BWW Interview: With ART & CLASS, Popular Utah Playwright Launches New Season of Pioneer Theatre's Play-Development Series
The firing of a Utah teacher after showing students classic works of art prompted playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett to examine "standing up for something you truly believe in."
ART & CLASS is the first reading in Pioneer Theatre Company's 2018-2019 Play-by-Play New Play Reading Series.
"As someone who works in the arts, and as the son of teachers, I took the story personally. And also felt the facts didn't add up," Bennett says. "So the play is partly an attempt to divine what sort of social pressures and biases led to a teacher losing his job over something apparently so minor."
The concept for the play-in-development followed "publicly reported facts around the firing of a Utah teacher for showing his students classic works of art with nudity and, allegedly, how he handled the students' reactions."
The art room incident was first reported on locally, but soon national news outlets began following up with more in-depth reportage of the seemingly unlikely story.
Bennett explains ART & CLASS "aims to be a character study in standing up -- one that shows the costs of standing up. It's a topic that's dead center in American life right now, in the form of #metoo, racist marches and marches against them, the Kavanaugh/Ford hearings, and more. The play is much more personal than political; more about relationships and people and how friendships and marriages get rocked by the act of standing up for something you truly believe in. I hope, I suppose, that the play will exorcise some of our American anxieties while letting us visit with and sit comfortably (and uncomfortably) with characters we know."
Bennett is well known in the Utah theater community. With credits including the well-received "Eric(a)" and "A/Version of Events," he is playwright-in-residence for Plan-B Theatre, a company devoted to producing new works by local playwrights. Bennett is also heavily involved with PTC stagings as the company's assistant business manager.
PTC's new-play development series is in its sixth year, and two works have received full mainstage productions: recently, "i" by Jeff Talbott; and Kenneth Jones' "Alabama Story," which has been staged by other companies across the country.
These readings before an audience "are invaluable because the point of a production is not for a bunch of artists to please themselves, but to entertain and challenge an audience," Bennett says. "And the audience, in the case, gets to tell us how well we did. That's scary, of course, but a necessary part of the life-cycle of the play.
"A full week of development is not only a terrific luxury as a playwright, as it allows you to rewrite with people responding every day to new material, but it's a chance to dig into the play in non-writerly language. That is, development is useful because you get to hear professionals talking about your piece in their own theatrical dialect-whether that's actor-speak, director-speak, stage-manager-speak, or producer-speak. They're all enormously helpful, as the ultimate goal is not for the play to exist as a literary artifact, but as a live production."
The aim of ART & CLASS is to show the costs of standing up. "It's a topic that's dead center in American life right now, in the form of #metoo, racist marches and marches against them, the Kavanaugh/Ford hearings, and more," he says. "The play is much more personal than political; more about relationships and people and how friendships and marriages get rocked by the act of standing up for something you truly believe in. I hope, I suppose, that the play will exorcise some of our American anxieties while letting us visit with and sit comfortably (and uncomfortably) with characters we know."
Of the characters in this Utah-set play, Bennett says: "These are people you know. They're neighbors, whose views you'll both agree and disagree with. But regardless of who you'll think is right, you can be assured that it treats well the people you'll think are wrong. Although the original new story made me angry, I realized that there could be no play about it without searching out the humanity of every person/character. There's little to be gained by moralism at the theater. There's everything to be gained, I think, by coming and finding yourself reflected onstage."