Complicity & Conflict: Following ‘The Arsonists’ Beyond Our Comfort Zones

The Arsonists, Woolly Mammoth’s fall production, is a 60-year-old play, and yet it’s a chilling thing to read if you’re living in the U.S. in 2017. Max Frisch’s scorching satire explores the connections between everyday actions and socially destructive forces, literally begging us to consider what we’re willing to disrupt within ourselves in order to prevent a greater harm.

This is an experimental production for us: We’re no strangers to provocative theatre, but for the first time ever we’re exploring what it means to meaningfully invite non-actors and other people from outside Woolly’s walls into our art-making process from the start. And although our Connectivity department has mobilized a range of D.C. communities around our plays for years, most such organizing has happened at the end of our process, after our productions are already set and underway.

Actor Peter Howard leads the opening exercises. (Photo by B. Gunderson)

So in the spirit of interrogating everyday patterns, we challenged ourselves to do things differently with The Arsonists: What would we learn — about ourselves and this work — by centering change? We’re hosting a raft of events this month and next to engage with this question, and one of the first such events, last Thursday, was our first Community Read — a read-through of the play, but with a few twists.

Peter Howard, one of the actors in the Arsonists Chorus, got us started with an icebreaker playing with a core tension in the play: personal privacy versus communal safety. We started in a circle, warming up with short I-statement prompts ranging from “I am right-handed” to “I think people are sometimes afraid of me”. Then Peter invited us to create a spectrum, positioning ourselves in a line based on how connected we felt to our individual versus communal rights — and then asked us what the positions we’d chosen told us about each other and ourselves. Within minutes, the room lit up with stories.

Actors Kimberly Gilbert and Akeem Davis cracking up. (Photo by B. Gunderson)

We carried this energy straight into the play. The Arsonists cast was on hand, but this reading was a communal endeavor; our actors took the first scene, but we all shared in the rest, passing scripts around the circle and playing with how different voices could transform the narrative.

One thing that stood out to me was the laughter: The Arsonists is a satire, but it had been some time since I had personally heard anything that struck me as funny. This reading, though, was full of mirth and humor right up until the somber ending.

Jessica Raven leads a bystander-intervention training. (Photo by B. Gunderson)

After our reading, we gathered with Jessica Raven, the Executive Director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces — a Woolly partner on this project — to talk through what had just happened. CASS helps people and organizations learn to intervene in socially complex and sometimes violent situations, and to understand their origins; for our Community Read, Jessica adapted one of her bystander-intervention trainings, helping us analyze how the action of the play escalates — and what it means for “complicity” to escalate, too. She helped us look at what challenging and changing these circumstances can look like in real life, as well. Most of our cast had already trained with Jessica during a workshop week we held back in June, but applying her framework directly to the text was a new experience for all of us.

Jessica will be back for a formal intervention training during our run of show on September 23. Meanwhile her work and other moments from last Thursday’s Community Read will continue to resonate with the cast and creative team here at Woolly, helping to shape what we eventually put on stage for you. And we’ve got much more planned — so stay tuned.

Laurenellen McCann

Laurenellen McCann is an educator, parade lover, and the Civic Organizer for Woolly Mammoth’s production of The Arsonists. Their organizing work, inside and outside of Woolly, explores how we can shift large-scale power structures through everyday changes to how we relate to each other and to ourselves. Laurenellen teaches at the Center for Government Excellence at John Hopkins University, sits on the board of Exhale Pro-Voice, and has been known to build robots out of cardboard.