Every election season since 2002, Chicago-based theater company The Neo-Futurists have staged an anthology of short plays that lampooned and championed the contributions of all of the United States Presidents who have held the office up to that point.
Originally called 43 Plays for 43 Presidents for obvious reasons, the show has since added Mr. Obama into the comedic fray and updated its name to 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. Because this is another election year (surprise!), the play has once more emerged on the national scene.
This season, however, the show will be produced at 44 civic-minded theaters throughout the country. No longer just a quaint show held at the Neo-Futurist's home on Lake Michigan, Plays for Presidents has grown into a nationwide festival that has swept up hundreds of passionate theater artists in its wake.
Austin's own GNAP! Theater Projects' smartly jumped at the chance to become Austin's regional participant in this endeavor over a year ago, guaranteeing GNAP!'s spot in the festival which kicks into high gear this October.
GNAP! Artistic Director Shannon McCormick assembled his gender-blind cast of six brave performers to take on all 43 of the Presidents in the updated script. (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, natch.) As always, a star-spangled coat will denote who gets to play the President at any given moment, and each President's designated scene will take on a new genre of storytelling.
"Expect all kinds of shennanigans," says McCormick, who is directing the Austin production at Salvage Vanguard Theater. "[You'll see] my debut (sort of) as a choreographer, a Nixon song and dance number, balloon stabbing, Ben Franklin's Friar's Club roasting of Thomas Jefferson... You know, the usual parade of American history, politics, and nonsense."
Anyone who knows the GNAP! director immediately recognizes why the energetic and hyper-educated McCormick would want to participate in such a project. As an improviser, a character actor, a director and a general encyclopedia of historical and political trivia, Plays for Presidents is right up this guy's alley.
Furthering his pursuit of academically-inspired excellence, McCormick recruited friend and fellow connoisseur of smart art Wayne Alan Brenner (yep, that Brenner!) to help him enhance the Presidents experience. Brenner is the curator of the lobby gallery at SVT, and thus the perfect recruit for the second half of McCormick's vision.
"The Neos did a portrait gallery when they put their show together 10 years ago. I was intrigued by that idea but wanted to do something a little different," McCormick explains. "I love when the gallery at SVT ties in with shows in the mainstage, and having a close relationship with Brenner was key to making this crazy idea come off."
For GNAP!'s version of the Presidential art gallery, McCormick proposed that each of the 44+ art pieces hanging throughout the SVT lobby depicts a Presidential hopeful that lost their election.
For McCormick, the assembled Presidential "losers" provides a new angle on the idea behind this very real public failure. "America is obsessed with success," he states, "but I’ve always been drawn to stories about losers… about talented people who don’t rise to the top."
Brenner admits that, at first, he underestimated the impact of what he assumed would just be another Presidential portrait show. Upon realizing it would be only the Presidential runners-up in portrait frames, he says his jaw dropped.
"You see all these names and faces in one compelling series of portraits on the SVT walls and it gives you a deeper, bigger-picture view of this country's political history," he states. "And: these portraits are amazing!"
To populate the "Hall of Losers," Brenner and McCormick contacted their artsy friends from all manners of backgrounds and assigned everyone a Presidential could-have-been.
"Luckily, Shannon and I are, to one extent or another, among those humans who are collectors," says Brenner, who is also the editor of the literary and art journal Minerva's Wreck. "And so we know about and admire all these incredible artists, and were able to use our common interests and previous-project chutzpah to convince a lot of them to participate in what is, after all, a very compelling exhibition."
McCormick is also interested in the big picture impact of politics and the propensity for time to heal all wounds. "Another reason I like the losers angle is that it's a reminder that political passions fade. For anyone who was upset by the losses of Gore or Kerry or McCain, this sample is a nice reminder that life moves on. America is still going to be here even if your guy loses."
To that end, we should note that, in addition to the live show's hysterical Neo-Futurist brand of rapid-fire comedy, the festival also has a very real goal of motivating audiences to vote come Nov. 6. The show even ends with the actors handing out voter registration cards to those who need them.
The show reminds us that we still have a direct relationship with our leaders through our vote, and we can affect their livelihood as much as they can affect ours. Whom we elect this November will reflect our current status as a country in this moment in time, based on our current attitudes, needs and beliefs.
Thanks to the efforts of two creative patriots and their talented friends, Austin will get to delve a little deeper into that long-spanning national history that continues to write itself year after year.
44 Plays for 44 Presidents plays Thursdays - Sundays, Oct. 5 - Oct. 20 on the Salvage Vanguard Theater mainstage. The Hall of Losers gallery exhibition will be on display in the lobby from Sept. 22 - Nov. 3.