The first time I met David Edgar was in 1980. I was a young actress; he was a young playwright from Birmingham, England; and the Eureka Theatre Company, where I worked in San Francisco, was about to present the U.S. premiere of his play Mary Barnes. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of my castmate Jean Afterman’s basement apartment in Pacific Heights, listening to David talk about the genesis of the play. We were wreathed in cigarette smoke (Jean said it took days to get rid of the smell). We were rapt with attention. We had the feeling we were involved in something important.
We at the Eureka (which in those heady days was a progressive, semi-collective theatre group) were committed to plays of social conscience, theatre that challenged the status quo, and Mary Barnes is a raw, rambling, moving play about a radical approach to the experience of mental illness. I was excited by the challenge (and cathartic exercise) of playing the part of a young upper-class British woman whose mental illness ruptures her family’s veneer of respectability. It didn’t end well for my character.
Directed by Richard E.T. White (a grad student at U.C. Berkeley when I was an undergrad there) with great compassion and insight, Mary Barnes featured a large, talented cast, headed by Linda Hoy in the title role, in a fearless and warmhearted performance. The real-life Mary Barnes came from England for the opening; the audience and critics raved, and the production became a huge success for the Eureka. If this sounds like a love letter, it is: This production was a highlight of my early acting career, I remember thinking: If this is what live theatre is capable of accomplishing, give me a lifetime of it.
June 2002, Berkeley
Flash forward 22 years: Middle-aged now, I sit in a smoke-free rehearsal room at Berkeley Repertory Theatre around a rectangular configuration of tables large enough to accommodate 20-plus people: actors, dramaturgs, playwright David Edgar and director Tony Taccone (whom I’ve also known since our college days at Cal and with whom I’ve worked, in the intervening years, on numerous theatre projects that also classify, in my book, as important). We’re here for the first workshop/read-through of David’s new theatre piece, Continental Divide, a two-play cycle about a fictitious gubernatorial election in an unnamed Western state. One play, Mothers Against, is about the Republicans; the other, Daughters of the Revolution, is about the Democrats. This is to be a co-production between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Rep.
There to give playwright and director a rough idea of how the scripts might play, all of us actors are reading multiple roles. We dive in. My sweetheart, actor Bill Geisslinger, is reading the part of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Sheldon Vine, among others. I’m reading five different roles, including Sheldon’s wife, Connie. But the role I’m most drawn to is one that Tony has talked to me about at various points over the past few years: that of a campaign speechwriter. But campaign strategies have changed, even in the last few years, and speechwriters are now supervised by creatures called political consultants, who morph into campaign managers when the time is right.
Roles in political campaigns are elastic, and in politics (just as in acting) it pays to be versatile. On-the-job training in action.
A two-day workshop reading turns out to be woefully inadequate, time-wise, for working through the mountainous early drafts of David’s opus. Although we make a valiant effort, we never make it to the second act of Daughters of the Revolution. We have no idea how it will end.
January 2003, Ashland, Ore.
Tony and I are meeting in a café for breakfast just off the plaza in downtown Ashland to discuss C.D. It’s cold and foggy outside, steamy and warm inside the restaurant. A few weeks after the Berkeley workshop reading, I got a call from Amy Potozkin, casting director at BRT, telling me that Tony wanted to offer me the role of Blair Lowe (the Democratic campaign consultant in Daughters) for the Berkeley Rep production. Here in Ashland, the festival has its own set of casting responsibilities, and I have my own set of family responsibilities in the Bay Area, so playing in both productions was not a possibility. Nonetheless, I’ve been welcomed up here to watch rehearsals and do research as well as conduct interviews with David and Tony.
Rehearsals started here the day after Christmas, and while it seemed like there would be plenty of time, it’s gone quickly, and once again there’s a definite feeling of “wish we had more time.” Daughters has always been one draft behind Mothers, and since it’s also twice as big in terms of cast size and demands multiple sets, it’s a great challenge to get the whole thing staged. But they’ve done it, and Tony’s feeling pretty good; at least he’s sleeping again.
“I don’t sleep until the play is rough-blocked,” he tells me, “because to me that’s the architecture of the entire piece, and for me the physical form is the reflection of the internal structure and emotional life of the play.”
