Review Fix chats with Bree O’Connor, Artistic Director at Playful Substance, who discusses her newest production, It Can’t Happen Here.
About the Production:
A historic reading of Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 classic “It Can’t Happen Here,” adapted for the stage by John C. Moffitt and Sinclair Lewis; unprecedented collaboration in Yiddish, English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Hebrew. Viewable at 1 PM at https://nytf.org/live and only available until November 1.
Initiated and hosted by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, nine prestigious theatre companies will come together on Wednesday, October 28 to present an unprecedented virtual play reading – in Yiddish, English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Hebrew – of “It Can’t Happen Here”, a dramatization of the 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis imagining the rise of fascism in America. More than 60 actors with Israeli Artists Project, Kairos Italy Theater, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, New Heritage Theatre Group/Impact Repertory Theatre, New York Classical Theatre, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Playful Substance, Repertorio Español and Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment will participate in this one-time event.
Review Fix: What was the inspiration for this project?
Being asked to come on board a project is always a great inspiration!
Review Fix: How did Playful Substance get involved?
I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I was having a casual conversation with Motl Didner who told me that National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene already had the wheels in motion on this project. We had a short but enthusiastic discussion about the source material and the need for a new WPA and Motl mentioned the project needed another theatre company with a diverse membership to take one of the open scenes. We just happened to be well positioned to step in; we are a diverse collective that has maintained connection to one another since shut down and had some resources and administrative infrastructure already set up to make our contribution possible. It all hinged on a chance conversation and Playful Substance’s ability to say yes.
Review Fix: Share some of the history of this piece.
“It Can’t Happen Here” was originally a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis that drew heavily from the politics of the 1930’s; with fascism on the rise in Europe, the Great Depression raging and the emergence of populist figures like Huey Long in the US, Lewis had a lot to keep him up at night. In 1936 the stage version of “It Can’t Happen Here” by John C. Moffitt and Sinclair Lewis based on the novel was produced simultaneously by 21 different theater companies through the Federal Theatre Project sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. The play was presented across the United States with consideration taken for local concerns. It was produced in several languages and by companies representing the racial and ethnic make up of their communities. It was one of the most ambitious undertakings of the Federal Theatre Project. Since then, the play has resurfaced several times when the play’s warning against fascism seems of immediate importance.
Review Fix: Why now?
Considering the rise of authoritarian figures around the world and in our own country, now seems a particularly ripe season for the messages in this play.
This reading is also an opportunity to advocate for a new WPA. Theatremakers have had multiple body blows due to the pandemic; the loss of our spaces, the inability to practice our craft with a live audience, and so many of our life support jobs (restaurants, bars, temp jobs, child care, etc) have been shut down as well. We have been left with very little to live on and no end in sight. The arts have been chronically underfunded even before Covid-19. It is vital to the health of our nation and the growth of our culture that we support art and artists. This project is a reminder of what we once did and what we CAN do again.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through this process?
After several very quiet months away from rehearsals and the crunch of production, I realize that my brain still works! I mean, I don’t think I am quite up to speed, yet, but it’s all still there. A little rusty, but still there.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Playful Substance is in the midst of restructuring. We are expanding our administrative support and exploring ways to make our company more responsive to its members and to the community at large. Our Writers’ Groups are still going strong and there are several projects in development. We are exploring ways to bring Pithy Party, our annual works in progress reading party, online without losing the warm, inclusive atmosphere. In the new year, we should have some virtual programming including readings and performances along with artist development to get us through the pandemic. Unfortunately, we are going to be here for awhile. We are going to support each other the best we can and position ourselves to be ready for when the world opens up again.