Andy and Genevra are both alumni of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, where they were among the writers and performers of the original 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. They live in the Chicago area with their “beautiful daughter and their two stupidly cute dogs.”
MRT: What about this play makes people excited to see it and feel connected with the story?
ANDY: I think nearly everyone is interested in presidential history; they just can’t conceive of having the time to learn it. So one appeal is like the impulse you have to read an article titled “5 things you absolutely must know before you refinish your basement.” You think, “THANKS, Neo-Futurists! Now I know who Benjamin Harrison is and it only cost me $20!”
But there’s something deeper that people connect with, especially during an election that’s so unprecedented. When you’re in the midst of a historical change, perspective is very foggy. You have no ground under your feet. It feels like the country is losing its moorings. And then you see a show like this and you’re reminded… “Oh yeah…we’ve been around for 240 years and we’ve been through 56 elections. We’ve survived so much change, so many contentious public debates, so many crises. We’ve fallen apart completely—literally killed each other—and then became whole again. We got this. I can do this. Gimme that ballot. I’m good.”
GENEVRA: A lot of people leave this show with a greater sense of ownership over the American political process. There is great power inherent in the right to vote, and the show seeks to honor that.
And I think people feel inspired by the very genuine balance of greatness and the mundane in each of the president’s lives. The show provides an opportunity for empathy in recognizing the humanity of each president, while realizing the power and impact of the electorate – the populace – on each of their lives.
MRT: Was it tricky to balance a President’s portrayal as a human being with their political legacy?
GENEVRA: I found the plays about the lesser-known presidents much easier to write than those presidents for whom there is a collective cultural narrative. Understanding a president as a fully complex and complicated human being becomes easier when there’s no preconceived (or pre-learned) notion about that person’s motivations, desire, or missteps.
MRT: Any examples of one that was tougher?
GENEVRA: The one I struggled with the most, initially, was Kennedy. He is such a looming figure – both on a political and personal level – and one for whom most people have some sort of association, be it through personal experience, stories told by family members, or media portrayals. Thus, I felt the best thing to do was to turn the narrative over to the people.
I also felt that he was such a large presence that Jackie got lost in his shadow quite a bit, as well as in our cultural memory; we see her as a foil for him, rather than as a distinct person. So my goal was also to physically make her the anchor of the play.
MRT: Have you found that some plays generate a lot of audience feedback after the show—either positive or negative?
ANDY: I’ve seen some negative feedback here and there, but honestly, it’s rare—it’s usually because the person has a comparative perspective that the production never set out to have. In other words: “Why is one president treated so well and another not-so-well?” The answer is easy, but I’m sure disappointing: They were written by two different people. Each writer had very personal reactions to those president’s stories, and not enough time to have multiple perspectives. We never stepped back and did a “fairness” review or anything like that. And thank goodness. It was a very personal process. Much like voting is.
GENEVRA: Overall, positive feedback connects to how engaging and educational audience members consider the show. They leave feeling more knowledgeable about presidential history – and they had fun in the process!
Negative feedback tends to come from someone who feels their favorite president didn’t get enough depth or who feels complexity was lacking; and to be fair, it often has to be… because we’re trying to tell 45 stories in roughly two hours.
MRT: Are you facing any unprecedented challenges in writing about the current candidates?
GENEVRA: Yes. They are so fresh, so present, so a part of our cultural consciousness that it’s hard to know where to focus the spotlight. In addition, this election cycle seems to be more highly personality-driven than any other I can remember in my lifetime. In some ways, we have these larger-than-life personalities about whom everyone has already formed a strong opinion and a detailed narrative.
ANDY: Actually, trying to rewrite the Obama play and summarize his presidency in the midst of an election (and such intense social change) has been much harder for me. It feels like an impossible task…like, I dunno, doing double dutch without messing up every night in front of audience or something…
MRT: Andy, you grew up in the Lowell area—any favorite memories?
ANDY: Yep, I was born in St. Joseph’s in Lowell, which I know doesn’t exist anymore. And I was raised next door in Billerica.
I lived in the area for the first 25 years of my life so most of my best memories are the stuff a broke 20-year-old does with this time: hanging out with my friends in the Billerica Mall parking lot, for example… totally a warm memory. I was a loyal paper boy for the Lowell Sun. I used to get lost in Lowell every time I drove there, which gave it a mix of power and mystique to me.
45 Plays for 45 Presidents runs September 7 – October 2