In Will Arbery’s HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING, four Catholic conservative friends gather at a late-night backyard party in Wyoming, shortly before the 2017 eclipse. As they wait for the arrival of their mentor and newly appointed college president, secret passions and fears surface, revealing their troubled place in a divided country. This week, the Wilma Theater presents a streaming production of the 2020 Pulitzer finalist, recorded at a rental house in northern Pennsylvania. We talk to the Wilma’s Producing Director Kellie Mecleary about producing a play during the pandemic.
Phindie: How was the idea for the production process developed?
Kellie Mecleary: It was developed through many conversations with Blanka [Zizka, the Wilma’s longtime Artistic Director], Wilma staff, the creative team, and the actors over a couple of months. Once we decided on an approach, our Production Manager Chris Nelson got to work finding a location (in collaboration with the creative team) and developing a safety plan.
Phindie: What were the considerations?
Kellie Mecleary: It was important that we found a location that could reasonably be believed to be the character Justin’s house (a college groundskeeper/adjunct instructor: so, modest) in the middle of Wyoming. And it needed to be away from neighbors so we could make strange sounds late at night. And still in Pennsylvania so we didn’t have to deal with differing state restrictions around Covid. Once we had the location determined (a small rancher in Lehighton, PA), we had to come up with a safety plan that everyone felt comfortable with and that met SAG-AFTRA’s comprehensive standards. We partnered with an organization called World Back to Work to handle all testing, both in Philadelphia and the Poconos; got everyone to commit to two weeks of quarantine prior to our departure; and stocked up on masks, cleaning supplies, and more. Then we rented additional houses nearby for everyone to stay, found a caterer, and researched local grocery delivery. Artistically, it was important that we find a way to work that didn’t move fully into the realm of film, but captured the more theatrical elements of the piece: the complexity of the language, the Chekhovian rhythms of the characters’ heady speeches set against their underlying desires. The team settled on 3 mounted cameras where an audience might sit, and one steady-cam used intermittently as well.
Phindie: How did you become involved with the project?
Kellie Mecleary: I work full time for the Wilma as their Producing Director, so I’ve been involved from the start, though it wasn’t a given that I’d be on set with them: I advocated for that.
Phindie: What attracted you to it?
Kellie Mecleary: The possibility that the cast and creative team would be able to create a fully-embodied version of this astonishing play, at a moment when theaters are having to make big shifts and compromises in their work, if they’re producing at all. And then, the idea of getting to live in the woods with a bunch of artists I love and respect and help them make theater was just dreamy.
Phindie: What were some unexpected obstacles?
Kellie Mecleary: We didn’t realize how much external sound would be an obstacle. We were surprised how many cars drove by the house, and how disruptive that became. And sound really travels out there: we could hear the next-door neighbor’s phone conversation as if she was standing right next to us. And the screech owls! Have you ever heard a screech owl? They sound wild: like a sad hyena.
Phindie: Yeah, like the whinnying of a horse. Was there anything you thought would be difficult that turned out not to be?
Kellie Mecleary: I think I expected drama around everyone living together: with such an intense project and long hours, it seems like a recipe for conflict. But actually, everybody got along really beautifully in their houses. I know I had a wonderful time living with the cast. We played games and watched a lot of Britain’s Best Home Cook and just enjoyed each other’s company.
One thing that wasn’t really an obstacle, but was unexpected, was how scary it was to be in the Poconos in October! I had idealized the notion of being in a cabin in the woods in the fall, thinking it would be calming and peaceful. But it gets so dark up there at night! And people take Halloween very seriously: the decorations were extensive. The first day I arrived, I drove by a house with what I thought was a statue on the front lawn, like a scarecrow dressed up like Michael Myers from the movie HALLOWEEN. But then the scarecrow moved! His eyes followed me as I drove by! The Michael Myers guy showed up a few times a week on his front lawn while we were in town. We started looking forward to seeing him. And then, the day before Halloween, he had a child-sized double with him. Only difference was the child-sized Michael Myers had a bloody knife. Impressively creepy.
Phindie: What were some unexpected advantages over a traditional live theater production?
Kellie Mecleary: There was something about everyone living together, fully focused on one project without other life distractions present, that resulted in unique energy. It’s a kind of distillation that’s both intense and satisfying. It will be interesting to see how that energy appears in the work itself.
Phindie: Is there anything about the play which made it particularly fitting for this style of production or for our current times?
Kellie Mecleary: The fact that the entire play takes place in someone’s backyard, that it’s one set and the set is outdoors, made this approach feel organic and apt. Working in the Poconos resonated with the production in more ways than one: the rural setting, the political leanings of its residents and our characters (as evidenced by the lawn signs in the days leading up to the election).
The play feels very resonant with this time: among other things, it’s a play about how one’s idea of oneself butts up against the reality of oneself in our country at this moment. And specifically how that plays out in a predominantly white, Catholic, conservative, intellectual community. The characters in this play have a set of ethics they are trying to abide by, and they’re whip-smart, thoughtful, engaged. And they voted for Trump. And this choice is at odds with their ethics, and it’s part of a string of ethically dubious political choices made by this community over the years. They engage with that hypocrisy in different ways on different levels but ultimately it eats at them. Wounds them. In many ways, this play is an exploration of those compromises and those wounds.
Phindie: What in your background prepared you for this unusual prodution?
Kellie Mecleary: Being a theater producer means being able to stay organized and adaptable while managing crises and racing the clock: all of these skills came in handy for HEROES in the Poconos. I also have a background of working for smaller, scrappier theaters where everyone does a little bit of everything (most recently at Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore). In the Poconos, this mentality was essential. We were a skeleton crew working in a way that was brand new for most of us, so everybody was flexing new muscles and wearing multiple hats. I’d jump from ordering groceries to scheduling testing to picking up a designer in Manhattan to being an extra set of hands on the set all in one day! It was exhilarating and exhausting.
Phindie: What can the audience expect?
Kellie Mecleary: A window into this community’s worldview, which may be offensive and upsetting to some. Loud noises, gunshots. Rigorous debate, country songs, a sprinkling of the surreal.
Phindie: We’re excited to watch it! Thanks Kellie.
HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING streams at Wilmatheater.org December 1-13, 2020.