As a director, I love plays that don’t just tell a story, but that give me a chance to create a truly original theatrical event. Jason Grote’s CIVILIZATION (all you can eat)—with its interweaving narratives, bizarre dance episodes, and talking pig—is a veritable director’s playground! For me, it comes along at the perfect moment.
Over the past two years, I’ve had four visits to see theatre in Eastern Europe, where directors dominate the scene with their aggressive and highly conceptual approaches to both classics and new work. After soaking in this inspiration, I was looking for a script that was open-ended enough to let me and my collaborators really invent!
CIVILIZATION is especially timely in relation to the election season that’s now heating up. The play looks back at our previous Presidential election cycle: the summer of 2008, just as the financial crisis was unraveling and Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate in the race against Barack Obama. In a series of vivid character portraits, playwright Jason Grote captures the nation’s mounting anxiety about questions of race, about “making it” in a hostile economic environment, and about the sustainability of American capitalism.
Lurking in the background is that talking pig I mentioned above—named Big Hog and played in inimitable fashion by Sarah Marshall. Trapped on a mechanized pig farm with slaughter fast approaching, Big Hog opens the play by threatening the audience with his plan for escape and revenge. When I first read his fiery speech nearly two years ago, I knew that Woolly couldn’t resist producing this play. As the story moves along, Big Hog’s intensity is matched by the emotional desperation of all the characters, including an aspiring filmmaker and two actors, an inspirational business consultant, and a struggling waitress and her 21-year-old daughter. I love them all for their naked longing and raw striving for a better life than the ones they have.
Jason Grote invokes filmmaker Robert Altman when describing the structure of CIVILIZATION. Like Nashville, Short Cuts, or Gosford Park, the play begins with a series of apparently disconnected scenes, and only gradually reveals the web that binds its characters together. Our production will accentuate this structure by presenting a series of “parades” that move from scene to scene. Some of the parades will expand into abstract dance episodes called for by the playwright that provide a thematic lens on the main action—or at least I think that’s what happens, depending on what we learn in rehearsals. Our process so far on CIVILIZATION has been the fullest in Woolly’s history, involving workshops in New York and Washington, and a whole course based on the play with Masters students at Towson University. But once rehearsals begin and our brilliant cast gets to work, anything could change.
That’s why I love open-ended plays like CIVILIZATION. They’re a bit scary, but ultimately exhilarating. I look forward to sharing the results of our investigation with you, and hearing your reactions to Jason Grote’s provocative parade of humans, beasts, and the ongoing project we call America.
~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director