2017 Helen Hayes Nominee (Outstanding New Play)
“Dares us to reject what we think we believe.” — Nelson Pressley, Washington Post
“Introduces more provocative notions in its 45-minute first half than many theater companies manage in a season.” — Chris Klimek, Washington City Paper
“A Molotov cocktail to the mind.” — John Stoltenberg, DC Metro Theater Arts
“TRANSMISSION… will be a yardstick for me as a critic for years to come when it comes to audience engagement.” — Alan Katz, DC Theatre Scene
An immersive, participatory sermon on the viral evolution of culture from the radio age to the present. Devised for an intentionally intimate audience, all seated in 1930s armchairs clustered around period radios, the performance is a sonic mashup of 20th century history and 21st century dangers that’s part jazz, part science lecture, and part ritual invocation. Together, performer and audience investigate what it means to be inundated with narratives in our always-connected, always-sharing culture and explore the desperate need for skepticism and inquiry in a landscape of spin, lies, and out-of-control memes. It’s an antidote for the excesses of the 21st century.
Productions: The Welders (DC, 2016). Reading: Tampa Repertory Theatre (FL, 2016).
About the Play
In the summer of 2010, a few months after my son Porter was born, I was invited to speak at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a 130 year-old secular congregation led by a dear friend and fellow writer, Kate Lovelady. (We studied poetry together at Northwestern.) I was coming to town to workshop my play REALS at the now-defunct HotCity Theatre, and Kate asked me whether I’d be willing to give her an afternoon of my best thinking about… well, whatever was on my mind. One of the truly great tenets of the Ethical Society is that members are explicitly not required to subscribe to any creed or dogma—there’s no correct way to be a humanist, after all—so Kate steps out from behind the dais on a regular basis, giving her platform to a variety of speakers with different perspectives, without any constraints on what those speakers should or should not say. Admirable, no?
Naturally, given the fact that my son had just been born, all I could think about was the impossibly complicated challenge of being his father. Every parent worries, and no two parents worry in exactly the same way; my own fears at the time were focused on the difficulty of picking which stories I’d tell him and which books I’d buy him, given the unnumbered possibilities the 21st century has afforded us. Stories frame the way we think, after all; they get deeply inside us—particularly the stories we encounter when our brains are still young and developing—and take root forever. I wanted to make good choices. More importantly, I wanted to teach my son how to value, connect with, respond to, and think his way through stories. I wanted to prepare him to take charge of culture, rather than just mindlessly consuming it… and that seemed like a fine subject with which to provoke and inspire an entire congregation of secular humanists.
The resulting sermon—(Susp)ending (Dis)belief: (How) Do Art and Atheism Go Together?—is really, in some ways, a rough draft of what later became TRANSMISSION. The ideas are all there, in nascent form, though my thinking has evolved quite a bit since then. (How could it not? Being a parent transforms your entire mind. And hell, my thinking changes every single time I performed this piece.) Naturally, I had absolutely no idea when I spoke to the Ethical Society that I was taking the first step toward one of the most important artistic experiences of my career… but isn’t that how an artist’s life works? We move forward, hopefully, never knowing quite what destination we’re headed toward, even if we think we know. There’s a beautiful, impulsive unpredictability that we either have to reckon with (and eventually accept) or abandon in favor of a more leashed, conventional existence.
Porter, by the way—Talk about beautiful, impulsive unpredictability!—is reading fairly fluently now. He just turned six, and he reads chapter books on his own every single night before bed…. though he still likes his parents to read to him, too, and that’s a service we are very happy to provide. We let him loose in the library as often as we can, and he leaves with a massive stack of reading material (what an oddly bland phrase) every time. His current favorites: anything about Star Wars or Pokémon for the occasional light snack, and the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne for a satisfying main course. I’m not sure I can tell you yet, though, whether I’ve managed to do anything to counter my fears. (My wife, on the other hand, has definitely done a lot to help Porter keep his mind limber.) He’s still young, however, so who knows how his already very thoughtful mind will develop? Only time will tell.