Plano — While we adults may be concerned about the countless things spewing out of a certain person’s mouth and Twitter feed, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. How will this next presidency affect the youth of our country? Are children aware of the political circus happening around them? What do they think of it? Much like Great Britian’s older generation passing Brexit, it is very possible that our children could suffer the consequences of a future that they do not ask for in the November election. In this politically charged time, Fun House Theatre and Film’s newest work offers a childlike allegory, exploring political extremism through the lens of farm animals.
Fun House is known for putting on entertaining productions—that’s one of their core values. Through the political season, it’s still the main pursuit. However, Old McDonald’s Farm: A Children's Fable About the Obama Presidency, appears to have more of a clear message attached. Writer and director Jeff Swearingen has considered this idea for some time, and makes no apologies for writing a “pro-Obama” play. Swearingen holds great respect for President Obama’s grace and composure through his presidency, while Democrats and Republicans have gone in opposite directions. Swearingen says, “I’ve seen people who think he’s The Messiah returning, I’ve seen people who think he’s the Antichrist. He’s just a guy.” At the first rehearsal, Swearingen told the actors that this play comes from the perspective that Obama is a good president and if any parents are going to have a problem with that, they must let them know immediately. Luckily, no one dropped out after that. (Obama is played by Blake Martin, bi-racial son of former WaterTower Theatre Artistic Director Terry Martin and Chris Miller.)
The young actors play various people and animals found on the farm, with some obvious connections. For example, a Fox makes up random things and causes a lot of problems (representing Fox News). There’s an immigration story, where a squirrel, rat, and mouse try to come into the farm. While many parallels are clear, it’s not really about demonizing or supporting one party or the other, it’s a cautionary tale on the effects of extremes. Producer Bren Rapp says, “It’s generally about the dangers of polarizing and when you become so far away from each other that you can’t meet in the middle.”
The title character, “Old McDonald” represents George W. Bush, as he is handing over the farm to the “New McDonald”. When the new farmer takes over, everyone on the farm goes crazy. While Swearingen favors Obama, the play points out the negative qualities of polarizing opinions on both sides of the coin. While that may seem like a complicated concept for a 9- or 10-year old, keep in mind that these children have essentially grown up in a heavily biased media culture (swinging one way or the other). It’s been “us against them” for their entire life.
Since the play is set in the context of an elementary school pageant, a cast of 25 children and teens fill this production. Fun House has invited many new faces into the fold ranging from ages 6 to 17. Swearingen and Rapp hope that this work connects with all audiences, regardless of age. The allegorical form aims to speak at a surface level to younger audiences, while the adults can appreciate the satire and historical references. Swearingen notes, “You can like the play and not even realize it’s about Obama.”
I was curious to know about the young actors’ experience. These children explore fictional representations of political superpowers. “They all find George W. Bush to be funny; like there’s a comedic value to him immediately,” says Rapp (who, for disclosure purposes, is director of advertising and marketing at TheaterJones). But were they making connections? How aware are they of the political discussions happening on TV and the web? Since they are playing farm animals, did they understand who they represented? Rapp notes, “The kids were making the parallels before we had to explain anything to them. They bring up [the political] a lot more than we do. I think we try to be responsible; I don’t want to put my opinions in a kid’s head. I want to point out what’s going on in the world, but I want them to draw their own opinions.”
In rehearsals, one common thought has emerged. Rapp says: “The number one thing that I hear expressed is a fear of Donald Trump, like a boogeyman fear of him. I think back on it as a kid, of remembering elections and my parents favoring one candidate over the other. But I was never afraid of the outcome.”
Kids, you are not alone.
I wondered if they buy into his bullying approach—that he’s going to be tough and make America big (or “bigly”) and great again. The kids seem to have a strong reaction to him, boiling down to expected adult behavior and common decency. Rapp emphasizes, “Even little kids get it. They say, ‘That’s not nice. It’s wrong. I’d get put in time out for that.’ I think they’re in awe of the fact that adults can behave like that.” Swearingen also perceives that the kids catch on to “different people, different functions” concept. They hold the Office of the President to a higher standard. He says, “They have a desire to want to respect the President. They hear him say things about immigration, but many of their friends are from different countries.”
Swearingen has some convictions when it comes to the nature of art and that it is directly tied to an overall outlook on the world—beyond simple political parties. He says, “I think conservatives make the worst art. You cannot artistically connect with the human experience, and do it well, and not develop some form of liberal thought process. A thought process that’s caring, inclusive, and forward thinking. You can’t play this sport and not develop some empathy.”
As far as the outcome for the kids, Rapp and Swearingen hopes that this will at least help them put our current political nightmare into some perspective, and that they can appreciate the gray areas in life. By exploring the ridiculous nature of polarized perspectives, they will not be fooled into falling into that trap when they can cast their own votes.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- Pegasus Theatre presents the world premiere of Kurt Kleinmann's comedy The Coarse Actor Rises at the Bath House Cultural Center, through Aug. 27 OUR LISTING
- Hip Pocket Theatre presents Lake Simons and John Dyer's visual theater adaptation of Don Quixote, through Aug. 28 OUR LISTING
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- The Ochre House presents Justin Locklear's Dreamless, Aug. 20-Sept. 10 OUR LISTING
- Amphibian Stage Productions presents a staged reading of the musical Music City USA by JT Harding and Peter Zinn, Aug. 21-22 OUR LISTING
- Fun House Theatre and Film presents the premiere of Jeff Swearingen's Old McDonald’s Farm: A Children’s Fable About the Obama Presidency at Plano Children's Theatre, Aug. 19-27 OUR LISTING
- Pocket Sandwich Theatre presents Scott Eckert's Death the Musical II: Death Takes a Harmony, Aug. 26-Sept. 24 OUR LISTING
- The Dallas Theater Center and New York's Playwrights Horizons presents Kirsten Childs' musical Bella: An American Tall Tale at the Wyly Theatre, Dallas, Sept. 22-Oct. 22 OUR LISTING
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
- Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre (May 11, 2016)
- Caridad Svich's De Troya, a developmental reading presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth (May 13, 2016)
- Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker in Kitchen Dog Theater's 18th New Works Festival at Undermain Theatre (May 18, 2016)
- Stefany Cambra's Finding Myself in Bed from Proper Hijinx (June 1, 2016)
- Acoustic Nerves/Therefore, a collaboration by Dean Terry and University of Texas at Dallas artists, at the Texas Theatre (June 9, 2016)
- Checking in with playwright Jonathan Norton (July 22, 2016)
- Lake Simons and John Dyer's visual theater adaptation of Don Quixote at Hip Pocket Theatre (Aug. 6, 2016)
- The Third Dallas One-Minute Play Festival, presented by One-Minute Play Festival and Kitchen Dog Theater (Aug. 8, 2016)
- Justin Locklear's Dreamless at the Ochre House (Aug. 15, 2016)