When Lisa Peterson directed “It Can’t Happen Here” at the Berkeley Rep in 2016, she and her artistic team didn’t believe a Trump presidency was in the cards. Their play, adapted from Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, is a cautionary tale of a demagogue taking power and leading America into fascism. That sort of thing couldn’t happen in the United States, right?
“We were all texting each other madly the night of the election,” Peterson says of the artists behind the 2016 production. “Every step of the way we believed he wouldn’t get the nomination and [none of this] was going to happen.” The original production ended two days ahead of the 2016 election and Peterson says the actors felt like the canaries in a coal mine. Peterson says their show wasn’t able to keep Trump out of office four years ago, but it continues to be a warning. “It Can’t Happen Here,” written when Hitler and his Nazi regime were in power in Germany, shows what can happen when a country gets caught up in the idea of greatness and authoritarianism.
In taking up this show again, Peterson and adaptors Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen are faced not only with a delicate American political situation, but a pandemic as well. The latest revamp of this work puts it back into the America of 1935 through the format of a radio broadcast. Not only is the work suited to a new format, the performers are seeing the show in a much more pressing context.
“With everyone the urgency level is so high that, to some extent, we needed to refocus,” Peterson says. “That’s the biggest issue, in a way, is the tone of this. How much urgency and what kind of urgency should we listen to? There’s panic, focusing in, knowing what to do and how to do it quickly and all of those sound different in a human voice. It’s balancing that that’s the challenge.”
Peterson says on the first day of rehearsals Taccone said something beautiful in paraphrasing Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who practiced theater as political: “We can’t really believe that theater changes the world, but it changes those who make it. It might change some of those who see it. But we do this so we remain human and clear-eyed. It’s okay if we can’t change the world, we still have to do this and share these ideas with anyone who will listen. We need to know ourselves that it’s still valuable to make these observations and comparisons.”
Another challenge in bringing this particular show back was reworking the text so that it makes sense without visuals. The 2016 production had a lot of triple and double casting, so for this iteration more actors were brought in to keep all the characters straight for the radio.
Peterson said this production feels more technical because she can just close her eyes and listen. “It Can’t Happen Here” becomes all about how the text is delivered without any other visual information. There aren’t costumes to tell you who’s who.
“It’s more like music,” she says. “When you rehearse music there’s a way you have to do it. It’s still really fun, it was so joyous.”
The radio production is available October 13 through November 8 for audiences to stream for free. Berkeley Rep, along with nearly a hundred theater partners from across the country, is providing this unique theatrical experience for as many folks as possible. Five of those partners are Chicago-area companies: 16th Street Theater, Columbia College Chicago’s theater department, Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.
Partnering with other companies was inspired by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Federal Theater Project’s coordinated production in 1936. The stage version, originally written by Lewis and John C. Moffitt, premiered at twenty-one theaters in seventeen states simultaneously. Creating a similar collaboration effort was something Peterson and the artistic team hoped to do in 2016.
“That national participation piece is very moving to us,” she says. “We’re very excited that we can do that now.”