In the Wake
Written by Lisa Kron
Directed by Leigh Silverman
In association with Center Theatre Group
Main Season · Roda Theatre
May 14–June 27, 2010
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Berkeley Rep and Center Theatre Group present a powerful world premiere from the creators of Broadway’s Well. After an idyllic Thanksgiving filled with food, football, family and friends, a woman discovers how one passionate act can affect everything—her faith in love, her faith in country, her faith in herself. This tale of heartache and hope unfolds amidst the turmoil of American politics in the 21st century. Obie Award-winners Lisa Kron and Leigh Silverman reunite for a searing show which questions whether we as Americans appreciate our freedom.
Lisa Kron · Playwright
Leigh Silverman · Director
David Korins · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting and Projection Design
Cricket S. Myers · Sound Design
Pier Carlo Talenti · Dramaturg
Bonnie Grisan · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Erika Sellin · Casting
Elizabeth Atkinson · Stage Manager
Elissa Weinzimmer · Assistant Director
Emily Donahoe · Amy
Carson Elrod · Danny
Andrea Frankle · Kayla
Miriam F. Glover · Tessa
Deirdre O’Connell · Judy
Heidi Schreck · Ellen
Danielle Skraastad · Laurie
“The characters are smart, quick and attractive. But what’s astonishing is the ease and wit with which Kron and director Leigh Silverman—the same team that created the brilliant Well—make the rapid volley of political arguments and artistic concepts not only exciting but also funny, moving and undeniably sexy. The heady blend of smart dialogue and characters, depicted by a superb cast, at times makes it a candidate to be the Angels in America of the Bush II decade…You’ll want to be able to say you saw it.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A smart and savory feast of angst and ideas…bursting with equal parts metaphor, romance and rhetoric. The personal and the political collide in this riveting world premiere…It’s impossible to deny the relevance of its themes, such as the legacy of Bush America in the world today.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
American leftists (or progressives, depending on where you align yourself on the liberal spectrum) have been in a quandary ever since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seeming triumph of capitalism, the political history of the past 30 years has been largely the story of Republican ascendancy. Even the intervening Clinton years were marked more by a sense of compromising the liberal voices within the Democratic party to win over those in favor of a more conservative agenda. And then came George W. Bush…
The Bush presidency catalyzed nothing short of a collective, massive depression among liberal activists. Beginning with the wildly contentious decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the results of his first election, many on the left moved from outrage, to worry, to resignation—a cycle of emotions that would repeat itself many times during the ensuing eight years. It was a cycle that left many feeling dispirited, alone and exhausted.
But none of us wants to stay depressed. No matter how dire we think the circumstances, we all seek hope, yearn for a future that promises some degree of possibility, security and happiness. Perhaps it is in our cultural DNA as eternally optimistic Americans, or the fact that as a species, we seek to find meaning in everything. “Things happen for a reason,” we say to ourselves, and if we can simply get back to the essential goodness of life, all will be well.
Which is why Lisa Kron’s new play, In the Wake, is so poignant. Fighting conventional wisdom, she has dared to turn her critical lens onto the liberal left. Armed with a keen understanding of class entitlement and the danger of defining happiness as the fulfillment of one’s desire, Lisa dares not only to ask the question “how bad is it?” (pretty bad, we all know, is the answer), but also “how has the left been complicit?” Moreover, “how has the very nature of our desire to be happy blinded us to real issues?” Lisa’s answers are excruciatingly, thrillingly clear. And complicated. And liberating.
Very few writers have the courage to dissect their own communities. Even fewer can make the connection between our political life and our personal behavior. Lisa Kron has done both in this play. Together with her chief and closest collaborator, director Leigh Silverman, and a host of great designers and actors, she has invited us to take a long, hard look at who we are, who we have become. A play for Berkeley, to be sure. A play for every American. And a great way to end our season.
Thanks for all your support.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Rocco Landesman, the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) visited the Bay Area a few weeks ago, championing his theme of “Art Works.” Landesman wants to convince our governmental leaders that investment in the arts makes good economic as well as civic sense, and he argues that a robust dedication to art and culture paid dividends in 1935 when the government committed the extraordinary sum of $7 billion to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Franklin Roosevelt. (That would be an astonishing $160 billion dollars today!) The WPA seeded the artistic careers of such giants as Saul Bellow, William deKooning, Zora Neale Hurston and Mark Rothko. The program also subsidized distinctive public art that graces post offices, schools and civic structures to this day and provided meaningful work for thousands of artists during a period of bleak economic opportunity.
