Throughout the run of the School of Drama’s April production of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, directed by Jed Allen Harris, each of the zones hosted people linked through time, wrestling with the political firestorms swirling around them. In fact, the Philip Chosky Theater was literally sectioned into three discreet time zones:1930’s Berlin laid out onstage in the form of an art-noveau-styled apartment with big, lofty windows; 1980’s New York lived downstage left at as a book-filled studio; and the seats of the theater were home to the audience—Pittsburghers in 2018.
Written in 1985, the play primarily tracks the stories of Agnes Eggling, a German film actress and wannabe Communist party member, and her band of artistic friends. Over the course of two years, Agnes goes from being a bon-vivant-cum-leftist-advocate to a fearful shut-in, participating reluctantly in helping her friends flee Nazi Germany. Agnes’ story is intermittently interrupted by Zillah, a fiery young woman who spends her days writing angry letters to the Reagan administration.
The parallels between the rise of the Nazi party and the reign of Reagan conservatism ring strongly throughout the play, only to be echoed back and magnified by present-day American politics. While Kushner has allowed for updates to the play, director Harris elected to keep the text largely the same.
“Everyone sees the relevance, everyone knows the relevance…,” Harris said. “We decided to keep it [the same] to avoid being too on-point. We’ve got one modern reference and that’s it.”
The reference is within one of Zillah’s monologues, during which she compares the Reagan Republicans to the Nazis.
“Ask yourselves this: it’s 1942; the Goerings are having an intimate soiree; if he got an invitation would Pat Buchanan feel out of place?”
The projection behind her, however, flashes a picture of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, prompting a mix of groans and weary chuckles from the audience.
The moment serves not only as a wink to the audience––we are all on the same page here after all––but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a reminder about the vital role the media design plays in this production.
While the text of play calls for slide projections as transitions between scenes, media designer Jess Medenbach worked to flesh out the idea of conveying information visually, linking the many interstitials to the theme of communication woven throughout the play.
“I wanted to make something that was about the way that information was being communicated to the characters that were actually in the world of the play,” Medenbach said. “As someone who works in media, automatically I think about the way that we get information off the internet. And people of that time were probably getting information from newsreels or pamphlets.”
The characters’ careers in the German film industry also significantly influenced her design.
This specific, filmic aesthetic transforms as the characters themselves transform. At the top of the play, Agnes and her friends are becoming more and more involved with the national Communist party, each of them hopeful for the coming German Communist revolution. Thus the projections reflect that, with declarations like “HINDENBURG DEFEATS HITLER” and images of a bright yellow lemon gifted to Agnes by her lover Husz.
As the play goes on, the Nazis rise, the left and center parties crumble and scatter, and Agnes loses not only her friends but her hope. Similarly, the transitions reflect that creeping shadow.
“[The projections] are a film and once the Reichstag burns, it gets burned up,” Medenbach explains. “And what you’re dealing with is this information being given to you through this burned film and this goopy mess.”
Despite all this dark imagery, the use of Nazi symbols in the media and in the production design as a whole is quite light. This was a conscious choice made among the creative team
Medenbach explained, referring one of Zillah’s interruptions in the text: “[She’s] talking about how [Reaganites] might not look like Hitler, but their actions are very similar to Hitler’s and… if you’re just putting tons of Nazi imagery onstage, people get it. That’s not really giving you any new information… The organization of power, especially when it’s coming up, is much subtler than that.”
Of course, it is not that subtle. “Some people still think it’s very heavy-handed!” Harris said before going onto explain the genesis of this production in the 2017-2018 Mainstage season.
“We were originally planning on doing a Caryl Churchill play in this spot and then the election happened. [Fellow faculty member] Catherine Moore said, ‘Have you read this play recently?’ I read it and went apeshit,” Harris explained. “I gave it to Peter and he said ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So that was where the initial excitement happened.
The final scene of A Bright Room Called Day fell heavily on audiences in April. Agnes, Die Alte, and Zillah all stand alongside each other, intoning warnings against complacency and inaction, ending with Agnes saying, “Welcome to Germany.”
This line, however, reads not as a condemnation but rather a call to action. In the penultimate scene, the audience watched Agnes overcome her fear enough to help her former Communist colleague out of the country. According to Harris, that action prompted useful post-show discussions.
“They’re walking away talking about the parallels and the dangers of letting it happen,” he said. “Of letting oppression happen.”
A Bright Room Called Day was a strangely hopeful cap to the Mainstage season. This production, of course, is made all the more special due to the fact that it was longtime faculty-member Harris’ final production at Carnegie Mellon before retirement after the 18-19 academic year.
“I lucked out,” he shared, adding that the cast and crew were particularly engaged with the production and wonderful to work with, “It’s been such a lovely experience… And I’m really thankful for that.”
Written by Liz Baker