BWW Interview: Arena Stage's Molly Smith on the Continuing Importance of THE ORIGINALIST
You might say that Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith is responsible for some of the most socially and politically conscious theatre produced in the DC area. Her Power Plays initiative is just one example of how she presents work that entertains, educates and promotes discussion after viewing.
John Strand's The Originalist was the first of the Power Plays presented at Arena Stage. The show - directed by Molly Smith - considers the relationship between former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his female clerk and features a superb performance by one of DC's best - our very own Edward Gero. His performance was so convincing that a congressional staffer mistakenly used a picture of Gero over one of the real Justice Scalia in a posting shortly after Scalia's death.
Besides the world premiere and return engagement at Arena Stage, The Originalist has had productions in Florida and Chicago and is currently running through August 19th at 59E59 Theaters in New York City. Edward Gero returns as Scalia and Molly Smith directs again. Arena Stage is collaborating with the aptly named Middle Finger Productions on the NYC engagement.
As you read this interview, you will see that Molly Smith has a huge passion for sociopolitical issues, including the ones discussed in this play - which is one of the reasons there is a Power Plays initiative at Arena Stage in the first place. The theater is the perfect spot to bring these issues to a mass audience and Smith does this very well every season.
If you have not seen The Originalist yet, I highly urge you to see this production. If you have already seen the show, Smith offers some very good reasons why you should go for a repeat viewing. With all we have to endure in this country nowadays, The Origianlist is the perfect show to spur a civil discussion afterwards. RBG thinks so...Isn't that reason enough to make the trip?
How did you come to know about playwright John Strand's work?
I came to Arena Stage 20 years ago and knew his work because we produced his adaptation of Lovers and Executioners. We then produced his Tim Walker, which was staged by Kyle Donnelly. In 2013, John was thinking about a writing play about Antonin Scalia with Edward Gero. We did a reading and I was hooked. I immediately knew I was going to put it on our season.
The Originalist was part of your Power Plays initiative at Arena Stage. Can you please tell us a little something about that initiative?
Power Plays is a cycle of plays beginning in 1776 and going through the 2010s. The idea is to commission a play or musical for every decade of America's existence. They are the ideas that shaped America and what we think America is. A variety of subjects have been covered. There is a Theresa Rebeck play in the works about witchcraft. Camp David was an early one about Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat. There is a Fidel Castro piece by Eduardo Machado in the works as well. DC is the place for Power Plays because we are the place for power in the world.
When you first read the script, what jumped out at you the most?
When I first read it, Scalia was still alive. It was a radical idea to produce a play about a sitting Supreme Court justice. Also, it points out how we can have respect for the other person even if there are differing opinions. This is very evident with Scalia and his clerk. Every time we have produced it, five times in all so far, it was a different time in history. The show has lived through the Gorsuch hearings, Scalia's death, and much more.
With the recent announced retirement of Judge Anthony Kennedy, how has the relevancy of the play changed?
That's what is happening in New York right now. As the issues of the play become more serious, so does the play. All of the issues in the play are threatened now. These include Roe V. Wade, Gun Control, African American rights, and the balance of the Supreme Court civil liberties. People are listening to the show very intently now. The show demands the audience talks back to it. With what's going on now, it's more of a boxing match than ever. People are asking how we can have an honest conversation now about the issues the show raises.
Justice Antonin Scalia (some might say) is a very undesirable character to dramatize. How did you and John Strand find a way to make him human in The Originalist?
The key is Edward Gero's performance. He had many conversations with Scalia. Scalia looks at text in the way Ed looks at Shakespeare. Their families lived 20 miles away from each other. They have lots in common. I felt like I was arguing with a lawyer in rehearsals because Ed embodied Scalia so well. We know Scalia was hated and loved. He was funny and very supportive of his clerks. He was loved by RBG even though they had civil discourse between them. At this point I want to remind everyone to get out and vote!!!
The Originalist is currently playing in NYC at 59E59 Theatres. If people have already seen the show here, what would you say would be the biggest reason for them to go for a second time?
Two big reasons:
1. There is a new actress playing the clerk and she is fierce. The boxing match between Scalia and her is even more intense now.
2. There have been changes to the script that make the play deeper, faster, and smarter. People that have seen it in both spots think it's a different play. It is because our world has tilted and the audience is now digging into the Supreme Court. It now looms large in interpreting the constitution. Even more so now, than say, ten years ago.
You are involved in a variety of social political issues, including gun control, LBTGQ rights, and more. With what is going on in our country now, would you ever consider running for political office?
HAHAHA! Absolutely not!! To be a politician, one has to be a generalist; one has to know about a lot of areas. I am, however, allowed to speak out as a theatre maker to our audiences and encourage audiences to use one of the most precious gifts we have, freedom of speech. Plays that are provocative about this political climate are also important to me because everything we do is political.
Special thanks to Arena Stage publicist Lauren Alexander for her assistance in coordinating this interview.