Electing a dictator...it can't happen here, right?
Oct. 22, 2017
I've just finished the scenic design for a play opening at Foothill College's Lohman Theater next month (November 3-19). It Can't Happen Here (ICHH) is based on the novel, and then the play, written by Sinclair Lewis circa 1936. Berkeley Rep reworked the piece in 2015, just a year before the 2016 presidential election. The premise of the play is to ask Americans—what would happen if we elected a dictator? How could this event possibly come about? What would our lives look like when a power hungry politician suspends our basic civil rights?
Of course, It starts out innocent enough. In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt fails in his bid for a second presidential term. Instead, a fast talking and charming politician, Buzz Windrip, promises depression-era Americans that he'll give them each $5000 after he is elected, as well as, steer the country back to 'traditional' American values. The downtrodden voters, barely surviving after the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression, enthusiastically vote Windrip into office against the protests of liberals who label him a demagogue. Sound familiar? It should. The director, Bruce McLeod, makes no bones about relating our current political climate to financial and political strife during the 1930s. Foothill's website states It Can't Happen Here is a "cautionary dark satire about the fragility of democracy in the land of liberty." Did Lewis himself have someone in mind who characterized this type of candidate? Historians believe the character was based on the Louisiana's Senator Huey Long.
For the set design, the director wanted a set that was very simple, evoking the feeling of the Great Depression through color and materials. We chose to create a unit set showing a worn, wooden wall with iron struts and sliding doors painted in a muted color scheme. Viewers may come to see the more disturbing metaphor of the design further into the play. On the floor is painted an abstract mix of semi-recognizable items relating to the plot. Poles flank both sides of the stage, acting as anchors for platforms suspended overhead. Even the theater's catwalks reinforce the totalitarian theme. Overall, I think the design will aid the audience in suspending reality and help them become part of this fascist world.
Incidentally, ICHH isn't the only play being produced around town whose political message is ripe for a discontented audience, electorate, and consumer. An Enemy of the People, at Pear Theater, asks 'How vicious and wrong can a majority be?' The 19th century play by Henrik Ibsen also addresses clashes between society and politics, placing emphasis on doing the right thing vs. making a buck. An upstanding citizen and local newspaper man exposes the dark secret that the city's water isn't safe to bath or drink. The whistleblowing upsets both the business and political machines in this spa town, ultimately vilifying the messenger and setting citizens against each other. The press release from Pear Theater states, "Ibsen's story of a altruistic man undermined by people concerned with profit still rings disturbingly true." With corporate contaminations and disasters all around us the play is surely striking a dissonant note in the environmentally conscious but business friendly Silicon Valley.