The characters in a brand-new play just want to be “Understood.”
Chris and Julie are a liberal couple whose marriage is in trouble. They take off on separate paths that bring them in contact with folks outside their bubble, challenging their beliefs about people who are different.
Premiering Wednesday and timed to the midterm elections, the two-actor, five-character drama tries to show that even people with opposing views can come to an understanding. Taking it one step further, the fledgling Trademark Theater has enlisted a bipartisan organization to lead post-show workshops to get theatergoers to break out of their own bubbles.
“Understood” grew out of the 2016 election, said writer Tyler Mills, who was working at the time on a play about a troubled marriage.
“A couple weeks after [the election], I came to the realization that I knew so many people who were upset, but, if the opposite had happened in the election, just as many people would have been afraid and upset,” he said. “If one person gets elected and half of the country is terrified regardless of who gets elected, then something is fundamentally broken.
“I was thinking about all of that so much that it started bleeding into the other thing I was writing.”
Theater audiences tend to skew progressive, but Mills and director Tyler Michaels — who founded Trademark in 2016 with the goal of “shaking people up” — hope to attract a mix of viewpoints with “Understood.” That’s where Better Angels, a national group devoted to finding common ground between people of varying political views, comes in.
“One of our goals at Better Angels, and it sounds like one of [their] goals with the play, is to help people see each other more as individuals, rather than their political parties or other groups,” said Laura Russ, a Better Angels volunteer who is helping coordinate events to promote civilized disagreement after each performance. “People get more polarized when they feel they are not being seen as individuals.”
That jibes with something that the character Chris says in the play: “If you really understand someone, there’s no way you can hate them.”
To try to achieve understanding, Russ said, “We take people who self-identify as Reds [referring to red states] or Blues and have them talk about the reservations they have about their own sides. When you talk about things you don’t agree with your own side about, it can really break down the barriers.”
After performances of “Understood,” a trained Better Angels moderator will lead those who choose to stay in one of two formats: a Red/Blue workshop, where people share their views without trying to convince anyone they’re right, or a skills workshop, where participants are given tools to participate in civil conversations about loaded topics.
Michaels said that could come in handy for theatergoers of any political stripe. Himself included.
“I see a lot of myself reflected in these characters. Some of my extended relatives, I don’t even talk about political issues at all,” said Michaels, who wonders if conversations that avoid important topics are even more damaging than vitriolic ones.
A challenge for the actors
Actors Sasha Andreev and Adelin Phelps play Chris and Julie and the other characters they encounter. Michaels says the fast-paced play also is an exercise for the actors to find common ground with disparate characters.
“I think Sasha has had a really hard time identifying with the gun supporter he plays, the ‘I hate gay people’ character,” Michaels said. “Sasha is very much on the other side of that, but, as an actor, he has to find the compassion to be able to play it.”
Although Mills also identifies with liberal views, part of his challenge as a playwright was to make the characters with whom he disagrees more appealing than the ones he agrees with: “The people with more conservative views are given a little more time to shine because I think that’s what is needed.”
As director, Michaels must embrace all the characters in “Understood” while also using stagecraft to underscore the play’s challenges.
“There are 40 or 45 scenes in the play, all about two or three minutes long, and at the very end of each, we’ll do a harsh blackout and then a harsh lights-up, when the actors will be in a completely different place,” he said. “It will be a little unnerving to the audience, because they won’t ever be sure where we’re navigating to next or who will be playing who.”
The idea? Our world is so topsy-turvy that Michaels wants to build disorientation into the play, ensuring that everyone in the audience shares one thing: a little confusion.
Ultimately, “Understood” aims to show that human beings have a lot more in common than not.
“My hope is that audiences are able to look at these people and it somehow reflects back on them,” Mills said.
“The play is political because of the times we’re in, not so much the content of it. It comes down on the side of it being important to be able to see the humanity in other people.”