When COVID hit theaters across the country scrambled to find a way to keep operating. Like many other industries, some theaters began to create online shows that could be viewed from the security of home, with varying degrees of success.
“It’s so difficult to make the transition from live theater,” said Ken Weitzman, a associate professor in the Department of English and professors affiliated with the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication, “But what struck me was that the one-person game, where you only look at one face… was much better suited to this format. “
Where many saw a challenge, Weitzman saw an opportunity. His game, Fire in the garden, was originally written in 2011 and performed live the same year. However, the solo piece not only seemed to translate well in the new format, but also seemed very relevant for the current moment.
Fire in the garden tells the story of a new father who became obsessed with Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker from Baltimore who in 1965 went to the Pentagon and set himself on fire with his one-year-old daughter in his arms to protest against the United States policy in Vietnam. The play’s narrator, grappling with the challenges of modern fatherhood, finds himself haunted by Morrison’s act and wonders what it means to be a father in what increasingly feels like a mad world.
“The piece sort of describes its own artistic process,” Weitzman said of his inspiration. When he wrote the play, his wife was pregnant with their first child and he was struggling with some of the same questions as the play’s narrator. “I was wondering what I thought it meant to be a father. What are the moral imperatives that accompany it? What are the responsibilities? How is being a father different from what it was before? “
The original 90-minute play was condensed into a 50-minute video out of respect for the shorter attention span that many people have for online performances. The new format, which makes the narrator appear to be creating a video for his son, creates an intimacy that highlights the narrator’s heartfelt questions about authorship and the horror of Morrison’s actions.
“The play is ultimately a call to action relating to activism in general, but climate change in particular, particularly for parents,” Weitzman said.
Beautifully rendered by the Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin – who joined the project at the behest of Jim Glassman, who directed the play for the New Jersey Repertory Theater Company – the play was recently selected for the United Solo Festival, an annual international performance festival in solo and the world’s largest solo theater festival. It presents a selection of local and international solo performance productions in a wide variety of styles, including puppetry, dance, improvisation, musical and theater. The festival has presented more than 1,000 productions from around the world since its launch in 2010 and this year launched a new virtual platform to present online shows and masterclasses to its global audience and theater-goers.
Fire in the garden was selected for the festival in the summer of 2021 and is expected to take place on the festival’s online platform for at least a year.
In the meantime, Weitzman is concentrating on his work with the students of Stony Brook and working on a new piece. A little like Fire, his next play will also take a little bit of history and issues that have been in the news today. It will explore the founding of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was one of the first Native American residential schools in the United States, telling the story of the school and a historic football game that took place there in 1912, where the Native Americans Carlisle’s team faced off against US Army students from West Point.
The story was of particular concern to him because of the recent discovery of anonymous graves found on the grounds of such schools in Canada and the United States, and because of the neglected importance of these two schools playing against each other. at this particular moment in history.
“It’s barely twenty years since [the massacre at] Wounded Knee, “Weitzman explained,” so some of the fathers and grandfathers of these students had actually fought on the battlefield, and now they’re here in this football game where the West Point main player is. Dwight Eisenhower, a future president, and Carlisle’s main player is Jim Thorpe, the most famous athlete of his time.
Weitzman also spends a great deal of his energy as a strong on-campus advocate for the theater department and the importance of the arts in general, especially during difficult times. “I think a lot of my work with students right now is using theater as a way for them to deal with this crazy time we’re all going through.”