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March 22, 2017
Interview: How The Debate Society Put a Sparkle of Wonder in ‘The Light Years’

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The year is 1893 and theatrical impresario Steele MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) is working on the finishing touches for The Spectatorium, a massive 12,000 seat theater designed for the Chicago World’s Fair. Complete with hundreds of light bulbs, pools and an assortment of modern accoutrements, the theater will only serve as the setting for a tragic love story between a genius electrician named Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) and his wife Adeline (Aya Cash) who will continue to haunt the uncompleted space beyond their lifetimes. As impressive as it is heartwarming, The Light Years is the most intricate play by the theatrical company known as The Debate Society, who not only bring their usual historical research to the proceedings, but have also managed to put onstage a phantasmagorical world unlike any seen onstage in recent years.

I spoke to playwrights, and The Debate Society founding members, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, about what they wished to accomplish with this new work, their fascination with electricity, and traveling in time.

I found many elements of The Light Years to be quite cinematic. Were there influences in terms of films that helped shape the play?

Hannah Bos: We both love thinking cinematically, but we both love theatre. The whole play is about Steele MacKaye’s world, vision and hopes, he wanted verisimilitude onstage and we joke that if he had been born fifty years later he would have been the most incredible of early filmmakers because he loved using real shadows, real water and all the things silent filmmakers wanted to do.

Paul Thureen: That was a big starting point, because MacKaye was an unknown impresario who wanted to create the world’s largest theater and the moon cart and sun cart he wanted in the show would have moved onstage at the same speed as they would in nature, objects onstage would be casting shadows that would move at the same pace that they would in nature. His ideas came at a time when nothing onstage was realistic, everything was cinematic, so we wanted to tell his story using the elements he would have used which was film vocabulary before things like montage came into film. Strangely him, and his work gave the play its cinematic tone, rather than specific films or filmmakers.

That sounds insane! I wish I could get on a time machine to see that, although he clearly never realized his dream...

Hannah Bos: I know! There are so many things we left out of the show, his imagined play with 12,000 people in the audience was supposed to be three days long. It was Christopher Columbus’ story with real water, tornadoes, rainbows...we have a copy of the script and it’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen, there was no dialogue, just these choruses that explained the action, there are stage directions like “rainbows, go!”, “chorus, go!”, it’s ridiculous.

How big was the script?

Hannah Bos: It is so thick, so big!

Paul Thureen: It’s all narration, there are no actor speaking parts, just the chorus and descriptions of what happened in nature, someday that would be a fun thing to produce.

The moon cart made me think of Georges Méliès who probably started making films around the same time MacKaye was trying to do his show. They both were obsessed with outer space, during your research did you run into other people from the era, perhaps in different parts of the world, who were working on similar things?

Paul Thureen: Yeah, Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” which was originally composed for MacKaye’s play, but didn’t happen, so it was used for other things. The play takes place at the 1893 and 1933 World’s Fairs, and both of them were equally horrible economic times, but at the one in 1893 there was a lot about spirituality, and looking beyond to what the human spirit was. A lot of time this took people to space and the stars, so there is a lot of artwork about space and the human soul, so it’s interesting because there was also scientific interest in the soul, people would try to photograph the soul, there were also death masks, and people would stage hauntings and ghosts for photographs.

Hannah Bos: This is also the time of the zoopraxiscope, which was a precursor to film, in which photographs moved, so the obsession with photography, catching the soul, and also talking to the dead were prevalent. This play doesn’t have literal ghosts, but there are a lot of ghosts that haunt this world, after the Civil War people were obsessed with that. During that fair Edison wanted to talk to the dead, so in our play we wanted to have a haunting through the man in the attic.

Yeah, the first scene feels like straight out of a seance, it was kinda creepy.

Paul Thureen: Good! World’s Fairs were supposed to be temporary, they were these big events, for the 1933 Fair 40% of the United States came to see it, and after the Fair was over the buildings were knocked down, so you wouldn’t be able to go into these buildings and feel spirits, because they were gone. There is a connection between the World’s Fairs and theatre, in that both are about the mystery of being in a dark room surrounded by ghosts of past performances. Our play starts in that world, and we wanted it to be a play about theatre in the theatre, to conjure the spirit of the Spectatorium.

Credit: Zack De Zon

Does writing ever help you get rid of your own ghosts?

Paul Thureen: Hannah’s the ghost person, she’s seen ghosts and she’s connected to those things more than me.

Hannah Bos: In a way I would say we are haunted by our plays because we constantly have the voices of these people,and we’re trying to work out scenes in our heads, and scenarios, and we over create the worlds with storylines and research that don’t always make their way into the play. So we are in a way haunted by all these details and moments that help build the veins and the bones, and meat of them. Working on them doesn’t relieve us from the ghosts though, it can make us more crazy because we hear a lot of voices all the time.

Paul Thureen: When we’re working with Oliver Butler, there’s a sense that there’s a world out there that we need to find. At the beginning of the process when we exist in that intuitive, research-based place of finding what this world is, there is something that feels like it’s out there. When we’re done with the plays I also imagine like they’re still there, kicking around somewhere.

I feel like acting sounds like an act of being possessed, actors doomed to repeat their actions every night on stage.

