In partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic’s Mutual Inspirations Festival, and in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, the Alliance for New Music-Theatre (ANMT) is presenting Protest/Vaněk Unleashed, a double bill that deals with free speech, lost identity, and democracy.
ANMT has been located in Washington since 1994, primarily doing workshops to develop musical theater. In 2012, they decided to mount one work a year and for the last few years have produced a variety of shows that have political or international elements.
Barbara Mackay of DCMTA spoke to founding member and Artistic Director of Alliance for New Music-Theater, Susan Galbraith, just after a rehearsal for ANMT’s first production of their initial full season.
Barbara Mackay: What kind of shows have you done in the past?
GALBRAITH: We mostly produced things across the spectrum of music theater. We did musicals, opera, works that incorporated different strains of music. I grew up in the Foreign Service overseas, so my background is in cross-cultural work. We brought in a Burmese artist, for instance, to tell the story of modern-day Myanmar through puppetry and drumming. We’ve been working on a very ambitious project about Afghan women. And we’re working on a chamber opera about people coming across our Southern border. We started working on that long before it was front-page news.
And how did you get involved with this celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s freedom from communist rule – the Velvet Revolution?
GALBRAITH: For several years, we’ve been working with the writings of Václav Havel, the playwright, activist, and politician who finally became President of the Czech Republic. In 2014, we did an unfinished workshop in Prague of Vaněk Unleashed, an original musical theater production about Havel.
Have you performed plays by Havel?
GALBRAITH: Yes, in 2017, the company was invited to perform Havel’s 1978 play, Protest, at the Czech Ambassador’s residence for a special Czech delegation that included Havel’s widow. In May of 2017, we took that play “underground,” performing it as the first theater production in the then very rough space of Dupont Underground.
And what are the productions you are doing now?
GALBRAITH: We’re doing a double bill. Again we are doing Protest and we are also doing the musical we did in Prague, which is about Havel. Both plays share the same central character, Vanĕk.
How do the shows differ?
GALBRAITH: Protest was written when Havel wanted to expose how a totalitarian regime can strip its citizens of their independence, spying on them and taking away their autonomy. Vaněk Unleashed is a modern American response to the central character of Vaněk, who is almost an Everyman. There are lots of in-jokes in the Vaněk persona. He’s like a clown image of Havel, but we’ve pushed him into a real “clown” vocabulary.
What are the sources for Vaněk Unleashed?
Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, and Arthur Miller wrote their own Vaněk plays as a tribute to Havel based on Havel’s most beloved character who crops up in several of his shorter plays. Only our work is based on his Letters to Olga, from prison.
In addition to being an actor, writer, and producer, you are also a director. Will you be directing both plays?
GALBRAITH: Yes. We hope that this new show will be appreciated by Washington’s audiences, just as the earlier show was.
You are staging the plays in a unique place, right?
GALBRAITH: Yes, we’re putting them on in Dupont Underground. There’s no place like it in Washington. Young people are drawn to it. I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it.
What does the space look like?
GALBRAITH: Just imagine 75,000 square feet of circular Metro platform, with graffiti sprayed on the walls. You can’t chop it up into a cute little black box. My vision is to unveil a different part of the space in each production. For this show, there will be about 150 seats.
Why is the space so special to you?
GALBRAITH: For twenty years, it was illegal in Czechoslovakia to act the works of Havel and other dissidents because of their political opposition to the communist regime then in power. Havel and his colleagues found a clever solution to get around the ban, sharing his plays in secret performances, in private apartments. New Music-Theater’s decision to stage the productions at Dupont Underground pays homage to the courage and camaraderie of the original performers and audiences.
Who is playing the Havel character for you?
GALBRAITH: Drew Valins. He’s been a member of the ANMT since 2013. He has played Vaněk three or four times. He’s the expert on Vaněk. In one show, he’ll star in a musical. In the other, he’ll play in a creepy, dark drama. Both works use absurdism. That was one way Havel and other dissidents were able to criticize the forces that wanted to stop their voices.
You have written the book and co-written the lyrics for this show, right? Who else is contributing to the piece?
GALBRAITH: Maurice Saylor is a well-known composer who has written music for theater, opera, dance, musical theater, and film. In addition to writing the music, he is the co-lyricist for Vaněk Unleashed. Tom Pedersen is our music director and Emma Jaster is our choreographer.
Had you planned for a long time to produce two such socially challenging works?
GALBRAITH: The fact that this is happening at the same time as the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution is serendipitous. We’ve been working with Havel’s writing for years. How could we have known that our own country would be in such turmoil, questioning what is the responsibility of the individual to stand up to tyranny, which is one of Havel’s major themes. Also, living in truth: how do you do that when swirling around you are so many messages? How do you make sense of it? I think Havel speaks to us today, now more than ever.
Protest and Vaněk Unleashed play through November 17, 2019, at Alliance for New Music-Theatre performing at Dupont Underground (public entrance is at 1500 19th Street NW, Washington, DC, on north side of Dupont Circle next to Starbucks and across from Dupont Hotel). Tickets may be purchased online.
Note that Dupont Underground is accessible only by a stairway only partially equipped with handrails and has no restrooms, although patrons may use facilities in the lobby of the Dupont Hotel across the street.