By Paul Bedard
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
The Debates has been, by far, our biggest project. It’s been through many iterations, encompassing dozens of public events, hundreds of people, and nearly a thousand footnotes in the published scripts.
The project began in Ithaca, NY, where I was serving as a Drama League Directing Fellow at the Hangar Theatre. It was Summer 2015: Obama was president, Bernie Sanders was a relative unknown, and our current clown-in-chief was still a harmless sideshow. The 2016 presidential campaign was just beginning in earnest, and I was curious to explore previous presidential debates. With an eager company of young actors, I began digging into excerpts of the infamous 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. We sought to explore what was specific to the very first televised debate, the debate that literally invented the genre. During this exploration, however, we discovered that the process—analyzing a debate transcript, having different people “try on” the candidates, and experimenting with candidates’ projected images—was more compelling and empowering than the show we initially set out to make. By the time my fellowship ended and I returned to New York, the Kennedy/Nixon idea was scrapped and we dove full steam ahead into what became The Debates 2016.
Between October 2015 and April 2016, we presented nine Watch Parties and Political Analysis Meetings; expanded our team of actors and researchers; and presented six distinct workshops, clarifying our newfound process along the way. By the time the field of candidates had dwindled to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, we had a show we were proud of. We presented The Debates 2016: Democratic Primary Edition in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, before each state’s primary, and the response was thrilling. NY City Lens wrote, "Not only was The Debates… about politics. It was politics." The Hartford Courant wrote, "[The Debates] was the way to spend the nervous hours before voting... Forthright, in-your-face, up-to-the-minute..."
That September, we began the process again with the general election. We watched and analyzed the debates, crafted a script and performed at the beloved Under St. Marks theater the night before Hillary Clinton’s assured victory. And… we all know how that election turned out. We learned, however, that our Debates work is strongest when it shines a light on challenging questions and complicated candidates. The problem with the 2016 general election was that, for our community, the decision was crystal clear. The notion of stepping into that particular Republican nominee’s shoes and words, with empathy, was just… not possible for us.
We believe there is an audience for a Debates show that includes our 45th president, and a company who can make it, but Theater in Asylum is not it. We do our best work when there is a diversity of political opinion in the room and when there’s something to debate. With the general election, we didn’t have those things. The choice was clear for our community, and this led to a production that didn’t expose choices or the debate we assumed was needed.
In the last four years, the country has changed in ways we never thought imaginable. The urgency around the 2020 election couldn’t be higher, and when the Democratic primary debates started in June 2019, it was clear that we needed to mount another Debates show. The Debates 2020 roared with excitement, following over 20 candidates with 12 Watch Parties, 10 Political Analysis Meetings, 5 Cabarets, and a much-needed debate about the candidates and issues. We had political diversity in the room, with a left contingent split between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and a moderate contingent that split and shifted throughout the year. When the pandemic struck and the production was cancelled, we were again at a loss. What do we do with this work?
With the country facing both a raging virus and an urgent reckoning with race, we moved online and reframed much of the show. The Debates 2020 performed on Zoom just before New York’s rescheduled primary on June 21, 2020, and while the race for the Democratic nomination was largely already decided, the piece bloomed and provoked an incredible conversation about our country that reverberated in our community for weeks. Who were we and who are we, really, as a country? What does it mean to rally behind a candidate –– which parts of their and your own identity are you connecting to? And which parts are you disconnecting from?
I am immensely proud of The Debates and the team who followed its evolving raison d'être. I’m so grateful to these people for their bravery and curiosity. Our scripts are still online, available to all. I don’t know how they’ll age and I'll be curious to revisit them in a few months or a few years, after we’ve hopefully begun healing and growing as a nation. I know that the work we did on the 2016 and 2020 primary contests was relevant and useful to the team and our community. I look forward, with hope, to future debates and the chance to ask again: who are we, and who do we want to be?
By Paul Bedard
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
Early in 2015, while preparing to apply to be a Drama League Directing Fellow, I was devouring scripts and trying to come up with brilliant production ideas to include in my application. Daunted by the amount of reading and the often-dispiriting notion of having brilliant ideas alone, some friends and I began meeting to read and discuss plays together. This was in the basement of the indoor kids playground where I worked at the time, and the casual gathering quickly grew into one of Theater in Asylum’s most successful and enduring programs.
Six years and 90 plays later, the Cold Reading series remains one of my favorite things. For those who have never been, we gather with no preparation to read and then discuss a play. For years, Katie or I facilitated each Cold Reading, but about a year ago we started commissioning guest facilitators, which opened up the curation of plays and has been so wonderful. This year our playwrights Gethsemane Herron-Coward and Willie Johnson, playwright and director Ran Xia, and actors Kara Hankard, Jonas Cohen, and Manuela Sosa all facilitated. Our Community Engagement Manager Hilarie Spangler has also been facilitating. We’ve assembled quite the team to pick plays and run readings!