I ask Tony to talk about the campaign manager characters in each play: Blair Lowe in Daughters, Don D’Avanzo in Mothers. David conducted 60-plus interviews in the writing of Continental Divide: politicians, pollsters, political consultants, political activists, journalists and academics. Tony was present at many of these, and I ask him to tell me what he thought about the political consultants; what makes them tick, what makes them do what they do?
“They’re engaged in the real world,” he says between bites of his breakfast, “they’re engaged in a belief system that absolutely, every day, has to invest in the hypothesis that you can make a difference. They described to us what it’s like to run—and be in—a campaign, what it’s like to, as [politician] Joe Simitian said, ‘wake up every day and open the mail and hope that the worst thing you’ve ever done isn’t staring up at you from an ad.’ What it’s like to live with that fear.
“And then they went into great detail about the vocabulary that’s used to reach the widest possible spectrum of voters within what you consider your ‘profile.’ You know, it’s about who controls language—and Mothers Against is a play about who controls language.
“The thing about campaign managers is that they sit around in these rooms, they drink tons of coffee, they eat tons of fast food and they jam about what’s going on in the campaign: It’s about fighting brushfires, seizing opportunities, who’s doing what, where. They’re news freaks, and part of the thing that David’s tried to do is to capture the language of these people. Like every specialty of work, the language has its own code, and David’s immersed himself in it. He’s also passed the scripts through the hands of the pros, and they’ve approved it. He’s got it right—we’ve uncovered and distilled and expressed the language of political campaigning in a really accurate and, hopefully, exciting way. Part of the impression that David’s working to create is, you know, you’re a voyeur.”
One of the central points of argument between characters in both parts of Continental Divide is the issue of what language a candidate should use to reach the voting public with his or her “message.” This is a provocative question that raises more questions: Do you change your message temporarily to win over undecided voters? Is it acceptable to obscure your real stand on an issue in order to avoid alienating certain groups? And if you do change your message, or change the language you use to deliver it, does this mean that you are fundamentally compromising your values? Can a highly principled political candidate ever survive an election with his or her values intact? And, if we’re really asking tough questions, is the term “highly principled politician” an oxymoron?
These questions weave to and out of my thoughts as I talk to Tony and as I watch run-throughs of both plays over the ensuing couple of days. I ask Tony where the real-Ile campaign man-agers weigh in on these meaty issues—how they reconcile their cynicism with their idealism—and he gives me a homework assignment: Watch two movies. One is a documentary titled A Perfect Candidate, about Oliver North’s failed campaign for the Senate in the ’90s. The other is The War Room, which chronicles Bill Clinton’s successful run for the presidency in ’92 by highlighting the strategies of James Carvillle and George Stephanopolous.
“You’ll be mind-blown,” Tony told me, “because in both these videos the campaign managers state that the goal of a campaign manager is not to put forth the views of the candidate.”
There are lines in Mothers Against that reflect this strategy perfectly. Sheldon Vine, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, is being apprised of his standing with a group of “soft” Republicans and “undecideds.” It seems they rate him high on integrity and, spookily, even though they’re not sure where he stands on the issues, they still agree with him.
“How can they not know what I think?” Sheldon asks his campaign manager, Don D’Avanzo, incredulously.
The retort from the “prince of darkness” is swift: “Because this has been an exceptionally well-run campaign.”
Bill and I watch those movies. They’re scary and funny and, at times, quite moving, both of them. Toward the end of A Perfect Candidate, Mark Goodin, the campaign manager for Oliver North, reflects on what it takes to do his job.
“We’re all caught up in the entertainment value of politics. We have to serve up something to the press every day, or they eat us. If they don’t get fed, they’re hungry and they turn on us.”
He goes on to talk about what he sees as the truth about electoral politics in America. “Getting people elected, whether we like it or not—it’s not pretty—unfortunately has a lot to do with dividing: setting up a base of support and fracturing off those that…well, it’s like busting a big rock; you try to chip off your own piece and then break the rest into smithereens so they don’t matter. But that is different than what it takes to govern, because what it takes to govern is all about finding consensus on difficult issues and bringing people together—people who don’t always agree, under some sense of common purpose.
“And we are obsessed with getting people elected, and we are obsessed with the show,” he goes on, “and so are you, or you wouldn’t be here. So we provide the daily entertainment. What we are not providing is serious solutions to what’s going on in the country.”