You may wonder why I hearken back to a 1930s jobs program as we open this marvelous, 21st-century play. There is a connection. While In the Wake is the final play of our subscription season, it is certainly not the end of our programming for the 2009–10 season. Throughout June, our Thrust Stage will be host to the new Fireworks festival, a showcase of pieces by David Sedaris and two distinguished Bay Area artists. Fireworks began as a week of readings by David Sedaris, but through a small but mighty investment in art that was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, we were able to expand the festival to include two local performers. Wes “Scoop” Nisker, the well-known radio personality, will command the stage in Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again, then Dan Hoyle will bring his already lauded production Tings Dey Happen to the East Bay for the first time as well as his fascinating new piece, The Real Americans, based on reflections from his travels across this country.
Last summer, tucked within the $787 million stimulus package, Congress authorized $50 million to be distributed by the NEA for projects that would expand employment in the arts. Berkeley Rep received one of a handful of local, $50,000 grants for this purpose. We put that grant to use, reinstating one of the staff positions that had been eliminated when we downsized, and extending employment for other staff members who would otherwise have been laid off immediately after we opened In the Wake.
That investment by the NEA made it possible for us to launch the Fireworks festival, extending the benefit of that initial NEA grant by hiring Scoop and Dan, and by providing additional work to concessionaires, box office, technical crew and maintenance staff. Now that the festival is established, we have the opportunity to accommodate other artists we are excited about bringing to Berkeley Rep.
The benefit of that money will soon extend beyond Berkeley Rep. When we keep our doors open throughout the summer, our audiences support nearby restaurants, while we support the bakeries and vineyards that supply our lobby concessions and the hardware stores and specialty shops that provide the raw materials for our productions. The impact of that $50,000 will pay dividends beyond the pleasure of seeing these talented artists on our stage.
When Landesman argues that Art Works, he means it—and we are the proof.
In the Wake in context
By Madeleine Oldham
In a conversation with Lisa Kron, I asked her if she intended to write In the Wake with systems theory in mind. She smiled and said no, but that her father was very familiar with systems thinking, and that it probably infiltrated her brain from a young age. This came as no surprise to me, as she has written a play that embodies so many of the concepts and ideas behind this worldview that it belies a knowledge of the subject, whether conscious or not.
Systems theory is a relatively recent field that developed in opposition to the dominant 20th-century scientific position that celebrated a mechanistic approach: things could be better understood if they were taken apart and examined in isolation, stripped of relationship. Systems thinkers, on the other hand, believe that context is crucial, and that any whole proves greater than the mere sum of its parts.
Arising out of sciences like physics and biology, the principles quickly branched out into philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, spirituality, environmentalism and the list goes on. The term “living systems” surfaced because things were always studied in relationship to their environments, no longer solely as the things themselves. A metaphor of the earth as a living, breathing entity replaced that of the world-as-machine.
Systems theory is heady stuff but can essentially be described as the study of interconnectedness. It examines the world from a holistic standpoint and suggests that interrelatedness is the key to understanding our experience. The seemingly insurmountable problems of our world all relate to each other, and if we can unlock how, we might be able to affect the change we so longingly strive to achieve.
The concept of the “butterfly” or “ripple” effect arose alongside this line of thinking in the 1960s. It came from an experiment conducted by a meteorologist who discovered that the tiniest changes in weather conditions could result in vastly different manifestations. This helped the world understand why it’s virtually impossible to predict the weather more than a day or two in advance with any kind of certainty. The idea of minuscule actions having great consequences caught on, and examples could be seen in everything from the “practice random acts of kindness” campaign to Rosa Parks’ legendary bus ride. Recent history saw the fate of a nation depending on a handful of votes in a Florida recount. In this way, the personal really does become political.
Which brings us to Lisa Kron’s play. Kron sets up her protagonist, Ellen, as an allegory for America. Dynamics at work in Ellen’s personal life mirror dynamics inherent in contemporary American society. There is a literal aspect to this, as Ellen is a political animal: she actively participates in the political process, cares about decisions her country makes and sees herself as a citizen with not only a responsibility but also a mandate due to her deep investment in American democracy to speak out against what she feels is wrong.
But Kron offers us a deeper metaphor with a systemic look at the relationship among some basic American principles: hard work will generate success, growth and expansion will yield prosperity, equal opportunity does exist, life can and should be fair, it is possible to have it all. As a society we tend to take these ideas for granted and accept them unconditionally. The play asks us to think twice about those assumptions, and the story weaves them together to illuminate how they work in cooperation with one another.