Looking back on all the plays we’ve read, however, some interesting trends emerge. The two eras we’ve read from the most are the 1990s and the 1930s. After the United States, the country whose plays we’ve read the most is Germany, followed by the UK. Our most repeated playwrights are Bertolt Brecht and Caryl Churchill. The oldest plays we read are by Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, who lived from 935-1001. The newest plays we’ve read are from this year, written in quarantine by dozens of playwrights, commissioned by the Play at Home series.
When New York went into quarantine earlier this year, we shifted our monthly in-person gatherings to weekly online gatherings. Our community grew both in number and geographical reach, with people outside of New York newly able to participate. We now regularly have readers from multiple states, countries, and even continents. The discussions have also grown. While we nearly always discuss questions like, “What stood out?” and “What challenges would arise in producing this today?”, the pandemic, the uprising for Black lives, and the upcoming election have brought tremendous urgency to the issues of societal responsibility, equity, representation, power, and protest. These have supercharged our discussions recently and brought necessary lenses to work new and old.
Looking ahead, we’ll reach our 100th Cold Reading this December and I couldn’t be more proud and grateful. Cold Readings began as a place to share an overwhelming stack of plays to read for an application (which succeeded, by the way), but has since grown to something so much more valuable. I cherish my Wednesday nights and look forward to the plays, the completely unprepared performances, and the thrilling discussions with friends.
By Katie Palmer
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
By 2015 Paul and I had created five original shows. Being the lead creative forces behind shows was exhausting! But it was also limiting the stories we could tell and how we could tell them. Relatedly, I had always wanted to write a musical. I had performed in them for twenty years and I wanted to add my voice to this canon I loved so much. And I found the most incredible partners to write it with, who I knew were special right away. You know those spark moments when you just know the event or the person is important? Meeting Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed and then Sarah Ziegler was just like that.
The idea for creating a show around the Brontë sisters was Lucas’ idea. At the very end of a 2-hour lunch at AppleJack Diner on Broadway and 55th Street, after Lucas had pitched every idea he’d ever had for a musical, he tossed out “What about Charlotte and Emily Brontë, who wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights?” It was a giant lightbulb moment: here were misunderstood artistic geniuses who railed against their society to prove their worth—the perfect TIA subjects.
We met with Sarah a few weeks later at a Starbucks in Tribeca, and the rest is history. Well, the rest was actually an incredible amount of research, drafting, workshopping, and dreaming. Lucas composed, Sarah wrote the lyrics, and the three of us collaborated on the book. The process culminated in a glorious three-night run outdoors, behind the Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn. While there are many things to be proud of from that production, I think I am most proud of how mesmerizing the experience of the show was: the simple set, evocative costumes, bold lighting outdoors, top-notch orchestra, and stunning performances against a backdrop of an 18th century house on a magical New York summer night. It doesn’t get any better than that.
At this time, Paul was also expanding his crew of collaborators, finding himself drawn to the political and the zany. After directing a few shows by the incredible playwright Alice Pencavel, the perfect show arose for a Theater in Asylum collaboration: Totally Wholesome Foods. The piece, a satire about well-meaning Brooklynites who face a choice between their “woke” values and their livelihoods, won a residency to be produced at the Episcopal Actors’ Guild. It was our first out-right comedy and our first production where neither Paul nor I had a writing credit, and the show was utterly, totally awesome.
Earlier this year, we collaborated with another playwright, the amazing Willie Johnson. Anyone who knows Willie can tell you that he brings playfulness, deep rigor, and a political emphasis to his work. He studies the theories behind his work and Hephaestus was no exception. Epic in scale, the piece wove multiple Greek myths together, exploring ancient and modern notions of work, beauty, class, and dis/ability. With an incredible team of actors and designers, and the support of the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, we shared three exciting performances of Hephaestus just before New York City shut down in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
We are so grateful to these collaborating lead artists for entrusting us with their stories and expanding the scope of what a TIA show could be. Thank you for your inspiration, generosity, and passion.
Theater in Asylum (TIA) is a New York-based theater company founded in 2010 to challenge and empower our community. TIA joyfully pursues a rigorous research and an ensemble-driven approach to theater-making. We create performances to investigate our past, interpret our present, and imagine our future. We prize space to process, space to question—asylum—for ourselves and our community. Core programs include original productions; themed cabarets to present new work from our community; and Cold Readings to read and discuss published plays.
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