Marylynne Anderson-Cooper: The Twentieth Century Way
By Caro Moses | Published on Sunday 1 January 2017
‘The Twentieth Century Way’, the latest production to make its way to Jermyn Street Theatre, is set in 1914 and deals with real life and disturbing events surrounding a California police operation designed to entrap gay men.
It sounds pretty amazing. Two actors play a fast and furious broad range of characters, and despite its subject matter, the piece manages to exploit the humour of everyday life. To find out more, I spoke to director Marylynne Anderson-Cooper.
CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative? What happens in the play?
MA-C: The narrative is based on real historic events in Long Beach, California in 1914 when the Long Beach police department hired two actors to help them track down gay men and arrest them for illegal acts of “social vagrancy”. The actors would seduce their targets and then turn them over to police when the men agreed to sexual acts. The play tells the story of these two actors and the stories of several other characters who played a role in the scandal that followed.
CM: Who are the main characters? Are they based on real people?
MA-C: Our main characters are Brown and Warren, the two actors hired by the Long Beach police department. They are based on W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown, two real actors who in 1914, hired themselves out as “vice specialists” to help round up men engaged in homosexual activity. They actually did this.
CM: What are the primary themes?
MA-C: Brown and Warren take us through manipulation, identity, truth and betrayal at breakneck speed. The play questions what is real and what isn’t. What is true character and what is simply acting? Does the answer to that question even matter? The theatricality of the play’s structure mirrors those themes, and throws further doubt and suspicion onto what is already a true story full of lies, deception and shifting identities.
CM: Does the play have a political aim, even though the events are historical?
MA-C: Sure it does, I think any play whose events are based on history has a political aim, because it challenges audiences to examine a historic event in the context of the current political and social climate. Like, is this shit still happening?
This play deals with fears of homosexuality, deception and manipulation. We are living in a world right now where people don’t feel like they can trust anyone, and they are still afraid of what they do not understand. We are at a crossroads between being a society which destroys those who are different and being a society which encourages people to be who they truly are and that is something ‘The Twentieth Century Way’ definitely asks audience members to consider.
CM: The themes seem pretty hard hitting yet it’s described as an absurdist tragi-comedy – where is the humour in the story?
MA-C: It’s absurd and tragic and comedic in the way every day life is. Even when you’re dealing with heavy stuff, part of what makes us human is the ability to find joy and laughter within the darkest moments. Tom Jacobson does an incredible job of writing a play that tackles manipulation, betrayal and deceit while simultaneously creating two characters who we care about and who make us smile. There is also a lovely fun tongue-in-cheek quality to the show that tips its hat to theatre makers, theatre goers and everyone in between.
CM: I believe the play was first staged in 2010, but this is the UK premiere. What made you want to bring it to the UK?
MA-C: It was important for us to find something that would specifically challenge both the actors and myself, and something that might speak to the current political and social climate (specifically in the United States). ‘The Twentieth Century Way’ ticked all of those boxes. It’s a virtuosic piece for actor and director, as James and Fraser are just two people crafting and performing over fifteen unique characters, and I get to construct the architecture for a play that involves nineteen voices and several locations but is performed by two actors with little more than two chairs and a costume rack. And, it definitely spoke to the world’s mood of distrust and fear at the moment from all sides of the table, in America, of course, but also all over.
CM: Can you tell us about the playwright Tom Jacobson?
MA-C: We’re both Wildcats! We haven’t met in person yet, but we are both Northwestern alumni, so I already like that about him. The first play I saw of his was a production of ‘Bunbury’, and I remember loving the both the story and the style. His use of theatricality and structure is crazy smart and complex, and on top of that he imagines (or reimagines) stories that are as compelling as the structure is inventive.
CM: As you’ve said, there are only two actors, aren’t there, though many characters are portrayed? Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
MA-C: James Sindall and Fraser Wall are a dream team for this two-hander. They’ve known each other for a little over six years and the chemistry there is obvious from the moment you walk into the rehearsal room. They’re both running around the stage wearing – literally – so many different hats, and they just bounce off and around each other so much that watching them never gets boring. They’re each playing at least five very different characters on top of Brown and Warren, and the two of them make it look easy.
CM: Are there any plans to tour the show?
MA-C: I’m game!
‘The Twentieth Century Way’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 7-28 Jan. See the venue website here for more info and to book.