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Dark Entries: Jobsite and Dystopia

The other day, a long-time passholder told me how badly I creeped them out as O’Brien in 1984. They said it took a few years to hear my voice again and it not give them the heebie-jeebies. I remarked I was simultaneously shook and flattered to hear that.

1984 has been coming up a lot lately as we gear up for another dystopian stage adaptation in A Clockwork Orange. When I think about Jobsite’s aesthetic, dark adaptations of literature are for sure a big part of it. It’s hard to look through a single season and not see at least one title that fits the mold — it’s about as reliable as a Shakespeare title is.

One reason I’m drawn to these stories is because they are all so well-suited for a stage, for a live experience, they are inherently theatrical. And they usually afford us a lot of space to be as literal or figurative as we might like.

And, well, I guess growing up on a steady stream of sci-fi and horror and living a tres gothic lifestyle for a decade and a half didn’t hurt my tastes here.

Among these offerings we’ve also had Closetland, Fahrenheit 451, The Pillowman, Occupation, we’ve even managed dystopian comedies like boom! When asked why I’m drawn to these plays, my answers can vary from show to show and season to season, but at the core I believe in their power as cautionary tales. These are visions of the world as we don’t want it to be (dystopia was coined as a way of saying anti-utopia), and so hopefully we’re all thinking about that when we leave the theater and go back about our lives. The discomfort in the audience is intentional. Societal collapse is the result of human action (or inaction), and if that can be averted in even some small way through art that’s all I can ask for. All those many waterdrops breaking down that rock, right? When we wrote in our mission that we wanted to encourage people not to just be consumers but true citizens, this approach was part of how we planned on accomplishing that.

Now, two things here: I know that being made uncomfortable is not everyone’s thing (I think the theater is a space where we should be allowed to both comfort and unsettle), and I know not everyone will “get it” or even “get” the same thing. Case in point: during 1984, people saw whoever they disagreed with as Ingsoc. I would hear on any given night “This is what would happen if Hillary/Trump/Bernie were elected!” This also doesn’t surprise me about people.

If this makes sense, I am comforted by the discomfort in shows like this. Anne Washburn, who wrote Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (which, if you missed at freeFall a few years ago is a shame), says “[d]ystopias are soothing because the worst has already happened. What’s awful about right now is that we’re before whatever is next. We can’t start to cope because we’re all still being slung around by the future. Either this is the worst time, or it’s the easiest time and it gets much worse.”

Jennifer Haley, author of The Nether and Breadcrumbs (coming to Jobsite as a side project in March), argues that even in its darkness that fantasy realms (like online worlds and the theater) are still “more pleasant” than the real world. She even says of the past two years  “[w]e’ve been living under the illusion that we can reliably predict what our lives might look like a week, a month, year or two from where we are. All of a sudden, we don’t know.”

I think we crave these experiences, sure, not all of us, but there are enough of us out there. Consider the current popularity of shows like The Boys, Lovecraft Country and Handmaid’s Tale, even though television is not quite the same vehicle as getting the story in all three dimensions in front of you in a room full of strangers. I’ve heard from many over the years it’s easier for them to watch people do bad things on a screen than it is a few feet away from them.

To look at a novel like A Clockwork Orange in many ways it feels very here-and-now, as did 1984, not science fiction at all. I’m hoping the audience will notice that, too. I want people walking away talking about something more than the acting and the set, though I know that’s sometimes a tall order.

Audiences don’t want to be “taught” anything, and they certainly don’t want their minds changed (and does anyone really enjoy didactic theater?), but there is great power in throwing out some ideas set through the lens of a dark future and have them do the work on looping it back to their own lives.

When Jobsite started, the five of us looked around and wanted to make theater we didn’t see on the other stages here, theater that excited us. Darker work, dystopias, was at the core of that as you can clearly see in the first two plays that we produced, a pair of one acts. Howard Brenton’s Christie in Love is about a serial killer who is eventually brutally killed by the detectives investigating him. One for the Road is a warning about totalitarianism written by Harold Pinter as a response to Augustus Pinochet. We’ve also pretty much always offered a Halloween show with, I believe, maybe only one or two exceptions. This is all part of our aesthetic, and we’ve very fortunately built an audience hungry for this work.

Before I sign off, I want to say it again for the sake of repetition: please do not come to A Clockwork Orange expecting the 1971 film. This is not at all going to be the experience you’re in for. From the cast composition to the storytelling mode, to even the story itself this is NOT going to be Kubrick’s movie on stage, but instead our take on Anthony Burgess’ adaptation of his own novel. The book, the film, and this play all three exist in very unique spaces.

I’m not one to pick a medium over another. I like books, I like movies, I like TV shows, and I like theater. Works can go back and forth between one medium and the other, and I can appreciate the perspective gained through the strengths (and even weaknesses) of one form contrasted with another. I don’t want to be part of a world where I could only have just one, what fun is that? 🙂

I hope you’re able to come see our perspective on A Clockwork Orange, on stage Mar. 2-27 in the Shimberg Playhouse — our first time back “home” in two years! Shows are already selling out, opening weekend is gone, so make a plan and book today to get the date you want at the lowest price (tickets increase by date based on demand). A global price increase will happen Fri., Feb. 18, at noon. 

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