A bipartisan romance casts a play on both houses in ‘Will on the Hill’ at STC

Shakespeare Theatre Company's online fundraising fun to feature theatrical A-listers and boldface Congressional names.

Who says a theater performance can’t make a difference in politics? With all the ongoing political and cultural conflict, is there a way to simmer things down for at least one brief shining moment. And for a good cause?

Yes, there is. Again this year, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) will show that elected officials can find a way to help a good cause in a bipartisan manner. The cause is the Shakespeare Theater Company’s ongoing arts education programs. The what is the 2020 online edition of STC’s annual Will on the Hill, to be broadcast Sunday, September 14, 2020.

While Will on the Hill has been around for almost two decades, the 2020 event will be different: It will be an online experience, for the performers and viewers alike. Performers include E. Faye Butler, Felicia Curry, Christopher Michael Richardson, Holly Twyford, Michael Urie, and STC Affiliated Artist Gregory Wooddell as well as a bipartisan gaggle of members of Congress.

The event will benefit STC’s arts education programs, which reach nearly 20,000 students and teachers annually providing in-school and online workshops, free teaching materials, and free or deeply subsidized tickets and transportation to theatrical performances.

This year’s Will on the Hill is different in another way: It has a new script, written with online performance in mind, by Playwright, Director, and Actor Nat Cassidy.

Nat Cassidy

In a recent conversation, Cassidy provided some hints about the script. This year’s Will on the Hill tells the story of two congressional aides of opposing parties who have secretly crossed the aisle in a bipartisan romance that rivals Romeo and Juliet. In this laugh-out-loud send-up that marries contemporary politics and Shakespearean verse, they wonder how celebrating the Bard during these turbulent times makes sense. It is up to the star-crossed lovers to unite the bickering cast preparing for the show within the show.

Cassidy began working on the script in January 2020. Little did he know what would be in store just a few months later. The script was expected to be performed live. COVID-19 changed all that. “I made adjustments in the script given the challenges of the pandemic,” he said.

But the main plot lines remained; the family conflicts in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet stayed the starting point. “Romeo and Juliet with its conflicts echoes through the new Will on the Hill,” Cassidy said. The new script’s conflicts “can give voice” to differences among the characters to be worked out. After all, they are “congressional staff falling in love, and then what? They are young people trying to get along.”

Just as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “the characters have a humanity to them.” And over the course of the 45-minute online production, the audience can see how things transpire.

The Will on the Hill broadcast will also feature students from STC’s Virtual Camp Shakespeare, the company’s summer program that brings Shakespeare’s plays to life for children ages 7 to 18. It is one of the education programs supported by Will on the Hill’s fundraising.

“Our Congressional cast is volunteering their time and talent because they know that the arts can change lives,” said Senior Director of Engagement and Education Samantha Wyer Bello, who directs this year’s play. She added that “the arts matter.”

The Congressional members expected to perform include Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a Will on the Hill regular, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Sen. Angus King (I-ME), along with Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA), Rep. André Carson (D-IN), Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV), Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX), and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT).

In email exchanges with several Congressional members local to the DC Metro area, they provided insights into their participation.

Asked why the arts and theater education are important, Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD) noted that “arts and theater are vital to human health. We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis flowing out of this nightmare pandemic, and we have to make sure that we keep people’s spirits high or at least afloat.”

For first-time participant Congressman Don Beyer (VA), “we learn most powerfully through story. The arts, especially theater, are the most human way to confront our existential challenges. There is now excellent research demonstrating that people who tell stories, perform stories, read stories, and act out stories in every creative work are far more empathetic, open, and wise.

Returning Will on the Hill performer Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton noted that “arts and theater education are particularly important to the District of Columbia considering that when the District had no home rule, it was an arts and theater desert. Today, with the city largely in control of its local affairs and passage of our DC statehood bill in the House, DC has become a festival of the arts of all kinds”.

Why did each decide to perform in Will on the Hill drew these responses. From returning performer Congressman Raskin: “We ignore literature, music, art, and storytelling at our own peril. They unlock the dream world: the dark recesses of human nature but also our boundless potential for connection, compassion, and creativity. I love the celebratory and irreverent spirit of Will on the Hill. As Sir Toby Belch says in Twelfth Night, ‘Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ This event allows politicians the chance to get over ourselves a little bit.”

For first-time Will on the Hill performer Congressman Beyer, it is this: “I am a cheerful, simple soul, with zero acting ability. Contributing my tiny cameo seems a good way to get outside my comfort zone.”

Returning performer Congresswoman Norton said, “I look forward to performing once again in Will on the Hill. Members of Congress are accustomed to speaking on the House floor, but Will on the Hill is more fun.” She added that “Will on the Hill will provide a much-needed arts and theater diversion from the unending bad COVID-19 news.”

So, let’s recalibrate personal views about politicians. Don’t be a hermit. Have some laughs for a great cause, arts education.

The 2020 STC Will on the Hill will be broadcast on September 14, 2020. The event begins with a VIP Virtual Pre-Show Reception at 6 p.m. to be followed at 7 p.m. by a Virtual Performance.

Will on the Hill broadcast will be available on a Pay-What-You-Will basis. This allows audiences nationwide—for the first time ever—to take part. Audiences can pay any price they choose with all proceeds going to STC’s education and community engagement programs. For more information contact STC’s Corporate Giving Office at 202-547-3230 ext. 2323 or WOTH@ShakespeareTheatre.org.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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