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Howard Sherman: Artists came together for a reading of the Mueller Report – but was it theatre?

WP Theater's Lisa McNulty reading from the Mueller Report at Filibustered and Unfiltered. Photo: Howard Sherman
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The 448-page report by US special prosecutor Robert Mueller may, at points, make for dramatic reading. It is not, however, a dramatic text.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its lack of any character voice, let alone its many footnotes, legal citations and, of course, redactions. Despite those drawbacks, the Mueller Report was read live, over the course of 24 hours from June 1 to June 2, in the New York borough of Queens, by a wide range of artists, administrators and leaders from the theatre community.

The event, Filibustered and Unfiltered, drew some 1,000 attendees over its day-long span, with more than 10,000 views to date on Facebook Live. Readers included artistic directors Lisa McNulty of WP Theater, Neil Pepe of Atlantic Theater Company, and Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater. Playwrights Brooke Berman, Eisa Davis, Karen Hartman and Taylor Mac also read, as did directors Leigh Silverman, Anne Kauffman, and Oliver Butler. Actors who read included Brandon J Dirden, Sarita Choudhury and Robert Picardo, among others. The event even brought out Carolyn Maloney, a member of the US House of Representatives, as a reader and – in full disclosure – I read too.

Filibustered and Unfiltered began as a Facebook musing by director Jackson Gay, who brought it to fruition. It became known online as #MuellerLive and mushroomed into a cultural event, generating press coverage from both the New York Times and New York Post. Even the conservative Breitbart News took note, asking on social media: “What’s the single most pointless and boring way to waste your time?” But despite that scorn, the document was read in a non-partisan manner, with readers urged not to try to perform it or comment upon it.

That the reading came just days after Mueller made his first and only public comments on the report, urging the public and government officials to read it and understand its findings, rather than relying upon biased summaries, only made the event more timely. That was pure luck for the organisers, which included the artists collective New Neighborhood, of which Gay is a member, and DMNDR, which operates the space where the event was held.

So if #MuellerLive was a cold read of a legal document without any attempt at acting value, was it theatre? It certainly was a performance: the airing of a document with the use of theatrical tools to illuminate a text for others. It was an agitprop cousin to theatrical works developed from courtroom transcripts and Congressional hearings, such as Eric Bentley’s Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been? and Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of Catonsville Nine. If journalism is the rough draft of history, then Filibustered and Unfiltered was the first draft of drama based on history.

As it happens, the New York reading made headlines the same week that a Washington DC-based event, FBI Lovebirds, a two-person performance of anti-Trump texts between two FBI agents, was announced and then abruptly cancelled in a 200-seat theatre. Organised by a conservative journalist turned film-maker, it lost its performance space when the venue said it couldn’t provide the necessary security after the full nature of the programme was revealed. Before the event was nixed at its planned site, one of the announced actors shared a single tweet that seemed to express hope that something unfortunate might happen to it.

No differently than #MuellerLive, FBI Lovebirds – whatever one’s politics – should have been able to go forward safely. It bears noting that prior to cancellation, its crowdfunding campaign stood at roughly one-third of its goal; a little over a week later, it had exceeded its funding goal. FBI Lovebirds sought to raise $95,000 – while the expenses for #MuellerLive were only $18,000. Days ago, FBI Lovebirds secured a new home – almost three times the size of its first venue – and is scheduled to take place next Thursday.

The most important lesson from Filibustered and Unfiltered was that theatre and theatre artists know how to unite, move swiftly and creatively – I have neglected to mention the musical interludes and the occasional appearances of an 8ft-tall puppet on the sidelines dubbed Drinkin’ Lincoln – to create events that illuminate not only scripts and scores, but even the details of vital government documents. This past weekend, to revise Shakespeare, with the Mueller Report played upon a stage, it was even harder to condemn it as an improbable fiction.

This week in US theatre

The first production of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park, Much Ado About Nothing, opens on Tuesday. Kenny Leon directs the comedy, with Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman as sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick.

Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, the story of a white southern teen given shelter by a trio of black sisters, previously adapted into a 2008 film, now gets the musical treatment, opening on Thursday at the Atlantic Theater Company. The book is by Lynn Nottage, with a score by Duncan Sheik, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, with Sam Gold directing a company that includes Eisa Davis and LaChanze.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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