as one of the "Top 10 Theater Experiences" by for their hyper-intimate, invitation-only productions performed in apartments, churches, restaurants and other alternative venues. 

Their most recent production was a racially and ability-­diverse telling of Stan Richardson's Veritas, the tragic true story of a secret gay witch-­hunt at Harvard in 1920, which Andy Webster of The New York Times called "agonizingly vivid".

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