Feb. 19, 2003, Ashland
I’m sitting in the Bowmer Theatre of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The atmosphere is rather tense as everyone readies him- or herself for the second and final dress rehearsal of Daughters of the Revolution.
At the first dress rehearsal they didn’t make it all the way to the end of the show. The tech on this production is impressive, and it’s challenging to pull off smoothly: giant video screens, tall sliding panels, live, ringing cell phones, a complex sound and music score, a grove of massive redwood “trees” down which the actors rappel, furniture, podiums, live microphones—Daughters has it all.
People drift in and there are now perhaps 50 or so, many of whom sit, as I do, with small reading lights, or at small, specially lit tables, or with a laptop. The smell of freesias wafts inexplicably through the house. Pre-show announcements are made. The house lights dim. Music up: the guitar of Jimi Hendrix, the first few bars of his infamous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Here we go….
Feb. 20, 2003, Ashland
“When you set out to write these plays, were there certain characters in your mind? What was the impetus for writing them—what set you off, what got you started?”
This is my first big question to David Edgar as we have lunch on the plaza in Ashland.
“Well, I love process, and I love writing about process, and I like to write ‘work’ plays because lots and lots of people write very well about personal relationships and I feel that’s a market that’s perfectly well serviced anyway.”
David is a tall, pale man with thinning hair, wire-rimmed glasses and an interesting, soft mouth which in some way conveys his delight in the senses at the same time as it serves as the means of expression of his powerful intellect. He speaks softly and with a pronounced Birmingham accent that makes the American listener lean forward. His speech is peppered with British turns of phrase to which one becomes accustomed after several minutes of conversation.
“I’ve also been interested in seeing work, of various sorts, as being just as rich an arena [as personal relationships] for conflict and intensity and drama—it’s where we spend half of our waking life. And obviously an area I’m particularly interested in is political process—it’s about negotiations, you know, when people are trying to negotiate with bitter enemies, and that would be true of their countries, just as intensely as when you’re seducing somebody or revealing some dreadful secret to a child, or whatever. And I became fascinated—partly because in Britain the political process is becoming more and more Americanized—by the way most political consultants work, and that the campaigns are often great battlegrounds.”
He offers an analogy: “Moon shots—you know, where in the control center in Houston you’ve got the people who are the experts on the lunar module, and the experts on the rocket, and the experts on diet, the experts on psychology. When Apollo 13 went wrong, everyone was competing to see that their problem was solved, whether it was the nutritionist or the guy who was in charge of the atmosphere. Those battles can become very intense. In a way, the campaign is like a moon shot, with the candidate the astronaut—you’ve got all these back-up people who are competing with each other as well as competing with the elements.
“So I got very fascinated, and then I met a lot of consultants, and pollsters, and I had an observation: When you’re 12 years old and you want to go into politics, I think the decision as to whether you’re going to be a candidate or a consultant is taken partly physically, in that if you have conventional good looks, then you become a candidate, and if you don’t, you become a consultant. I’m very struck that nearly all the consultants I met were somehow physically odd—you know, immensely fat or extraordinarily tall; and I haven’t met them myself, but I know that there are consultants who are in wheelchairs. Others have odd interests, like Gary South, who was [California governor] Gray Davis’s ‘prince of darkness,’ whose hobby, apparently, is designing ecclesiastical vestments—how weird do you want to get?”
Sitting there eating my fish tacos I begin to worry that maybe I’m not odd enough to play a consultant; when I was younger I was often told I looked like the proverbial “girl next door.” Maybe David senses my concern, because his next thought is somewhat reassuring.
“Mary Hughes, who was one of the women consultants I talked to and who obviously influenced [the character of] Blair Lowe”—the Democratic campaign consultant in Daughters of the Revolution, whom I am slated to play in Berkeley—“was one of the least eccentric consultants I talked to. She has her own company, Staton Hughes, in San Francisco. She’s pretty big; she works for [California congresswoman] Nancy Pelosi; she’s trying to identify all the races that the Democrats need to win in order to win the House and therefore put Pelosi in as minority leader of the House.”
I decide I had better get in touch with her.
