Sunday, October 10, 2004
Polarized might be too polite a term to describe voters in the 2004 presidential election.
When the pendulum swings from "Mr. President, you have impressed me beyond measure" to "I wouldn't (urinate) in your ear if your brain was on fire," it means there's one gargantuan rift between Bush backers and bashers.
Determined to put a human face on the rift that public opinion polls only hint at, New York theater producer Marcus Woollen asked the American public to write letters to the commander in chief. His call generated more than 1,500 responses between Memorial Day and Labor Day from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Americans living overseas. The authors professed a range of opinions on every major issue, including the war in Iraq, the economy, gay marriage and 9-11.
Woollen compiled the letters into a reader's theater play called "Dear George: Letters to the President." Lawrence Community Theatre next weekend will be one of nearly 30 theaters across the country -- both in red states and blue states -- to perform the nonpartisan script in the days leading up to the Nov. 2 election. According to the production Web site, Lawrence is the only city in Kansas staging the play.
"I think it's kind of important for a community theater to be an active participant in the community where they're located," says Mary Doveton, the theater's artistic director, who's also directing "Dear George." "It provides a springboard for discussion. I think anything that makes people more aware of ideas is a good thing."
A polarized public
A cast of two men and two women will read the letters, which have been broken apart, rearranged and juxtaposed for dramatic effect.
Take this back-and-forth exchange near the end of the script:
"I just saw 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' Don't forget your golf clubs on your way out the door in November. Ken, Age 35, Lansing, Mich."
"Dear George: I LOVE YOU. Keep sticking to your principles. William, Age 23, Ramsey, N.J."
"Dear George: You lying sack of Republican (feces)."
"Dear George: It's going to be a long four months!"
"Die and burn in hell. Jack, Age 36, Oxnard, Calif."
"There are not a lot of middle-of-the-road letters in this," says Lawrence actress Tina Connolly, who's portraying the Younger Woman in the Lawrence production of "Dear George." "The American public is so polarized."
That's exactly why Woollen launched the project, he says on his Web site, www.DearGeorgeLetters.com.
"Public opinion of the president is so sharply divided that interpreting the division through binary polls does not do justice to the passion and intelligence of the American people," he writes. "Our experiences are far too complex to be adequately reflected by sound bytes or approval ratings. The letters provide a fascinating and complex portrait of our nation today."
"Dear George" was first performed Sept. 23 at the Freedom of Expression National Monument in Lower Manhattan. Readers proclaimed the content of the letters through the monument's giant, red megaphone.
But the challenge for the foursome reading the letters in the Lawrence production won't be amplification.
"The hardest part is probably trying to bring a different character to each letter, to try to really get inside someone's head, especially because people don't really express themselves very well through writing all the time," says Eric Wilhelm, who will read the role of the Younger Man. "There's a real challenge in trying to understand where some of these people are coming from."
Which leads to another difficulty: taking seriously the opinions of those you disagree with.
"The difficult part for me is to give an honest reading to the letters from the people who I think don't have their head in the right place," Wilhelm adds. "You try to not have a sarcastic tone."
As of mid-September, more letters had been submitted from California than any other state. Texas and Florida were tied for second, and New York was in third. Kansans had contributed about 1 percent of the dispatches, compared to California's 8.7 percent and the runner-up states' 7.9 percent.
Forty percent of the letter writers say they support Bush and his policies; 50 percent say they don't; and 10 percent say they are "non-political."
Some of the most expressive letters come from young women, says Jane Malin, the Lawrence actress who will portray the Older Woman in the show. In fact, the longest monologue in the production is a letter from Emily, 20, of Traverse City, Mich.
Her thoughtfully composed letter, which is read uninterrupted in the show, tells the story of her romance with her high school sweetheart, David, a marine who is serving in Iraq. Since the two married, Emily has seen him infrequently because of his training and long deployment.
She finally concludes that the president didn't make a good decision when he opted to send troops to Iraq.
"They'll continue to die while we here at home continue to try to figure out why we went there in the first place," she writes. "Mr. President, how much blood must be shed before you'll step up, be a man and admit you were wrong?"
"Dear George" will be performed twice in Lawrence. Audience members are sure to find a little bit of themselves in the words spoken onstage; and they're bound to be confronted with letters they'd just as soon burn than have broadcast in a theater.
Either way, if the performance gets people talking, mission accomplished.
"We were motivated by our desire to understand why Americans hold the beliefs they do and to encourage constructive debate that extends beyond the reiteration of sound bytes," Woollen writes near the end of the script. "Hopefully this project will encourage all our audiences to engage their neighbors in conversation and take in all sides of the issues before they cast their vote in November."