“A Bright Room Called Day” rises to the current political moment

The Williams Project is presenting Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day” at the Hillman City Collaboratory. (Photo courtesy The Williams Project.)

In the 1980s, Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner saw parallels between the Reagan administration and the 1930s transition of the German Weimar Republic to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. He wrote the play “A Bright Room Called Day” in response.

The Williams Project, a theater collective based in Seattle, saw a similarity between the current administration of President Donald Trump and those earlier eras in which democracy was threatened and artists had to balance the risks to their personal lives against their commitment to fight for true freedom, and they are bringing Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day” to the Hillman City Collaboratory.

“We were looking for a play that responded to the political and social moment we are facing in this country,” said Ryan Guzzo Purcell, artistic director of The Williams Project. “And we are always looking for plays that are able to simultaneously entertain and challenge our audience.”

“A Bright Room Called Day” takes place primarily in the living room of Agnes Eggling, who hosts a group of artists and activists in Berlin in 1932 to consider the political dangers of the times. They debate how much to resist the new administration and how much to protect their safety and families.

Purcell said that after reading Kushner’s play, the decision to produce it was easy.

“We laughed out loud, it was frightening and relevant, and it sparked a provocative conversation,” said Purcell, who is also directing the play.

Dedra D. Woods, who plays Annabella Gotchling, agrees.

“I was intrigued by the haunting similarities our nation currently finds itself in that are reflected in the play,” she said. “The point of view of the artist on Revolution and the creeping rise of fascism feels very relevant right now.”

“It’s so timely in light of our current political situation,” said Brandon J. Simmons, who plays the roles of Emil Traum and Gottfried Swetts. “I immediately thought, if every theater in the country isn’t falling over themselves to produce this play right now, I don’t know what they’re thinking.”

“The very notion of democracy as a legitimate form of government is being tested by the people holding power right now in the U.S. government right now, and it seems that we have a major political party that is actually undermining democratic norms and practices deliberately,” said Simmons. “This play highlights how fragile democracy is.”

The Williams Project, which draws its name from the playwright Tennessee Williams, strives to practice the values that they present onstage. “We as a company are committed to representing our community,” Purcell said. “We commit to having at least 50 percent people of color and 50 percent women or non-binary performers in our casts.”

Actor Grant Chapman, who plays the role of Gregor “Baz” Bazwald, especially appreciates this emphasis on diversity.

“Baz is a homosexual anarchist who works for the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality. He is outrageous, and also vulnerable, contradictory, very human,” Chapman said. “As a queer actor, it’s very meaningful to me to play queer characters of complexity.”

Beyond representation, The Williams Project also makes it a priority to pay artists a living wage. “We spend a very, very high proportion of our young company’s relatively small budget on paying people fairly for their work,” said Ellen Abram, producing director for The Williams Project. “As other expenses grow, it’s very easy to let artist wages be the first thing you cut, or keep stagnant.”

Abram said underpaying artists reinforces other systems of inequality and exclusion in the arts.

“Artists want to create together and so will work for less than they are worth, and then that labor exploitation becomes normalized and baked into the nonprofit theatre model,” she said. “We believe that that state of affairs is bad for the field, bad for the arts.

“Ultimately it harms Seattle audiences. Great actors have to move to other cities to make a living, or they leave the profession,” Abram said. “We have to take care of the people we work with first.”

Chapman feels that the company is diligent in putting its ethics into practice. “This is my fifth season with The Williams Project, and I always look forward to working with the company because of its deep commitment to artistic and social values,” he said.

Abram said that The Williams Project is about halfway to achieving its aim of paying a living wage. Right now, the organization pays actors $700 per week, and has a goal of paying actors $1,444 per week for 45 working weeks per year.

“Our goal is to continue to raise salaries to the point that an actor working with The Williams Project earns a living wage that reflects the realities of being a working artist, namely that it’s impossible to work 52 weeks per year,” she said. “We accomplish that with some tradeoffs in what else we can afford. For example, Williams Project shows tend to be designed with very small materials budgets and produced in community venues, and through vigorous, sustained fundraising efforts.”

The small design budget for “A Bright Room Called Day” was especially challenging for Purcell, who is also directing the play. “It’s a play written in the ‘80s, about the ‘30s, that is speaking really directly to Seattle in 2018, so one of the biggest challenges has been figuring out how to make sure those three times are all present and interlocking,” he said. “So, I worked with the design team to build a frame that could hold all of those times and characters.”

The show’s design includes set locations from the various eras of the ’30s, ’80s and the present The projected visual elements of the show likewise reflects famous people, images, and sayings from all three time periods.

This multiplicity of different times within the same space and same political trend is precisely what Kushner’s play emphasizes.

“When Tony Kushner first produced this play, there was a strong reaction from many who thought his comparisons of the two political leaders was too far-reaching,” Woods said.  “I would argue that today, when people see this, they may not feel the same. This play is set in two distinct time periods, but what’s happening can and will happen again if we are complacent.”

“A Bright Room Called Day” runs through Nov. 18 at the Hillman City Collaboratory, 5623 Rainier Avenue South, Seattle.

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