“I was always fascinated by the way in which a lot of politics in America is second-guessing,” David continues. In a wonderful scene in Mothers, Don D’Avanzo, speaking about his arch-rival Blair Lowe, says, “I know that she knows that I know that she knows that I know.”
Second guessing is an essential element of negative campaigning, David believes. “Take the classic decision of ‘Do you go negative?’ The reason why ultimately everybody goes negative in a campaign is because you can’t risk that the other guy won’t,” he says.
Nobody can? I ask.
“That’s obviously the dilemma that’s being faced in this rather weird campaign I’ve invented: Both sides are waiting for the first ‘pop on the snout.'”
I ask David if he can point to a political campaign in which this strategy of “going negative,” of trying to second-guess the opposition, became standard practice.
I come away from my interview wondering if anything in politics is straightforward these days. The path to victory, it seems, is paved with ambivalent intentions.
March 1, 2003, Opening Weekend, Ashland
Openings are always so fraught, as those of us who work in the theatre know perfectly well. The audience is full of critics and supporters, board members and VIPs, designers and other theatre folk, and it’s hard to trust that any response is completely unbiased or entirely spontaneous. I guess it’s a lot like election eve, when there’s a certain amount of false bravado and butterflies in the stomach.
Both theatres are packed, and the shows go very well. David seems extraordinarily calm and happy.
One of the unique things about these two plays is that one can see them in any order, or simply see one of them, and have a full theatrical experience. Watching both plays on the same day is a six-hour extravaganza, with lots of resonant “ah-ha!” moments interspersed, when the audience makes connections between events or characters or ideas. Best of all, each play takes the audience right past the closing of the polls and up to the vote count—and although everybody has a theory about who won, it’s all speculation.
We don’t really know how it ends.
May 2003, Berkeley
I’ve been away from the Continental Divide experience for a while now, playing Olga in Carey Perloff’s production of The Three Sisters at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I spend six days a week in the wacky, woeful world of pre-revolutionary Russia, and when I’m not there I’m attempting to raise my revolution-minded adolescent son and conduct a long-distance relationship with Billy. And, of course, there’s always laundry to do, food to prepare and a garden that grows weeds like there’s no tomorrow. There are some days when I’d really like to go to Moscow, or at least the beach.
Instead, during a rare Memorial Day heat wave in the Bay Area, I finally make phone contact with Mary Hughes, the political consultant that both Tony and David have talked to me about, the role model, of sorts, for Blair.
I sit out on my little patio with my legs in the sun (Olga, eat your heart out) and I reach her at her office (naturally she works on holidays). Mary was there in Ashland for the opening of the shows, and we chat about her impressions of the plays (she thinks they’re terrific), what life is like as a political consultant (the cell phone is the umbilical cord of her existence) and how she got her start in politics.
She tells me that she was always the kid in the neighborhood who’d say, “Let’s put on a show!”
“Engagement of voters requires an element of showmanship,” she tells me candidly, and when I ask her what she thinks is the secret to being—or, at any rate, playing—a good political consultant, she gives me some excellent advice.
“There is a joyfulness about the whole enterprise,” she says, and I can hear it in her voice, that she loves the work she does. “There’s an excitement about the stakes involved. There’s a little bit of larceny in your heart, a little bit of showmanship, and an element of chess strategy involved.”
To get herself geared up for all this excitement, she confesses, she sometimes plays the soundtrack from The Sting on her car stereo driving to work. The Sting is a movie that for her captures a certain mood that inspires her, echoing the fun, the playfulness, the tension, and maybe that bit of larceny inherent in campaign politics.
I ask Mary what she thinks voters respond most positively to in a candidate.
“Authenticity,” she says. “A candidate who will stand up for what he or she believes in.”
“Isn’t that at odds with the current thinking about campaign strategies?” I inquire. “What about alienating undecided voters?”
“The dilemma of choosing between what’s true and what’s purportedly smart is a constant tension in most campaigns,” she replies, “and you resolve it by taking what’s real and figuring out the best way to present it. They’re not incompatible. The trick is finding a way of saying what is true in a way that the most people can hear. How you present what you say becomes quite important.”
I ask her if she ever feels cynical about the American electoral process. She pauses.
