Local playwrights unpack post-election America in new theater series

“The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation” opens April 19

Cast members of The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation rehearse for upcoming performances on Friday, April 14, 2017 at the Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis.

Image by Courtney Deutz

Cast members of “The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation” rehearse for upcoming performances on Friday, April 14, 2017 at the Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis.

by Maddy Folstein

It’s common for theater to stage modern political issues — and Pillsbury House Theatre has done just that.

The local company is responding directly to post-election America with a new series of five, ten-minute plays called, “The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation.”

“[Pillsbury House] sat down after the election results in November to program a season, and none of [the plays we read] were really speaking to what we were experiencing,” said Ellen Fenster, the play’s director.

To fill the gap, Pillsbury House commissioned the five new plays from local playwrights in an attempt to navigate political and social divides.

“I wanted to write about a sense of disorientation and deal with having to return to a time period that I didn’t really remember,” said Benjamin Benne, one of the playwrights and a current Many Voices fellow at the Playwrights’ Center.

The five plays — despite being inspired by the same event — present an array of thematic questions and details.

“We got together around the same thing, and in an intellectual way that seems like a really simple thing to do,” said Ricardo Vazquez, one of the play’s actors and a graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. “But when you dive into it … it’s so much more complex.”

The production is cautious and intentional in its portrayal of the various outcomes of the election — presenting only one perspective is seen by those involved as an injustice to even the title.

“It’s not just a Trump-bashing party,” Fenster said. “I would say that the other side is represented in a really subtle way that’s really brought it down to a human level.”

For the four actors in The Great Divide, the chance to play multiple characters presents a welcome acting challenge.

“I have to be completely empathetic to all the characters,” Vazquez said. “You can’t limit a character based on your point of view.”

While the demands of The Great Divide allow the actors to develop their skills, the process provides feedback for the playwrights’ burgeoning works.

“The rehearsal process for this was intended to be writer-driven,” Benne said. “Before rehearsal even formally began they gave us three writer workshops that were spaced out within two weeks of each other.”

Now, with the plays in their final stage and rehearsals coming to a close, the team behind is hoping to have created a space for post-election discussion.

“I was just in Texas to see a friend of mine,” Fenster said. “She told me, ‘Oh my god I need to give [the script] to my mom. She’s feeling really lost, really confused … and she needs a place to process it.’”

For some, this might just be the place to find clarity.

What: “The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation”

When: April 19 – 30

Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: Pay what you can, minimum $5