Fringe Interview: American Theater Ensemble’s Martin Blank
American Theater Ensemble has been enjoying a sold out run of its Capital Fringe presentation of A Walk In the Woods, a triumph sweetened by the news the company has been invited by the nonproliferation advocacy organization The Ploughshares Fund to perform the play next week for members of Congress. (That performance is closed to the general public.)
Lee Blessing's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama follows two negotiators, Russian Andrey Botvinnik, and American John Honeyman, as they try to hash out an arms reduction agreement during the Cold War.
With consideration of the New START treaty currently underway, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and ranking member Dick Lugar (R.-Ind.) both having made it known they want to vote on ratification before Congress goes into recess on August 7, the production couldn't be more timely.
Those of us who are following the Capital Fringe Festival closely are fascinated by how the theatrical community in Washington interacts with the policy community. Fringe & Purge's Sophia Bushong sat down with AET Artistic Director Martin Blank to get his take.
Why did you choose A Walk In the Woods to be American Ensemble Theater's first full- length production? Was the timeliness of the subject matter a factor?
I started thinking about Walk in the Woods back in September. I didn't know that New START would be in debate at the same time as the Fringe. It was the fate machine, in a wonderful way. AET is lucky that these debates are happening exactly when [the festival] is going on.
I chose the play for a few reasons. We are an ensemble. I had in my mind the right two actors and director, in-house, for the play. So in a way they determined the title. Second, while nuclear war is not a fun topic, I believe theater allows us one thing more than anything: It lets the playwright, in this case, Mr. Blessing, tell the truth. Or at least his truth. My favorite quote about writing is, Great writers ask important questions, then answer them. I think he does this. I have two small children, and this topic is the one thing that keeps me up at night. I dont strictly think theater needs to be political, but this is Washington, D.C.
Do you think the issue of nuclear weapons has ceased to play the role it should in people's minds, or as a priority with policy?
Yes! People assume because the Cold Was is over, [nuclear proliferation] is no longer a problem. In a post-9/11 world its more of a danger than ever. I just think it's immensely interesting to read articles from the Associated Press about why the New START treaty should or should not be ratified. Depending on your politics, this idea is either horrible or desirable, but you read the conversations in the play, and the arguments are all the same! Nothing's changed.
Today we rarely speak about "nukes," only WMD's. Do you feel the term is ever used without enough thought? Or that many people do not have sufficient awareness of the capability of the weapons to which that term refers?
Thats right. People tune out. If I say the play is about nuclear weapons, I do not get much of a response. But when I say the play is about two people from very different cultures trying to figure out how to just trust each other and be friends, people relate. The play is both. People are surprised by how taken in they are with the story of these two men and what happens between them.
President Obama said in a press conference on April 29, 2010: "I am surprised by the number of critical issues that seem to be coming to a head at the same time." In the midst of so many crises, do you see your role as a producer and artist as including the responsibility to keep issues, nuclear arms in this case, on the table and in the minds of the public and policy makers?
Yes and no. Yes, because I think theater has to talk about important things. Now, first, it must entertain. I get that. But great theater it tells us the truth. When well done, it acts as a sort of early warning system. Can you imagine what effect Death of a Salesman had on audiences for the first time? Given whats gone on in our economy, is that play not still full of truths we need to pay attention to? Lessons we still need to learn?
Botvinnik has a line in the play: "There's the quest for the appearance of the quest for peace." Do you feel like public perception of, and trust in, policy-makers has changed since Blessing wrote his play? If so, has that changed the way people view political theater?
I think that depends on your politics. But this is a unique city to put on political theater. Its not the only thing that interests me, but in a wonderful way I think of the audiences as the more important cast member. So this city is well cast to do political theater. How people view it you find out when the show opens fast enough!
In my lifetime the scene has changed a lot. In 1968, there was something like 12 theaters you could audition for. Now, for any number of reasons, all these brand new companies are emerging. That's recent. Just look at the diversity of what you can see, it's incredible! And with Fringe it's affordable in an exciting way. There's room for everyone; whatever your cup of tea is, there's a theater company doing it.
I would also add that the Fringe has been great to us. When we began to sell out, the Fringe gave us special permission to add standing room seats, and those tickets have also sold.
How does the Washington audience differ from that in New York, Chicago, L.A. or any other city in which you have performed or produced, especially in response to political material? One might assume the audience in Washington is more informed, do they seem to be?
Ask any stand up comic. Ever noticed how many of them tape their HBO specials here? Chris Rock. Dennis Miller. Others. Why? Ive heard over and over they love to perform in D.C. because the audiences are the smartest. They get everything. What did James L. Books say when he was filming Broadcast News in D.C.? Something like, "D.C. is overloaded with brilliant minds. "
And this invitation to perform for Congress members next week is very fortuitous. These are the same people who are going to vote on this issue, so it's exciting. Theater makes you very humble. People can choose not to show up, or they can come and not like it. It's a collaborative effort and it doesn't always work, so when it does, you just have to enjoy it.