“I’m cynical about methods, and I’m cynical about some politicians. But you’ve got to educate people every day. When you start out in this work you’ve never run a race, so the people you work for are long shots. We have a lot of women we work for, and women are always the underdogs. You always approach a campaign as an underdog–you have to be more aggressive, you have to pull the thread of your opponent’s arguments and unravel them.
“In a perfect world I would have been a football coach,” she tells me. “But since girls don’t do that, I think this is my quirky, subconscious way of coaching a team.”
Continental Divide has generated a lot of excitement in its premiere engagement in Ashland, not only in this country but in England as well. It’s gotten a great deal of positive press and attention, and although most critics (and many theatregoers) think one of the scripts still has at least a few rough spots (David is working on what’s termed a “significant” rewrite of Daughters), there seems to be a general consensus that the intellectual scope and the ambition of what David and Tony are creating (with the help of a great bunch of actors, designers and technical staff) is unique and compelling.
As I write this, auditions are about to be held in Berkeley for some of the characters yet to be cast in the Rep production, which goes into rehearsal at the end of September. There are still four weeks to go in the Ashland run, and the New Hampshire Primary will be here before we know it.
Tony and I have talked quite a bit about politics over the years, and when we talked in Ashland on that chilly morning shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq, we were both feeling pretty demoralized about the future of democracy in America.
“The problem is,” Tony said to me, “democracy requires an enlightened citizenry, requires it, and if you don’t have an enlightened citizenry, politicians are like a bunch of salesmen.”
“Why do you think people go into politics?” I asked him. “What drives people to want to do it—is it idealism, ego, or a combination of the two?”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve come to think that politicians are the last place where any kind of real change is going to come from, because of the structure of the world now. I think that to get elected now, you’re so entrenched—so many people want something out of you. Obviously that’s not an inspiring insight, but I do think it’s absolutely the contradiction we all feel.”
There is a scene in Daughters of the Revolution where the character of Michael Bern—who is on a quest to find out who among his former ’60s radical comrades betrayed him and their shared values—confronts one of those comrades, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rebecca McKeene. Their argument centers on the idea of individual freedom: What is “selling out”? Is there is a “pure set of beliefs” that one either sticks to or runs away from? In the argument, Rebecca says to Michael that she believes “this country has the unique capacity to reinvent itself because of individual freedom, not despite it.”
“No,” he says emphatically. “I think it’s actually because, from time to time, there are groups of people in this country who are prepared to come together, to break the chains that bind them to the past, and consider the impossible. And I think the real division in this country is between those who think that if they come together, human beings can build anything, and those who want us kept apart.”
“Michael and Rebecca are both right,” Tony says to me. “Both sides need each other. But the questions the play poses for our time are, I think, tremendous.”
We go on talking about what the war with Iraq might mean in the larger sense, for both America and the world, and Tony says: “I think everybody in this country should be reading one book right now: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s exactly the story of a zealous political establishment that sought to increase its military boundaries beyond what its military could actually handle; a distracted, overfed population at home that never believed that the empire could fall; and the crumbling of the society from within and without at the same time. I think that’s exactly what’s happening.”
If only we knew.
August 2003, Berkeley
Things get curiouser and curiouser here in the “Golden State,” where the arts budget was slashed last week to one million dollars, or approximately three cents per citizen, and we are in the middle of an unprecedented recall election of Gov. Gray Davis.
I walked out to get the morning paper and learned that Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared his intention to run. Add him to a long list of other hopefuls, including Arianna Huffington, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente, actor/security guard Gary Coleman and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. It’s the kind of absurdity that gives the West Coast a bad reputation. Truth, or at any rate life, really is stranger than fiction. It’s a circus out here. I’m just grateful not to be Gray Davis’s campaign consultant.
Meanwhile, David has finished the Daughters of the Revolution rewrites, and Tony is excited about the new script.
“The forward dramatic movement of the piece is much stronger and the ideological parallels between the plays around the issue of utopia are much clearer,” he told me on the phone yesterday. I asked him what he thought about the current three-ring circus of California state politics, and whether or not David would somehow be incorporating elements of the madness into the new version. He said no, that would be impossible to do, but that the whole mess only makes the plays more relevant.
I worry about the state of electoral politics in my home state, and in this country, but at least for the next several months I’ll be part of a creative process that addresses that issue head-on. Who knows where it will all end?
Lorri Holt is an actress and writer based in Berkeley, Calif.
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