ArtsATL > Theater > Q&A: Alliance’s Susan Booth on theater’s Civil War project and the tortured legacy of the conflict

Q&A: Alliance’s Susan Booth on theater’s Civil War project and the tortured legacy of the conflict

Pearl Cleage (left) and Susan Booth will each oversee Civil War projects.
Pearl Cleage and Susan Booth
Pearl Cleage (left) and Susan Booth will each oversee Civil War-related projects.

Although Atlanta is a relentlessly modern city, you don’t have to look far to be confronted with the complicated resonances of the Civil War. From the Margaret Mitchell House and the Cyclorama to Memorial Drive and Stone Mountain, even the city’s backward glances at its history have themselves become historical, weighted with all the problematic ideology and contention that retelling can carry.

The Alliance Theatre recently announced its participation in an ambitious multi-year, multi-city project to commemorate and examine that legacy 150 years after the war. Four theatrical institutions in four cities — Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore and Boston — will take part in producing 12 new theatrical works that take the Civil War as their starting point.

In Atlanta, the Alliance Theatre will develop a play based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Native Guard by U.S. Poet Laureate (and head of Emory University’s creative writing program) Natasha Trethewey, to be directed by Alliance Artistic Director Susan Booth for the 2014-15 season. Also, this summer, the Alliance’s Collision Project — in which local high school students annually turn a classic text into a theatrical work through improvisation, choreography and writing — will devote its 12th season to a work inspired by the Gettysburg Address, under the direction of playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage. And the Alliance will partner with Emory to devise a public lecture series, community programs, student playwriting projects, student-generated exhibitions, artist and academic round tables and post-show discussions to take place in conjunction with the plays.

In an interview with ArtsATL, Booth discussed the significance of the theater’s participation in the project.

ArtsATL: I imagine a lot of Atlantans will be excited about this project, but there are probably plenty of others who will react with “Oh, this again.” We are the city of Gone With the Wind and the Cyclorama and Stone Mountain and numerous other things that, for better or worse, have brought back this history to keep it in front of our eyes on a daily basis. What’s your response to someone who reacts with “Oh, this again”? Why do we need to keep re-examining this history?

Susan Booth: Well, I’m not interested in historical re-enactments of Sherman’s march, but what interests me is that this was not an event that America checked off its list and was done with. The realities that led that historical moment into being are with us still in really provocative ways. For me, it’s the job of cultural institutions to figure out how to dive into layers of human experience and make them immediate and resonant. I think there’s a whole lot to muck around with in the aftershocks of that period.

ArtsATL: How did you first become aware of this major Civil War project? How did you decide the project was a fit for Atlanta and the Alliance?

Booth: About two years ago, Molly Smith, who’s artistic director at the Arena Stage in D.C., approached me and asked if it might be something I would be interested in. She had been thinking about the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and how it might be interesting to have a large corps of artists and academics wrestle with that historical moment and its contemporary resonance, but to do so quite purposefully in a multi-regional fashion.

My answer was an immediate yes, but it had a caveat. We wrestle in Atlanta with the Civil War not as a historical moment under glass, but its contemporary resonance is very right here, right now. I told her, “If you’re looking for a partner who will put on a tweed jacket and look at the war purely through a scholarly, historical lens, we’re probably not the right one.” Her answer was “Quite the opposite. That’s why we’re talking.” That’s how I heard about the project, and that’s the understanding with which we came on board.

ArtsATL: How did Natasha Trethewey get involved?

Natasha Tretheway
Natasha Trethewey

Booth: That was kind of a happy accident. I had read Native Guard soon after it came out and was absolutely blown away by it. Because I think in these terms, I couldn’t help but think how utterly character-driven and dramatic the narratives in Native Guard are. It’s a contemporary voice: it deals with an autobiographic element of the poet’s life but it also deals with the deployment of the first African-American regiment, the Native Guard, into the Civil War. It’s one of the most remarkable works in that it takes a historical moment and a deeply personal contemporary moment, using each to make sense of the other. It’s astonishing writing. I’d already thought, “I’d love to hear these words on a stage, in the hands of actors.” She and I ended up at a dinner together, and I went there. She could not have been more receptive to the idea.

ArtsATL: But still, it’s a collection of poems. Won’t that be a challenge to bring to the stage? Will you be working with another writer who will somehow transpose it?

Booth: We’ll absolutely be working with Natasha. I wouldn’t bring another writer’s voice to bear. I think the work has a very compelling and connected narrative. In the same way we read collections of short stories, in the same way we see theatrical works that are short play assemblages, this is already thematically one satisfying whole. The interesting opportunity is: what is the design you create around it? What is the musical presence you have in between episodes that help thread it together as one logical organic evening in the theater? But it absolutely already has a beginning, middle and end. It’s a deeply connected work.

ArtsATL: Pearl Cleage will be involved as well. Is that for this summer’s Collision Project?

Booth: Yes. She started working with our Collision Project a couple of cycles ago. Pearl as a writer is deeply collaborative and writes because she wants to occasion a conversation. Her fit with the Collision Project was kind of perfect, so we kept asking her back. She has done a couple of non-theatrical documents with the Collision Project, like the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We had been in conversation about important American documents that adolescents can find a generative way to intersect with. When this larger national conversation about the Civil War came up, we started talking about the Gettysburg Address, and she’ll be working with the students this summer to create a new work based on it.

ArtsATL: The project as a whole must have some personal resonance for you as someone who grew up outside the region, but you’ve spent a great deal of your adult life here, getting to know that history and devoting yourself to making artistic connections with audiences here.

Booth: There are times when I think, “Here we are having this conversation, and I’m a big old carpetbagger.” I’m very aware of that and sensitized to that. Every time you make a play, it’s a conversation. I’m always entering the conversation with someone next to me who speaks the language and can help me learn it, which is why it had to be someone like Natasha’s words if we were going to take this on. It had to be someone like Pearl Cleage if we were going to engage in this conversation with young people. In some ways in my part, this is a pretty selfish endeavor: I continue every day to try to figure out this place where I live now.

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