Two years ago Donald Trump became president, and whatever else happened, everybody knew the world would never again be the same. Lines were drawn in the sand. The world convulsed in massive protests. People who avoided politics like the plague found themselves looking for any way to get involved, to make a change, to act.
For someone like Mariel Sierra, a theater artist who considers herself an activist within her field, the 2016 election was a moment of self-reckoning. “How do I fix it?” she asked herself. “How do I problem-solve, what is the active thing I can do?” The action turned out to be theater. Nationally renowned playwright Lauren Gunderson waived the fees for the rights to her plays on Jan. 20, 2016 for anyone who wanted to do a staged reading.
Sierra had met Gunderson in Portland in 2015, when Profile Theatre had staged a reading of Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists (which is being produced at Artists Rep this season), had been in contact with her via social media, and found she “really liked her work and her voice as an artist.” So when the announcement about waiving the royalties came down, Sierra was ready. “I immediately texted, called, corralled Lauren Bloom Hanover, McKenna Twedt, Katie Watkins and Lindsay Huff and asked them if they wanted to do this with me. I was still working with (Portland director) Asae Dean at the time, so we got the rights through Salt and Sage,” Dean’s production company.
The play Sierra chose was Gunderson’s The Taming, a three-person farce that covers a large swath of the American political spectrum. Her production opens Friday, Oct. 26, at CoHo Productions and continues through Nov. 17.
The Taming is one of a trio of Gunderson’s plays that is inspired by a Shakespearean counterpart, along with Exit Pursued by a Bear and Toil and Trouble. Sierra produced her reading at Portland Actors Conservatory, then still at its converted firehouse space, and all proceeds went to Planned Parenthood. “It was so much fun,” remembers Sierra, “and so precious and felt so current and we thought, ‘We need to produce this.’”
Lauren Bloom Hanover, who not only performs in the play but is also one of the producers, actually had read the first draft of the script in Gunderson’s living room (they’re friends) years ago. She remembers that when she did the reading with Sierra, “It felt valuable and relevant. Topical. And it’s only become more so.” There were times, perhaps too often, when the news of the day reflected or informed the work that was going on in the rehearsal room. “It’s been really exciting and also hard in that there have been days where the news of the day shows up in the room more than any other project I’ve ever worked on.”
The plot sounds simple enough. Katherine Chelsea Hartford (played by McKenna Twedt) is “our Miss Georgia,” laughs Sierra, “our beauty queen, who is the mastermind behind this plot of constitutional reform to make a more perfect union.” To achieve her perfect union, Hartford kidnaps two women from opposite ends of the political spectrum – Patricia (Hanover), a Republican aide, and Bianca (Katie Watkins), a liberal blogger – and hilarity ensues. Extremist politics? Kidnapping? The dangers of social media? All rich material for a 21st century farce. “I love comedy,” says Sierra. “I think it’s an important tool for people and for artists.”
Hanover concurs. “It’s talking about heavy stuff in a way that allows the audience to laugh. It’s a satirical farce or a farcical satire, depending on your perspective.” If those characters sound like straitjacketed political stereotypes, that’s not an accident. “There are very specific archetypes,“ says Sierra, “by which you can be successful as a woman in politics. But those markers of success were built by men, so that the feeling is always going to be there that your parameters of success are controlled by a system that was built to not want you there in the first place. But in this play, the women break it.”
Hanover believes this is important. “It’s a play about three women with very different ways of looking at the world and coming together and arguing a whole lot about this country’s politics and this country’s structure. I think that’s a conversation worth having right now, particularly when it’s being had in the mouths of women.”
It seems that if the play seems “feminist,” it is because the conversation being had is being had by women. “The truth is this play is not partisan,” Gunderson, the author, said in a statement. “It is about bringing together different perspectives around a few central tenets: that what should make this country great is our collaboration and appreciation for the differences that make us unique, diverse and strong-hearted.”
Inherent in the structure of the play is one basic tenet of the 21st century: In the immortal words of Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, “sisters are doing it for themselves.” And that’s not only in the script. Besides Sierra and Hanover, the other prime movers of this project have been the other two cast members, McKenna Twedt and Katie Watkins. Twedt’s been an underrated talent in Portland for years, and Watkins has been a multifaceted performer and producer all over the country. Together the four women made for a formidably capable team. Which was good. They needed each other.
“I’ve worked with all of them in so many different capacities over the last couple of years and I have varying degrees of personal relationships with all of them,” says Sierra. “I admire them as artists but I also admire them as businesswomen who’ve been in theater, because they’re bosses and they’re brilliant and they’re smart and fun and compassionate. Everyone is so different but they all have such integrity as artists. I knew they would actually get shit done.” Even with plenty else going on in their lives. Hanover, Twedt, and Watkins had full-time jobs and romantic partners, and Hanover also has a child. On top of that, they were often working on more than just this project.
Because of course, this is the reality of producing theater in Portland. “You can’t support yourself with your work,” says Sierra. “I do wish there was more support for theater. Like, institutionally and financially, to do the work. I wish we had umbrella HR departments. I’m really, really proud of my work on this show. I’m really, really proud of the work by everyone on this team. I haven’t wondered this yet but I will probably in a week and a half: Could the work have been better if I hadn’t had to get up at five in the morning to go build this flat? You know, things that are necessary when you’re producing your own work.” Hanover concurs. “We all have to have day jobs and there’s never enough time to focus on it the way I wish I could.”
On the other hand, it helped that all of them had done some producing before, in Twedt’s case even at CoHo, where she produced the well-received Playhouse Creatures two seasons ago. “We have been really lucky,” says Sierra, “in that everyone’s so smart and everyone’s been through this already so we made sure to delegate the right task to the right people.” “We divvied up responsibilities,” says Hanover, “to match talents and skill sets.”
The two-year process was hard, in the way that producing theater is always hard. But now the fruit of the labor is here. “My hope with this play,” says Sierra, “is to start conversation and to bring different people together and to find light in the midst of everything that’s happening.”
Feminist. Non-partisan. Satire. Farce. There are a lot of labels The Taming could fall under, and the four producers reject them all and embrace them all. The point is to get people to participate. “We specifically asked for this time slot,” laughs Hanover, “so we would be book-ending the election. We wanted to hit everyone right in their most political moment.”
The Taming opens Friday, Oct. 26, and continues through Nov. 17 at CoHo Theatre in Northwest Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.