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Ken Weitzman’s Plays View Current Issues Through a Historic Lens

Ken Weitzman

Ken Weitzman

When COVID hit, theaters around the country scrambled to find a way to continue operating. Like many other industries, some theaters began creating online performances that could be viewed from the safety of the home, with varying degrees of success.

“It’s so tough to make the transition from live theater,” said Ken Weitzman, an associate professor in the Department of English and affiliated faculty with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, “But what struck me is that the one-person play, where you’re looking at just one face… was much better suited to that format.”

Where many saw a challenge, Weitzman saw an opportunity. His play, Fire in the Garden, was originally written in 2011 and performed live that same year. However, the one-man piece not only seemed like it would translate well to the new format, but also seemed very pertinent to current moment.

Fire in the Garden tells the story of a new father who has become obsessed with Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker from Baltimore who, in 1965, drove to the Pentagon and lit himself on fire with his one-year-old daughter in his arms in protest of the U.S. policy in Vietnam. The play’s narrator, struggling with the challenges of modern fatherhood, finds himself haunted by Morrison’s act, and with questions of what it means to be a father in what increasingly feels like a mad world.

“The play, in a way 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 figuring out what I thought it meant to be a father. What are the moral imperatives that come along with it? What are the responsibilities? What’s different about being a father now than it used to be?”

The original stage play, which ran 90 minutes, was condensed down to a 50-minute video in deference to the shorter attention spans that many people have for online performances. The new format, which gives the impression that the narrator is creating a video for his son, creates an intimacy that brings the narrator’s heartfelt questions about fatherhood, and the horror of Morrison’s actions, into sharp relief.

“The play ultimately is a call to action as related to activism in general, but climate change in particular, especially for parents,” Weitzman said.

Rendered beautifully by Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin — who came onto the project at the behest of Jim Glassman, who directed the play for the New Jersey Repertory Theater Company — the play was recently chosen for the United Solo Festival, an annual international festival for solo performances and the world’s largest solo theatre festival. It presents a selection of local and international solo performance productions in a wide variety of styles, including puppetry, dance, improv, musical, and drama. The festival has featured more than 1,000 productions from all over the world since it began in 2010, and this year launched a new virtual platform to present shows and masterclasses for its global audience and theatre enthusiasts online.

Fire in the Garden was selected for the festival in the summer of 2021 and should run on the festival’s online platform for at least a year.

In the meantime, Weitzman is focusing on his work with students at Stony Brook as well as working on a new play. Much like Fire, his upcoming play will also pull a bit from both history and issues that have been in the news currently. It will explore the founding of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was one of the first Native American boarding schools in the United States, telling the story of the school and of a historic football game that took place there in 1912, where the Native American team from Carlisle faced off against U.S. Army students from West Point.

The story was particularly on his mind because of the recent discovery of unmarked graves found on the grounds of such schools in both Canada and the U.S., and because of the overlooked significance of those two schools playing each other at that particular moment in history.

“It’s barely twenty years since [the massacre at] Wounded Knee,” Weitzman explained, “so some of these students’ fathers and grandfathers had actually fought each other on the battlefield, and now here they are in this football game where the lead player for West Point is Dwight Eisenhower, a future president, and the lead player for Carlisle is Jim Thorpe, the most famous athlete of his era.”

Weitzman is also spending a lot of his energy as a staunch advocate on campus for the theater department and the importance of the arts in general, particularly in trying times. “I think a lot of my work with students right now is using theater as a way for them to process this insane time that we’re all living through.”

— Lynn Brown

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