Another piece making its world premiere at the Fringe is Son of a Bitch, the story of the controversial political strategist Lee Atwater. It was written by Lucy Gillespie, playwright of last year’s Keeping Up with the Prozorovs, and directed by Billy Ray Brewton, who helmed last year’s A Beast/A Burden at the Fringe.
Ms. Gillespie took some time from her busy Fringe schedule to talk to ArtsBeat LA about the new show.
ArtsBeat LA: What was the inspiration for Son of a Bitch?
Lucy Gillespie: Lee Atwater is an awesome character. I wanted to work with Billy Ray Brewton, and this was right up his alley. Also, it’s a fun writing challenge to condense all that history/spin into plot.
ABLA: As a native Brit, what did you find intriguing about the story of Atwater, one of the most polarizing political figures of our time? Why tell his story now?
LG: Though I grew up in the UK, my mother is from Chicago, and she raised us to self-identify as American. This was confusing and alienating for me as a teenager living in London in the early 2000’s, where the last thing you wanted to be was American.
When 9/11 happened, my friends all cut school to protest “Americanization.” They burned effigies of President Bush in the streets. I was often called upon to explain or apologize for the atrocities of my people. Looking back, I think that’s a big part of what led me to leave the UK at 18. I felt unwanted, like I had to pick a side.
I first learned about Lee Atwater in 2008, when I was living in Chicago after college. Between the devastation of the financial crisis and the upswell of hope from the Obama campaign, the air was very charged. I saw a documentary about Lee, became obsessed, and read every book I could find. I think I felt like that was whom I needed to channel and become in order to survive in America. I wrote a play about him, The Atwater Campaign, which went on to become an O’Neill Finalist, effectively starting my career as a playwright.
Politics is a perennial topic — and especially now. A lot of folks are asking how we got here. The answer is, largely, Lee Atwater.
But he was a much more complex, charismatic, compelling human than the demonized bogeyman/genius the liberal and right wing media make him out to be.
ABLA: How do you hope audiences will react to the piece — on both sides of the political spectrum?
LG: It’s interesting because you assume — or I did — that a bunch of theater people in LA will all be ultra-liberal, preaching to the choir. Between the cast and crew, we actually represent a wide political spectrum. So much so that we had to put the kibosh on talking politics after some workshop readings got heated…
Our intention is to show Lee Atwater as a man, and how his personality catalyzed a dramatic shift within the Republican party, and subsequently American politics. We have no interest in theater that’s dogmatic or preachy. We want everyone, regardless of political stripe, to laugh, lean in and learn.
ABLA: Tell us a bit about your collaboration with the director, another Fringe veteran, Billy Ray Brewton. How did you work together on the piece?
LG: I saw Billy Ray’s A Beast/A Burden last year, thought it was hysterical and brilliant, and knew I wanted to work with him. Though The Atwater Campaign was an O’Neill Finalist, it had never been produced, so I’d been sort of roaming the earth looking for a homes for it ever since. In August 2018, I sent that script to Billy Ray — a Southern boy like Lee — and he signed on immediately. We chatted about story/character/cast/production throughout the year, and then I rewrote the entire script for him before rehearsals started.
It’s been an equally scary and thrilling ride. There were definitely moments in April where I wanted to cut and run, never to be heard from again. In theory, I love to devise and workshop; in practice you need a foundation of trust to give in to the process. My baseline is neurotic, and Billy Ray is so chill. It took me a minute to realize that’s because he trusts me, and he’s not worried. That helped me relax and go with the flow.
Now we’re rehearsing, and I’m in awe of him and the actors. He has such a quick, brilliant mind for orchestration. It’s a master class watching him zoom in to the tiny details, then zoom out to the big picture. I’m super excited to share this with the world.
ABLA: Is there humor in this show?
LG: For sure. I’d describe the tone as political satire.
ABLA: Tell us about the performers and how they came to be cast in their roles.
LG: The cast is a mixture of Prozorovs and Burdens. Ben Hethcoat, who played Chris Burden last year, is reviving his 70s hairstyle for Lee Atwater. Corsica Wilson, playing Gladys, is also a Burden alum. On the Prozorovs side, we have Chloe Dworkin — who you may recall as the pregnant, constipated Olga — playing Cass,. Luke Forbes, who played the Kanye-esque Demetrion, is now a young George W Bush.
Rounding out the cast are David McElwee (writer/director of Rory and the Devil, also in Fringe), who is bffs with Ben from college, and Dennis Gersten, who saved all of our asses by signing on at the last minute as George H W Bush.
ABLA: What makes Son of a Bitch a good fit for the Hollywood Fringe?
LG: It’s bold and funny, fast-paced and hard-hitting. We work hard, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
ABLA: What brings you back to the Fringe again this year?
LG: Last year was so much fun. Between the show rehearsals, our tight and loving Chekhovian-Kardashian cast family, the wider network of Fringers, and all the great theater we saw, it was just a blast. I spend the rest of the year writing screenplays and pitches, which is lonely and somewhat more creatively constricting, so I’ve been counting down the days. No joke, I hit up Billy Ray about this project in August.
ABLA: Since the Fringe is an environment of collaboration, what other shows are you interested in seeing?
Feature photo: Left to right: Billy Ray Brewton (director), Corsica Wilson (Gladys), Chloe Dworkin (Cass), Lucy Gillespie (playwright).