Living systems theory replaces hierarchy with networks. Where often human beings have adopted a position at the top of an evolutionary pyramid, systems thinkers see people as one part of a web of life that weights their participation equally with that of beetles or bears. (The term “web of life” comes from Fritjof Capra’s book The Web of Life, the systems bible of sorts.) American democracy represents this idea in action with its built-in system of checks and balances. The play has much to say on the subject of what happens when the web-like aspects of democracy are in danger of being supplanted by more hierarchical policies.
In her personal life, Ellen’s choices and values reflect a systemic way of moving through the world. She chooses a family for herself that doesn’t operate under the traditional hierarchical model with parents at the helm and children underneath. Instead, she seeks out a network of peers and friends that creates a different kind of family.
Ellen also invites chance into her world, in a heroically determined effort to accept change as an intrinsic part of life. This idea can also be found in systems thinking. Adapting to change forces a system to move forward and remain vital, instead of stagnating and fading. This is modeled everywhere in nature: the progression of seasons, weather, the tides, the cycles of the moon, the orbit of the earth, the life cycle of plants and animals, etc.
Systemic thought is closely aligned with some aspects of chaos theory such as the idea that the unexpected is unavoidable and randomness is an essential part of a healthy network. Remaining open to possibility and incorporating the random, as opposed to fending it off, is believed to create robust systems. (This, of course, is in direct competition with the human tendency to resist change and hold on to the present or the past. In other words, easier said than done.)
In addition, we see the effects of systemic thinking in the current global conversation about sustainability. The recent emergence of the word in common parlance indicates a move away from the desire to dominate and conquer—exhausting finite resources and the relentless pursuit of progress no matter the planetary costs—and toward a future of cooperation and relationship. We are finally beginning to understand that what we do as individuals, as families, as governments, as cities and as nations can be felt worldwide.
But the play offers us a cautionary pause, reminding us that human nature can never really be ignored, and that danger lies in even the best of intentions. It asks us to think about whether the particularly American value of unlimited expansion and unchecked growth can live in harmony with the rest of the world. It calls on us to reflect upon our beliefs, our politics, our principles, our truths, and think about them not in isolation, but in concert with those of others. It ultimately illuminates the difficult yet essential fact that our fates are entwined with the fates of our families and friends, our cities and countries, our land and our planet, and that we must ensure that our needs and desires don’t consume us at their expense.
Jane Jacobs is beloved by In the Wake’s Ellen and Amy, but also by systems thinkers. She dedicated her life to preserving and creating our nation’s urban neighborhoods, relentlessly asking whether we were building cities for people or for cars. She fought tirelessly against metropolitan highway construction and became famous for leading the opposition that eventually killed the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway in Manhattan.
Her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities did more than just criticize urban sprawl as it proceeded to offer practical alternative solutions. She applied these principles to an even larger context in her 2000 book The Nature of Economies, which is 150 pages long. She managed to address a topic so lofty in such a succinct manner because of her common sense and contextual approach. Her work remains influential in economic development and urban renewal today.
In the Wake revisits the 2000 presidential election and Sept. 11
So the US will always end up prospering? Kron has some doubts.
By Charlotte Stoudt
Elections. Breakups. Thanksgivings from hell. Lisa Kron’s new play, In the Wake, follows a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown: type-A journalist Ellen, whose certainty about politics and love gets blown out of the water. In the Wake promises to generate plenty of conversation—no matter whom you voted for in the last election. Kron’s comedy of deprecation and provocative social critique is part Sedaris, part Kushner, yet utterly her own. Her Obie-winning solo show, 2.5 Minute Ride, examined Holocaust survivor guilt by way of roller coasters. Well, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award for lead actress, looked at racism via food allergies and her childhood in Lansing, Mich. Kron teaches playwriting at Yale University and is working on a musical with Jeanine Tesori (Shrek the Musical, Caroline, or Change). She took a break from rehearsals of In the Wake to dish about art, Obama, and her love-hate relationship with LA.
In the Wake takes us back to the contested election of 2000, Sept. 11, and the 2004 election. Are we going to have fun, or is this going be a post-traumatic stress experience for both Democrats and Republicans?
The play spans the Bush years, but it’s not about that time period. It’s about the bigger question of the American character: the assumption in this country that there’s only so far we can fall. That we will always revert to prosperity and stability. Why do we think that? What is that belief based on? It’s a kind of collective blind spot. The play is also about what happens when your personal ethics diverge with the people you’re closest to. You thought you felt the same way, but actually there’s something so different between you. And there’s a lot of humor in the play.
How do you see Ellen, your protagonist, as emblematic of America?
