Fringeworthy

Occupational Therapy: On the 1.54 Percent of Fringe Shows That Take on the 1 Percent

It’s a loosely defined movement that shelters dozens of individual ideas and motives. Everyone has their own impressionistic definition of what it means. You could be talking about the Occupy encampments that sprung up across the U.S. and beyond over the last 10 months. Or you could be talking about the Capital Fringe Festival.

In a handful of plays currently on Fringe’s makeshift stages, you get both the scrappy protest movement and the scrappy production aesthetic. The pairing makes sense: Fringe was occupying our stuffier stereotypes of theater long before Occupy Wall Street dug in at New York’s Zuccotti Park last September (and soon after in D.C.’s McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza).

It’s hard, of course, to argue that two or three shows constitute a trend in a festival of 130. Certainly, Occupy isn’t the only motif on this year’s Fringe slate. But the protest movement, even as it fades from our cities’ public spaces, remains in the zeitgeist. It’s natural that artists would want to address it in some way, whether on a budget of $250 or $250 million. The Dark Knight Rises, for example, attempts to tap this topical vein the way good genre films often do: One of the Batman sequel’s big set pieces is a raid on a stock exchange, and later there’s a montage of (presumably) rich people being dragged from their swanky homes or attacked on the street as part of a populist uprising—although “populist” does not typically mean “incited by a nuclear-armed supervillian in a creepy bondage mask.”

Still, I’d argue the movie’s attempt to lacquer its tale of a 73-year-old corporate-owned superhero in a veneer of topicality is more legit than that of the Capital Fringe show Arlen and Berlin Occupy the Fringe. Presented by the 30-year-old musical theater outfit The In Series, the show is a revue of classic songs composed by Howard Arlen and Irving Berlin, bridged by a few gee-willickers lines of dialogue about how the singers are all down on their luck and seeking solace among the protesters. (“We are at Freedom Plaza. Let’s enjoy our freedom!”) It’s a perfectly nice show if you enjoy the music (I do), but it’s about Occupy to roughly the same extent that Footloose is about farming.

There are others: Barter (which our blogger Derek Hills reviewed) is set 10 years in the future and posits that our current fiscal doldrums have only gotten worse in the interim. In This Economy is a dramedy about the strain protracted unemployment places on both halves of a loving couple. But neither of those shows is explicitly political.

And then there are the two real-deal Occupy shows at this year’s festival: Nu Sass Productions’ Tent of Dreams: An Occuplay and Tommy Nugent’s Occupy This! Tales of an Accidental Activist. (I interviewed the former's director, Emily Todd and the latter's writer/performer, Tommy Nugent, on Episode 9 of The Fringe & PurgeCast. Aubri O'Connor the artistic director of Nu Sass productions and a cast member in Tent of Dreams, was part of that discussion, too.)

Tent of Dreams is the first original script from Nu Sass, a company devoted to advancing work by female theater artists that’s been a mainstay of Capital Fringe since 2009. The playwright is Emily Crockett, a staff writer for Campus Progress who covered Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park and stayed on the story when D.C.’s own Occupy protests sprang up. The program includes a “Timeline of True Events from the Play” that spans from the start of Occupy Wall Street on Sept. 17 to the removal of protesters in D.C. by National Park Police on Feb. 4.

The company contacted Crockett for her knowledge of the movement, according to Todd. “We decided that for this particular show it was more important to have somebody who knows the movement, who is familiar with the subject matter, and to try to help them write a play, than to bring in a playwright and help them learn the movement,” she says.

Todd says she and O’Connor cast the show and began research-oriented rehearsals before they’d even reached out to Crockett. Each cast member inhabits an archtype. One is described as “a newbie,” another “a facilitator.” There’s “an anarchist,” “an aspiring preacher,” “a homeless guy,” and “a dirty f*ing hippie.”

Rehearsing in McPherson Square during April’s “sleepful protests” outside the Bank of America branch on Vermont Avenue NW, Todd encouraged the cast to meet people “and find the people whose stories would fit into their archetype.” (They didn’t sleep there, though.) Next, she and O’Connor recorded a series of improvisations among the cast based on what they’d learned from talking with protesters at McPherson. Crockett used those recordings, along with her own experiences covering the protests, to write the final script.

The result is unmistakably a work of activist art. “Shit is fucked up and bullshit” is almost a mantra within it. Its characters frequently pause to declare a “mic check,” after which everyone onstage and in the audience is encouraged to chant what they say back to them.

Crockett’s script is admirable for its economy (so to speak!): She covers a lot of ground vis-à-vis the various factions within the movement (bomb-throwers vs. conciliators, protesters who sleep in the park vs. those who go home to a bed at night); their interactions with passers-by friendly, un-, or indifferent; and the way even peaceful protests can sometimes beget chaos and violence. When Crockett’s Occupiers are asked what their demands are, they emphasize that they’re demanding nothing, only starting a conversation. When a woman asks what their goal is, the most cool-headed character—an Iraq War veteran with plans to attend divinity school—asks if she’s religious. When she answers that she’s a Christian, he asks her what the goal of Christianity is. He isn’t mocking her; the tone of the exchange is friendly, not confrontational.

Todd and O’Connor both say they intended initially to document the movement rather than promote it, but that their research made them sympathetic to its aims. “We walked into it intending to be impartial,” O’Connor says. “What we found is it’s surprisingly difficult to disagree with them.”

That’s the same trajectory Nugent relates in Occupy This! A 41-year-old Detroit native who scratches out a living as storyteller and motivational speaker, Nugent—a self-described “old Burning Man guy”—initially came to the movement as a tourist, more or less. As he tells the story in his show, he traveled to New York for a college speaking gig and decided to check out the protest, but absent-mindedly went to Central Park instead of Zuccotti. That was Oct. 1, the day New York police arrested hundreds of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. Had Nugent gone to the right place and been arrested, he’d probably have missed his talk, he notes. His wife lost her job last year. Like a lot of Americans, the couple owes more on its mortgage than its home is worth. He can’t afford to miss work due to arrest.

Later, Nugent did go to Zuccotti Park. “The people got up and started talking about why they were there, and it just grabbed my heart,” he says.
Returning home, Nugent joined the Occupiers in Detroit’s Grand Circus Park, though not full-time. Once they were ejected last November, Nugent became involved in Occupy Our Homes, an offshoot of the movement that finds particularly heartbreaking or egregious cases of families facing foreclosure and tries to publicly shame their mortgage lenders into giving them other options.

Nugent said he had some initial reservations that mining his experiences—and those of people he’s befriended—might be exploitative. Ultimately, he concluded that having decided he supports the movement, he can best serve it by talking about it.

“It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been politically active,” he says. “How could that not become a show?”

Indeed, the journey to belief is an inherently dramatic thing. “When I was posting on Facebook about my day-to-day Occupy life, a friend of mine said, ‘It’s so fascinating to watch this show unfold in real time,” Nugent says.

“I went, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t a show, it’s my life!’” He sighs. “Four months later, it’s a show.”

Nu Sass Productions performs Tent of Dreams Friday, July 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 29 at 5:30 p.m. at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar, 607 New York Ave. NW. Tommy Nugent performs Occupy This! Friday, July 27 at 6:15 p.m. and Saturday, July 28 at 1 p.m. at Caos on F, 923 F St. NW. Illustration by Brooke Hatfield.

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