(Re)Creating History: The Making of Home/Sick
Last summer, the avant-garde history play-cum-performance art theater piece Home/Sick generated some strong buzz around New York’s off-off (as in Brooklyn) Broadway scene. Following the disturbing and true (and disturbingly true) story of the Weather Underground movement of the 1960s and ’70s, the play blended traditional narrative, actor-composed monologues about what the movement meant to them, and audience contribution into a study of revolution, camaraderie and idealism.
The show is back for a limited run through Sunday as part of the undergroundzero festival at The Living Theater. BroadwayWorld reached out to several of the performers and creative team to find out how the piece was pulled together, and why a story of the Weather Underground movement seems so relevant in an Occupied world.
Ben Beckley, Actor: I became interested in the Weathermen independently, during the 2008 campaign, when Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin criticized Obama for his ties to Bill Ayers. I watched the documentary, and started to get excited about the possibilities for theatrical adaptation. It was shocking to me that there had been people in this country that had tried to overthrow the U.S. government in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in order to set up a socialist American state. Revolutionary activity was not something I associated with America. I agreed with so much of the Weathermen's politics--their opposition to the Vietnam War and their concerns about racial inequality--but I couldn't wrap my mind around their conviction that they could literally transform American politics and society by blowing things up.
Stephen Aubrey, Dramaturg: The play was created collectively in as democratic a manner as possible. Every member of the show, regardless of their official role, was encouraged to give input. We started the process without a script, an outline, or any definitive ideas for characters. We only knew that we wanted to investigate the Weather Underground. From there, we used research and improvisation to form a rough skeleton of the show. Everyone then wrote parts of the show and brought scenes to the rehearsal room where we amended and edited them as a group until it was difficult to figure out who did what.
After two years of work, it is very hard for me to watch the play and single out anything as a single person’s contribution. Each actor had a very large hand in establishing their own character, but since everyone wrote for each other’s characters, there are elements of all of us in each of the characters. There are some lines in the show that I think I wrote, but even then I can’t be sure that it wasn’t something I heard an actor say during an improvisation or a line of someone else’s I revised into its current form.
Nick Benacerraf, Scenic Designer and Dramaturg: The play is a swirling compilation of historical fact and personal expression. The primary co-authors of the piece--the cast, plus Jess Chayes (director), Stephen Aubrey (dramaturg), Marianne Broome (stage manager) and myself (set designer / dramaturg)--have all obsessed over both dimensions, to create an event that develops all the various elements of the theatrical event simultaneously in rehearsal. The actors and Stephen contributed the vast majority of the words, through drafts and drafts of revising one another's work (though we have all haggled over wording).
Aubrey: There was always a clear divide in my mind between the things we would be able to verify in this show and the things we would not. History books can tell us about most of the Weather Underground’s public actions. Their protests, their communiqués, their bombings—I can find sources for all of those. And it was important to me to tell their story the way it happened. I wanted to talk about the important moments in their development as a movement; I wanted to be accurate about what they did and did not do, who they were and who they became, how they came to their conclusions. But so much of the show takes place in an underground safehouse, a private place almost invisible to history. There are memoirs that can help here, but they contradict one another and all memoirs are fundamentally subjective anyway. And so, in a certain sense, I thought it was important to stay closer to the “ecstatic truth” (to borrow a term from Werner Herzog) of the Weather Underground rather than be beholden to the true history…I felt it more important to capture the emotional truths of their lives—of being young and full of passion and rhetoric, of being painfully aware of the suffering and injustice all over the world, of living in a collective, of watching your political stances mature and shift—than it was to accurately depict the biographical details of the real members of Weatherman.
Beckley: In our first workshop, in August of 2010, we used a lot of found text: speeches and communiqués and letters and essays and manifestos written by and about the Weathermen. We also did extensive structured improvisations. One of these, the criticism/self-criticism session, has remained in the show as improvised text. Though it is loosely structured, it's different in every performance. The energy of that scene tends to be very tense and very dangerous, and that's something we probably couldn't have done if we'd set the text. In general, these improvisations were used to generate text. We would tape them, watch the video, and consider what was and wasn't dramatically interesting.
Benacerraf: It is always a difficult transition to go from general collaborator into specialized artist, but it is a necessary one in order to achieve a shared collective vision. Even though the process was highly collaborative, towards the very end of the process we had to fall back into our "traditional" roles for the sake of efficiency. We all had to trust one another--and Jess in particular--to care for the idea we all created together, in various ways. This basically just required most of us to switch our brains over into a new kind of efficiency and detail.
I think the story is even clearer [now], and more personal than before. We got to rewrite major chunks in a way that's more dramatically compelling, without compromising factual accuracy. Each actor breaks out of character at some point to deliver a personal monologue about their relationship to the material, and each of those was changed or tweaked in notable ways--and I imagine they will continue to be as our individual stances on the play keep evolving. Also, this is the "tourable" version of the show, designed to fit into a van and driven around the US. Given the sense that you're within an immersive installation, this was a big task, and one we won't be able to fully assess until the show opens!