Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: American Theater Company artistic director Will Davis, who directs Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Gonna Be Okay, opening Thursday. Here, Davis and Kreimendahl discuss the show, which "confronts the fears of the middle class" during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we were all sure the world would end at any second. Basil, what drew you to that chapter in history?
Basil Kreimendahl:I didn’t write a historically accurate play. It’s not really about the Cuban Missile Crisis—it’s about America and change and how we react to change. It’s also very Freudian in a way: The first act is aboveground and fairly presentational; in the second act everybody’s underground and the subconscious kicks in. It resonates because there are changes going on now. I truly believe we’re in the middle of a huge social-justice movement. The Women’s March and Black Lives Matter movement are examples of this.
I’m also fascinated by bomb shelters. There’s something primitive and ritualistic about them. They’re these caves we dig underground, and then fill with family photos and armchairs.
How did this collaboration come about?
Will Davis:Basil and I have known each other for years . . .
B.K.:But it feels like we’ve always known each other . . .
W.D.:Which is so awesome. We’ve done projects together before—workshops and readings. Basil’s play was on my pitch list when I interviewed for this job. We both have a similar taste and style. Live performances often feel like they’re bound by space and time, like there’s a limited set of ingredients or tools. Basil approaches theater more like jazz—there are a certain number of notes, but there are infinite ways you can present them. Basil’s plays are an invitation to collaborate.
What does that look like onstage?
W.D.:For example, Basil’s play is set in 1962. There are two dads, two grills, a backyard—but it’s not like plays where things are completely spelled out. In some plays, they tell you “there’s a set of stairs stage right and a blue armchair stage left and John enters from the door at center.” We’re able to ask, what version do we want of a grill or a yard or 1962? We’re using sparkling blue AstroTurf for the lawn to kind of let people know it’s not a set-in-stone version of a grass lawn in 1962. For the grills, we have this immense light box with a painting of pancakes on it.
Does being trans have an impact on the artistic process?
BK:There’s no way [the production] isn’t coming from a queer perspective.
WD:We come to this through queer theory and with a queer directing practice. What does that mean? Say I’m casting a handsome drifter: I send out the notice and I describe what I think a handsome drifter looks like, and people self-select whether they want to audition. If I see a handsome drifter as a whole range of humans and not just some rugged guy with a big chin and a mustache and a cowboy hat, that could change who decides they want to come in. It changes what auditions look like. It can change what the play looks like.
It’s a way of expanding things, of not putting people into little boxes that say you have to be this or this, male or female. If the universe is infinitely expanding, which it is, it doesn’t make sense that there are only two versions of things.
When I started to claim pieces of my identity like my name, I started to feel as though I was standing in the center of myself—or at least inching away from the periphery. Part of releasing my voice personally has dovetailed with releasing the artist in me. In a way, they are the same thing.
Do you think the theater community has become more accepting of people who are gender nonconforming?
BK:I don’t feel like we’re at some magical place where everyone is always open and accepting. But I do feel like in theater there’s a sense of trying. We’re trying to be better. In any given room, I’m used to being the only one of me for miles—it’s sometimes hard to feel like you’re in the most conducive space for being creative. But I also feel like art is born of struggle.
WD:We’re talking about art, but in general, we are not all equally protected. If I have this little bit of a platform here at ATC to try and change that, to create a generous space where everyone feels at home, that’s a responsibility I will joyfully take on.