Hannah Bos: Like they have unfinished business. Ghosts are stuck in between places with unfinished business and plays have that too, we’re always trying to achieve the perfect performance.

Paul Thureen: I love going to Broadway plays and reading the history of the house on the Playbills, they have the history of all the plays because I feel the ghosts of those performances and actors. Since they weren’t filmed there aren’t any records, so I love the idea of the spirits hanging around.

Staying on the creepy mood for another question, the Adeline storyline made me think of Vertigo, this idea of necrophilia and needing to find our long lost lovers in new people. Was that on your minds at all?

Paul Thureen: It wasn’t, but I love that movie, so perhaps subconsciously it was. Vertigo is a great parallel to have though, when we started the play we wondered what event could bring back ghosts from the first World’s Fair to the second one. I love that Vertigo connection though, it makes me want to go see it again.

The Light Years could’ve easily been four different plays, you go from Columbus, to the stars, to Hillary...which I have to say was hard to sit through and listen to that name because it made me think about the election and got me sad again...

Paul Thureen: ...we said the same thing! We’ve been working on this play for seven years and now this name has a whole new meaning.

Hannah Bos: I can’t believe we have a play about the hopes and dreams of what could have been for Hillary (laughs) hopefully people will take it as a good thing and not freak out.

...completely, so how did you find your path within this maze of stories?

Paul Thureen: It’s definitely bigger than any of our other plays, and we worked on it for so long that we did Blood Play and Jacuzzi in the meantime. It took seven years for us to keep adjusting the story so it wouldn’t feel overwhelming and every little change we did threw off the balance of everything else, so we kept revisiting it and looking at it with fresh eyes. We experimented a lot with the times, one version had 1893 be the first act, and 1933 the second. It took us a lot of trial and error, and hearing people read it to find the balance.

Credit: Joan Marcus

You both were also pretty creepy in Jacuzzi, but that’s another story...what I found so interesting about that play is that everyone mentioned the hot tub, and in this play you seem fascinated with light bulbs. What’s up with you guys and electricity?

Hannah Bos: We didn’t have a title for a long time and the 1893 Fair was the first time electricity was made popular, Edison and Tesla has this sort of competition which Tesla won, and it was such a big deal to be able to walk with electricity at night, rather than gas lamps. To put it in perspective the previous World’s Fair had the Eiffel Tower, so 1893 was the ferris wheel and electricity, so we loved that the person who we loved that the person who first wanted to use electricity in a theater was this unknown, talented madman. We were fascinated that this theater was going to show the world what electricity could do and then it never happened.

Paul Thureen: A lot of the play is about missed connections, the circuits of life, so that electrical metaphor works very well for the story we’re telling. Other people have mentioned we use a lot of water in our plays, Jacuzzi started from the idea of how fun it would be to see real water onstage. We involve our scenic designer, Laura Jellinek, very early in the process and a lot of what we do comes from us imagining what we’d like to see in a theater, what would be beautiful, scary, creepy. We don’t write the play and then give it to the designers, it’s always a back and forth.

I feel like a lot of art lacks a sense of wonder, and after The Light Years I found myself thinking about how amazing electricity is, and how miraculous it is that someone learned how to channel it so it could power our lives. Even walking through hellish Times Square after the show was over I found myself for the first time appreciating the magic of the lights. So I want to know about why you think it’s important to capture wonder in this way, and also am curious as to whether you remember specific art pieces that gave you this sense of wonder for the first time.

Hannah Bos: I wanna hear you talking about walking through Times Square because that’s a beautiful description.

Paul Thureen: I grew up in a farm in rural Minnesota and there’d be touring Broadway productions, but not a huge theatre scene. I remember going to Winnipeg and Minneapolis, and going to the Natural History Museum...I probably was about four, but I have this recollection of a Wild West stage, with a train track and there was one light bulb, and there was no one there, I remember it felt so special. When the three of us started making plays I remember talking about how we wanted to dramatize that feeling of wonder. That was something worthy of writing a play about, just as much as the intellectual themes that could come from that.

Hannah Bos: Light is so incredible, doing research on this show was fun because it made me realize how bonkers it was, which I had never thought about. This allowed us to use it for humor, but also for this unexpected death. I grew up in my mom’s antique store and she always had a lamp section in her eclectic store, and I remember my mom making things into lamps. I never realized how you can make electricity do things for you, but also how incredibly dangerous it is. When we do our plays we usually have a vision of how the architecture of the world will work, but this one was different because instead of a box like the realistically rendered space of Jacuzzi, the space in The Light Years is the actual theater where the audience is. Even though we’re taking them back in time, the other major characters in the show are shadows and candlelight, and the electricity that serves as the heartbeat, it adds the other rhythm to this world. A lot of hoarder pictures were interesting to me for this play, what Hillary’s world looks like especially.

Paul Thureen: Hannah mentioned her mom, and I think all three of us have moms who have a sense of childlike wonder, so we all grew up with that. I remember driving with my mom and suddenly a dragon would come out of a ditch, and that is something that’s easy to lose as you grow up. The idea that theatre and art can bring back that sense of wonder is very exciting to me, a lot of that came from the world our mothers created. Now they’re women in their seventies who still have that little hint of childlike sparkle, so we’re very much our mothers’ children in that way.

For tickets and more information on The Light Years click here.

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Written by: Jose Solis
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