Hi. I’m Trey, and I’m a theater critic.
Well, technically a recovering theater critic. Here in this space I’m a “writer and social-media specialist” tasked with making some noise and asking some questions about and around Woolly’s production of The Arsonists.
So I’ll be introducing you to some of the players, explaining what’s different about Woolly’s process this time around, and interrogating some of the themes of Max Frisch’s play — which is officially not a rise-of-the-Nazis allegory, having been written in the 1950s as a response to the Soviet-backed coup that inaugurated four decades of totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia. (See also: When the nascent Cold War got good and chilly.)
In these times, though, and in many earlier productions (including a 2007 staging in London with Benedict Cumberbatch), echoes of fascism have been easy to hear in The Arsonists. Which means we’ll be talking about current events, too, and how we might think about them in light of what the play has to say. So we might well be talking about things like immigration, street harassment, freedom of movement and access for transgender people. Confederate statues and those who love them.
And with any luck we’ll be learning a few lessons. Case in point: As a critic with a regular deadline, I’ve spent my entire career watching avidly, listening intently, and sharing my opinions in a hurry. And the first thing I learned, less than a week into this gig, is that some of my biggest strengths aren’t particularly useful now.
I’m in the Woolly rehearsal room the other day with 80-odd others, watching and listening and occasionally giggling as Michael John Garcés and his cast navigated the first read of the script. (Yes, The Arsonists is funny. In the way that lots of absurd and frightening things are funny.)
And at one point during a break — in between thinking “I don’t think I’ve seen that actor in anything” and “Good lord, Tim Getman is always bigger in person than I think he’s going to be” — I end up chatting casually with Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz, who’s playing the lead role of George Betterman. (Some notes about that character’s name coming soon, BTW.)
Howard says a thing, I say a thing, I learn a little about the translation Woolly is using, and then I make a remark about some language and incidents in the early part of the play, musing a bit about what they’d suggested to me. I see Howard thinking about what I said, turning it over in his head and maybe tucking it away for further consideration.
Which is a very satisfying feeling for a critic, frankly.
And that’s when it dawns on me: OH CRAP, THAT’S NOT MY JOB RIGHT NOW.
I literally seize up in the middle of a sentence. Because my normal way of responding to a play — which is sitting down with my laptop or maybe with a friend, working out a tightly argued response to a finished, fully staged production — is almost certainly not what Howard is expecting, not what he and the others in the room need right then. Maybe not even especially appropriate.
It dawned on me, as I dwelled on that moment later, that I hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with Michael John Garcés at that point. I sure as hell didn’t have a clue about what he’s been thinking about the play. What if I’d planted an idea with Howard that cut against the director’s whole notion of the story and what it has to say?
I’d just stuck my nose right into the middle of a process I’ve only ever known from the outside.
There’s a lot of that going on in the larger world right now. Those of us who spend a good chunk of time on social media, especially, have become addicted to quick observations, firm opinions, blisteringly confident responses to the outrage of the day, whether that outrage is a sitcom cancellation or a presidential press conference.
It’s exhausting. It creates more heat than light. It contributes to stress and anxiety. And paradoxically, it can fuel both a sense of power — I can make myself heard! — and a profound sense of powerlessness — Why isn’t anybody listening!?!?
That afternoon in the rehearsal room was a useful reminder that maybe not everyone is looking to me to lead — or even to help shape — this particular conversation. Maybe no one needs me to decide, today, what I think about a complicated thing.
Maybe, on all but the most urgent topics, there’s room to think deeper, listen longer, wait for others who know a little more about the topic at hand to show me their thinking, and see how it shapes mine.
And yet as The Arsonists suggests, there’s a point where hanging back isn’t doing anybody any favors either. In the play, and in this week’s America, we’re being challenged about where that line is. Where it should be. Where it must be.
Back to Woolly, though, and to this experiment. The company’s Connectivity team has planned a slate of events and gatherings around the production that looks pretty ambitious, even to an outsider like me who’s just learning about that team and its work.
Some of my colleagues on the project will be weighing in here, in this journal, talking about those efforts and sharing some of the results. I’ll be back occasionally as well to help tell the story of what they’re up to and how it might shape the production you’ll see (I hope) in September.
Until then, I’m putting down the mic and stepping back to watch and listen — as avidly and intently as always, but with a surprisingly freeing new understanding that I don’t have to come up with an answer right away.
Join us, won’t you?
Trey Graham is the writer and social-media specialist on The Arsonists. For two decades, he covered D.C.-area theater for the Washington City Paper, where his work earned him the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. He’s been published in American Theatre magazine, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and his arts-journalism career also included a nice long stint on staff at NPR, where he was part of the team that created Pop Culture Happy Hour.