Ellen has an idea of herself as capable of infinite expansion. Her heart has never been broken. Even those of us on the left, who think we see things clearly, are very invested in believing that the way we live is ultimately sustainable. That our comfortable lives won’t go away and that we’re not hurting anybody. The right and the left are always filled with self-justification. Writing about politics and belief is difficult because those of us who want to criticize politics are caught up in the very thing we’re objecting to. We are that thing too.
Do you think politics ultimately boils down to emotion?
All emotions are beliefs. When you feel something, it either confirms or challenges something you believe. The writer Charles Baxter says every time we talk about another person, we’re defining ourselves. Whether we’re referring to our sister or George Bush, we’re basically saying: “That’s exactly right” or “I would never do that.” That extends to politics. We’re constantly aligning ourselves. It’s a process of individuation.
One of the play’s themes is how blind we are to our true desires. Ellen finds herself attracted to a woman, Amy.
But it’s not a coming-out play. The fact that Ellen’s transformation involves a woman is incidental. Ellen has a great life with her male partner—she didn’t know she was missing anything. Then suddenly Amy shows up. She offers Ellen an emotional permeability she’s never imagined.
The love scenes between Amy and Ellen are particularly intense. How are you approaching the staging?
It’s almost impossible to find women who can play sexuality that’s not coy, that’s not a mating call for men—you know, hair flipping. But these actresses have gotten on this ride in a big way. The seduction scene is pretty hot. They’re steaming it up.
You’re a founding member of the satirical Five Lesbian Brothers. How has being a lesbian informed expectations of your work?
I started out in the ‘80s at the Wow Café, a lesbian collective in New York. It changed my life. It was a place that was not invested in doctrinaire political correctness and therefore enormously alive. And because we were lesbians, no one was paying attention to us. If you’re only doing something for yourself, you can do incredible things. There’s no explaining. Being out became such a given. It was very interesting when I took my work out to regional theaters. One of my first solo shows was 101 Humiliating Stories. It wasn’t political at all. But about 10 minutes into the show, I would casually identify myself as a lesbian. I remember watching men in the audience recoil, like, “Nobody told me I signed up for this!” They just assumed it was OK to identify with my humor.
A female director won the best director Oscar for the first time in 82 years. Do you think women have become stronger advocates for themselves?
We’re all still working on that. It’s amazing. [Director Leigh Silverman] has to keep pushing the actresses in our show to come forward, literally. Not to shrink back, physically or vocally, when their characters argue about ideas. Ambition is complicated for everybody, including me. I’m not straight, but I am a Midwesterner! Don’t get too big for your britches and all that. But ambition is the fuel in your car. You just want to intersect with the world in a big way.
Who would you say does ambition well?
The lack of need to be deferential can allow other things to happen. Look at Rachel Maddow or Ellen DeGeneres.
In the Wake was commissioned by the Taper while Bush was still president. Has Obama’s presidency refracted any of your ideas?
In the worlds of money and power, you start to realize there are people who just thrive on chaos. That’s part of what’s happening to Obama right now, with the Republicans. He brings them into the room and listens. He believes a certain dynamic can be transformed. But what if it can’t? Now if I’m asking that question, he asked it a long time ago. Obama plays a long game like no politician I’ve seen in my lifetime. He doesn’t get caught in the talking heads like Clinton did. We’ll see if it works.
Where do you get your news?
Bill Moyers. Kevin Phillips. Even Eliot Spitzer’s saying if we think things are getting better, we’re deluded. States are literally seizing up—Californians know this very well.
You lived in Los Angeles for a time. Discuss.
LA has amazing things and amazingly talented people, but the layout encourages atomization. Living in a place where people’s garage doors face the street makes me apoplectic. I loved Griffith Park but I would always get lost. I’d find myself in some ravine as it was getting dark, realizing I was surrounded by coyotes and rattlesnakes. I was going to be that woman on the 6 o’clock news people would watch and say, “Why did we pay to airlift that crazy woman out the woods?”
If you could change something about yourself without too much pain, what would it be?
Answering my email. I’m appallingly bad at it. I can’t answer an email quickly. It takes hours. How do other people do it? I know, this is actually my answer to your question.
In the Internet age, what makes theatre still relevant?
Theatre’s operating principle is based on a universal human truth: all of us are completely innocent of the coming moment. No matter who you are, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. When we come up against that, it makes us feel alive. Accidents, sporting events, deathbeds, birth: that’s when we consciously feel the stuff of life. We like to watch characters because we get to see the way they define themselves, but also what they can’t see. Theater is always about the blind spot. That’s what makes it so compelling. None of us see the whole picture of ourselves.
Los Angeles Times, Copyright 2010. Reprinted with Permission.
Sneak a peek at Lisa Kron’s In the Wake, where passion and politics ignite.