Arts & Politics at Skylight Theatre – Obama-ology Playwright Aurin Squire Interview

Arts and politics have shared a close relationship for centuries. From Dadaists to Shepard Fairey, Pete Seeger to Joan Baez, Shakespeare to Arthur Miller, rewarding art, music, or theatre is an experience that opens the mind, provokes new ways of thinking, and keeps people talking about it long after their initial experience.

 

Skylight Theatre, known for developing and presenting new plays, is taking an election year look at politics. Asking you to think about, where do you stand? How did we get here and where we are going.Obama-ology by Aurin Squire opens July 23rd and may run through the summer into September, in rep with The National New Playwright Network Rolling World Premiere of Church & State by Emmy nominatedwriter Jason Odell Williams. Both plays are produced in association with Providence Entertainment, Ltd.

In his book, “The Necessary Theatre”, Peter Hall writes, “Theatre remains any society’s sharpest way to hold a live debate with itself. If it doesn’t challenge, provoke or illuminate, it is not fulfilling its function.”

 

In the play Obama-ology, changing the world isn’t as easy as Warren had imagined. An enthusiastic African-American college graduate joins the 2008 Obama campaign and lands in the streets of East Cleveland.  Between knocking on doors, fending off cops, and questioning his own identity, he discovers that working in the spotlight of “hope” can be challenging. Obama-ology is a compelling exploration of re-igniting the dreams of a black minority and the hopes of a country.

Playwright Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, journalist, and multimedia artist whose recent work includes Brain Dead on CBS. He graduated from Juilliard and has had fellowships at the Dramatists Guild of America, National Black Theatre, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange. Aurin has worked as a journalist for The New Republic, The Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and over a dozen publications. His play, "Running on Fire", will be at the O'Neill Theatre Conference this summer. He is amember of the 2016 incoming New Dramatists playwrights so it seemed time to find out more about this strong new voice in theatre and the plays that he is creating.

Ester: What did you want to say with this play and where did you start with the process of writing it?

I was walking through Brooklyn one lazy Saturday when I stumbled into an art gallery that was displaying protest art from around the world. One of the visual artists in the gallery mentioned that there was a festival of art titled "From Obama to Occupy", and they were looking for more art about Obama. So I wrote a short play titled African Americana, about a series of police stops while I was a campaign staffer in Cleveland. This was at the end of 2012, beginning of 2013. The response to the short play was overwhelmingly positive and it went on to get produced in London at Theatre 503. I was encouraged to expand it out so I did. I used some of the same characters but created new ones and came up with a new plot. I've converted many of my one-acts into full-length plays, and I enjoy the process. The one-act let's you figure out some of the main characters, and tone. African Americana was very satirical. Obama-ology allowed for the satirical tone to flow into the underneath anger. I think satire always has that; it comes from a place of rage. And then I got into Juilliard a few months later and that was the first play I brought to it. It went to lab, then the reading night, then was picked up for the Juilliard New Play Festival the following summer and went on its own course in London. 

Ester: As a writer for television now, has it changed the way you approach writing for theatre? 

Not that much. I was a film major first as an undergrad at Northwestern, so I learned how to write screenplays and TV scripts before moving on to plays. I always believe in structure, but theatre allows you to create your own structure and arc. I will say that TV writing makes you a lot better at pitching ideas, defending and explaining plot points because you have to do that in front of a group of people. 

Ester: What was the most important thing that you learned from your recent experience at the O’Neill Center conference? 

There is a need/hunger for theatre that means something in the world. I worked on a play about police brutality titled “Running on fire”. That was the week of the shootings in Milwaukee and Baton Rouge and seeing unarmed black men gunned down on video. And then there was the Dallas shooting of the police officers. And in the midst of this we were doing this satirical, angry play about society and policing. And "Running" switches different POVs. So you see the cop's point of view, the black college student, his white friends, and I was really excited that I wrote a well-balanced piece that blended satire about what's going on with an anger that felt true. And the audience's response as well as the response from fellow artists was overflowing. I believe we were taking a theatrical and biting sledgehammer to what we were seeing. It wasn't just a regurgitation of tragedy ripped from the headlines. It was filtering the pain that's out there into art. I think that maybe this is what I am supposed to be doing right now in my life. 

Ester: Why do you think theatre is important? 

It's pure in its immediacy; it blends pre-written words with the spontaneity of performance and then the added element of a live audience. It's ancient, theological, poetic, music-based, and uniquely post-modern in addressing our worries. It's a function of democracy, and Western theatre was formed around the same time as ancient Greece where the participation of citizens in the running of the government was being formulated. Yes, theatre did exist before this in Egypt and other regions in Africa. Theatre also highlighted the dynamic between the individual vs. society and the individual vs. God with the creation of the chorus and then the protagonist who steps away from the chorus to tragic and comedic affects. In times of trouble we each have a chance to step away from the chorus of the mob or conformity. We have the chance to be our own protagonist and theatre demonstrates this again and again.

Ester: Do you remember the first time that you saw a play and your first impression of that experience? 

It was 1986 and I was sitting in a tiny, dingy black box at Miami Dade Community College. My parents took me out that evening because they wanted to see a show called Dreamgirls. I had no expectation of theatre because I had never seen any before. I was a child of TV. When we walked into the tiny community college theatre I was skeptical. What could happen in a space this small and black? This was my first theatre experience and I soon discovered the power of awe. As theatre artists we have a power that can be used in a constructive or frivolous way—we create rituals to give a sense of awe. Unlike TV or movies, our approach is highly symbolic and representational.

When the dry ice rolled off the stage and floated across my thin child-like arms I was hooked. As theatre artists we create the vessel for awe by using a mixture of words, movement, and rituals to mold a vase. And then we conjure, and call forth, and allow the empty space to be filled. We have to be careful what we call forth because there is an awesome power we hold in our possession.

Ester: What have you enjoyed about your work with the Skylight Theatre Company? 

I love scrappy, intimate theatre that moves people based upon the stories being told. The area around Skylight is fantastic. It reminds me of the village in New York. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera, the crew, and the cast have such a strong dedication to telling the story. 

Ester: What do you want your next experience in the theatre to be?

I think it would be great to do some docudrama on stage that blends poetry, testimonials, songs, and theatrical moments. I'm less interested in telling naturalistic stories about family secrets being revealed and more interested in talking about our impending doom, our hopeful joy, our dreams and nightmares. 

Obama-ology Writer: Aurin Squire, Director: Jon Lawrence Rivera  

Cast: Brie Eley, Sally Hughes, Kurt Mason Peterson, Nicholas Anthony Reid          

Prouction Team: Gary Grossman (Producer), Jeff McLaughlin (Set and Lighting Design),

Christopher Moscatiello (Sound Design), Mylett Nora (Costume Design), and Nick Santiago (Video

Design)

Photos by Ed Krieger

Obama-ology opens at 8:30pm on July 23rd and runs through August 28, 2016, with performances on Fridays 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm. Church & State runs through August 14th, with performances on Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3pm (additional “pay what you can” performance on Monday, July 25th at 8pm, July 30th at 8:30pm will feature a talk-back afterwards). The Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., LA. CA. 90027. Tickets are $15 - $39 (or two-play package $63). Reservations: 213-761-7061 or online at the Skylight Theatre       

 

 

 

 

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