Denver’s Curious Theatre is doing a dramatic reading Sunday of a play based on Sinclair Lewis’ satiric novel from the 1930s, “It Can’t Happen Here.” The novel came out as fascism was rising in Europe and features a populist politician running for president with a promise to restore the country to greatness.
There was a play adapted from the novel back in 1936. This year, Berkeley Rep reworked the play for a modern audience. Free readings are occurring across the country. I talked to Chip Walton, producing artistic director for Curious Theatre, about the work and what happens when you mix politics and art.
Here are his answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why did you want to do a reading of this play?
Curious is a theater that by mission is committed to producing work that sparks important and often provocative conversations about our world. It’s often challenging in the world of contemporary theater to do work that is responsive to the critical moments in our world. It takes time to commission and produce a play. To marry our desire to create change in the world with the art that we make was an important opportunity.
Lots of people want to draw a parallel to the current American election. And there is a parallel, but I read an article by George Will that the 30s are being reprised all over Europe as well. You have nationalist, populist forces in a lot of countries. There are a lot of antidemocratic forces at play in the world right now.
When you first read the play in light of current events, what was your reaction?
Your first reaction is, “Holy Shit!” What happened when the Federal Theatre Project produced it, two weeks later was the election in 1936. Congress was so scared by the Federal Theatre Project’s power to reach people, that’s what began their whole program to defund it. And years later that would become the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. (This was the committee chaired by Rep. Joe McCarthy that sought to ferret out communists wherever they might be and that ruined the careers of many writers and actors.) That emboldened me to say that we need to be as brave now as we know the Federal Theatre Project and (director) Hallie Flanagan were back then.
A lot of political art is pretty didactic. Is this going to be didactic?
A colleague and someone I admire immensely approached me to do this. She and her artistic partner at Berkeley Rep are the force behind this nationwide reading. Tony (Taccone) read the play and said, “This play is terrible.” It’s very didactic. But the ideas inside of it were so compelling to him that that’s what led him and his writing partner (Bennett S. Cohen) to adapt it. It’s much more engaging and accessible than the original was. That’s partly a matter of the style of theater that 1930s America was accustomed to and that 2016 America is accustomed to. But it’s also a testament to Tony’s writing skill. … He’s taken the cobwebs off the play, so to speak.
There’s a comment on your website that criticizes the decision to do this play. “I was always under the impression that the ARTS were above politics. But, I see now that I was wrong. Curious Theatre has chosen to, not only get involved in politics, but is leading the charge in ‘campaigning’ for a candidate. I find this DEPLORABLE!” It goes on, but what is your response to people who think art and politics should be separate?
It’s a very Western construct that arts and politics should be separate. If you go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, art and politics are very intertwined. In some ways, it’s a very American construct. If you go around the world, to Latin America, to Europe, art and politics are very intertwined … It is a uniquely American way of thinking that I have always disagreed with. Curious is in a position as we celebrate our 20th anniversary to dislodge that separation between art and politics.
Fundamentally, we are not campaigning for any particular candidate. It is a play about voting. One could interpret this play anyway you choose to. It’s a play about fascism, however one might interpret that, whether it’s about Putin in Russia or the election in United States.
I would say it’s inaccurate to say it’s a campaign move. It is a way for artists to come together and exercise a political voice.
There are still some seats available, and there are also some overflow seating options. Curious will open a waitlist if the reading fills up.
Curious Theatre is at 43 West 9th Ave. The reading of “It Can’t Happen Here” takes place at 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23. It’s free but seating is limited.
You can RSVP here.