Why Bob Bartlett is putting on his new play in his own backyard

Inspired by a Springsteen album and in spite of COVID, the site-specific script shows theater can happen anywhere.

It was a few weeks ago; an unexpected FB post from playwright Bob Bartlett caught my attention. He was posting a teaser about his newest work, which was in an early development stage. He titled it three strangers sitting around a backyard firepit at two in the morning listening to Bruce Springsteen’s NEBRASKA. 

Well, the title alone intrigued. 

Regina Aquino, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, and James Whalen.

So I pestered and peppered Bartlett with phone calls and emails to learn more. After all, the creative Bartlett is not one to stay within boring mainstream boundaries. He has written a play that takes place in a real Annapolis laundromat and another about an anthropomorphic whale that I wrote was “a mixture of magical realism, laughter and healing from heartbreak with an unlikely wellspring propelling the story into a spiritual parable.”

First off, Bartlett told me, three strangers sitting around a backyard firepit at two in the morning listening to Bruce Springsteen’s NEBRASKA is considered “an experimental site-specific” play. It takes place “as three strangers commune around a backyard firepit at a house party” to Bruce Springsteen’s album about a wounded America, Nebraska (1982). The play is set in the fall of 1985. Asked why he set this it then, Bartlett said because the 1980s is “a decade a bit similar to the last four years, especially politically.”

The play came to Bartlett as a way for people who crave story during these times without live entertainment due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to gather again, “sharing stories that matter and move us.” In the case of three strangers, the play is to be built around three monologues…like Springsteen ‘s dark musical dreams and themes.

Bob Bartlett

“This all started a few months ago on a night when I couldn’t get to sleep,” Bartlett told me. “My head wasn’t in the play I was in the middle of writing, so I decided to experiment with a new piece that could be staged around a backyard firepit. Why not? The theaters were shut down, and I was disappointed that we weren’t seeing outdoor socially distanced theater in the DMV.”

He went on to say, “I’m a life-long Springsteen fan, and his album Nebraska, one of my favorites, has something to say about the struggles we’re facing this year — and so the idea came to write a play inspired by the album that became a play that would run real-time from start to finish while the album played: 41 minutes.”

“I wrote the play that night but spent months in revisions. I set out to write a play that wasn’t about Springsteen or the album but that didn’t last long. It is a play about Springsteen — but moreso those of us who grew up sitting on the banks of rivers or on the hoods of cars or around campfires with friends and a few beers listening to Asbury Park or The River or Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

Asked about the cast, Bartlett said, “I wrote the play with three brilliant friends in mind — Regina Aquino, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, and James Whalen — with the intention that the play could be produced while theaters are shut down. I planned to offer the script royalty-free to anyone who wants to produce the play, as long as any money raised goes directly to theater artists impacted by COVID-19. So I reached out to Regina, Gary, and James, and they were excited to help out with development of the piece.”

“We all want the same — to safely get back to work — and into a theater. These three actors — they’re working at the highest level — so to go from regional theater and winning Helen Hayes Awards to a backyard is a testament to their belief that theater can happen anywhere, even around a firepit with the leaves changing and a chill in the air.” 

Bob Bartlett’s backyard firepit. Photo courtesy of Bob Bartlett.

Next step for three strangers is a developmental process led by director A. Lorraine Robinson and dramaturg Linda Lombardi in Bartlett’s backyard in Central Maryland. As this article goes to posting, that process will take place over two weekends, October 30 to November 7, 2020. Bartlett expects to have “a small group of socially distanced friends to hang out and check out the play.”

three strangers sitting around a backyard firepit at two in the morning listening to Bruce Springsteen’s NEBRASKA is expected to include a story about falling in love with a boy while listening to Springsteen on a late summer night by the river in the boy’s sky-blue 1969 Chevy Nova. Another expected story is about two thirteen-year-old boys sneaking into Constitution Hall to see Bruce for two nights in 1975. And a third is about riding a 1978 Harley FLHS Electra-Glide through the Southwest and incidentally meeting Springsteen, also on a Harley, at a roadside diner in a border town.

Much remains in the works for three strangers. But from my conversations with Bartlett, three strangers sounds like a vision, with seductive illusions and state of mind. Stay tuned to bob-bartlett.com.

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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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