Ninety minutes into a marathon reading of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s “Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” actor Nate Corddry elicited one of the morning’s many indignant audience gasps.
“She’s a bright well-connected, sadistic sociopath,” he read, quoting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s thoughts on Hillary Clinton from the pages of the voluminous report.
Corddry stood onstage Thursday at the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, behind a podium bearing a sign emblazoned with #MuellerLA. Eight people, including L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, had read 10-minute slots before him, and 80 people, including actors Frances Fisher and Alfred Molina, were to follow before the event’s scheduled conclusion at midnight.
The event, “The Mueller Report Read-A-Thon,” preceded another such reading at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre. That event will take place from 1 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and it also features notable names from theater, film, TV, politics and civic life, including Fisher and Molina (again) as well as Brenda Strong (“Desperate Housewives”), Odyssey founding member Norbert Weisser, Michael Nouri (“NCIS”), Ray Abruzzo (“The Sopranos”) and Gregg Henry (“Scandal”).
Taken together, these epic readings of a historic, consequential and often misunderstood government document have become a trend. The Mueller report is the summer’s sleeper hit.
The roots of the movement can be traced to a live reading in Queens staged over 24 hours in June titled “Filibustered and Unfiltered: America Reads the Mueller Report,” boasting more than 100 readers, including Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, playwright and performer Taylor Mac and New York state Sen. Michael Gianaris.
In late June a celebrity cast including John Lithgow, Annette Bening, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sigourney Weaver gathered at New York’s Riverside Church to read Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s new script, “The Investigation: A Search for Truth in Ten Acts,” which is based on the Mueller report. More than a million people tuned in to a live stream of that show.
Star-studded marathon readings of the report have been held at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and at That Uppity Theatre Company in St. Louis. The report is the subject of a recent Now This video featuring Robert De Niro, Stephen King and Martin Sheen. And it’s the mystery behind newly launched true-crime podcasts, including “Mueller, She Wrote,” which finds a “binder full of women” attempting to translate the report’s legalese into plain English.
As Mueller elation fades to Mueller fatigue nearly four months after the report landed on Attorney General William Barr’s desk, why — and how — has the entertainment world’s appetite for the Mueller report reached a fevered pitch?
According to people involved with the L.A. readings, the answer is manifold. Anxiety and existential dread in some, near panic in others. A sense that the country is being lost and that if they continue to stand by and watch, democracy will fade from view, replaced by an authoritarian state fueled by bigotry, misogyny and racism.
Mueller report read-a-thons have become acts of civil disobedience, a way for artists to register their discontent by leveraging their most valuable currency: celebrity.
The report, with its titillating redactions, copious footnotes, mind-numbing legal jargon and endlessly intricate details, dates and code names, is a cipher for fraught political times. And when the public can’t understand something, it often turns to art for help.
That pattern is as old as theater itself, said actor and director John Farmanesh-Bocca, who helped organize the Odyssey read-a-thon.
“Long before you and I were born, long before there was a Donald Trump, or even an America, people got their news from actors who traveled from town to town,” he said. “We were the first news reporters, heralds of good and bad things to come.”
Molina echoed the thought with a more modern example: Speakers’ Corner in London, where anybody could literally stand on a soapbox and start talking to the public. The more interesting or outrageous their speech, the more people gathered.
“It’s a bit like theater as the village green,” he said, adding that reading the Mueller report out loud does not, to his mind, qualify as activism on the same level as what others are doing at a grass-roots level politically — at the border, say, or in the LGBTQ community.
Stephen Sachs, the co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre, takes that thought in a different direction.
“I look at this event as being akin to a protest march,” he said. “Only instead of marching down the street, we are marching from our stage.”
There is also the matter of setting the record straight, actress Fisher said.
“The fact that Barr mischaracterized what is contained in that report is an anathema to all of us,” she said.
“What better way to digest 400 pages of a report than to have wonderful actors onstage actually reading it to you so you don’t have to slog it through it yourself,” she added, summing up what is perhaps the most persuasive appeal of the live readings.
There is, indeed, something mesmerizing about sitting in a dark theater surrounded by audience members softly muttering “Oh, my god” and emitting deep, angsty sighs as the headline-grabbing names of the last three years thunder through the air: Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos, Corey Lewandowski, Michael Cohen, John Podesta, Jerome Corsi and Guccifer 2.0.
You might be next to a pair of women from the West L.A. Democratic Club, one of whom is wearing Obama earrings and a pin that reads “Hey Trump” above a series of middle fingers of varying colors. But sometimes the choir needs preaching to, the Fountain’s Sachs said.
“I don’t want anybody sitting this one out,” he said of the upcoming election and his goal of rallying the liberal troops to oust Trump. “It was apathy that got us to this point sadly. Apathy, a highly targeted misinformation campaign and God knows how many voting machines.”
Those participating in the read-a-thons appear to be saying, “Don’t look away; we won’t let you.” The stakes are too high and the consequences of inaction too perilous. So they will read a lugubrious report, word-for-word — sometimes to an audience of five, sometimes to a full house — through the day and into the night.
When: 1-9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (audience members can come and go as they please)
Info: (310) 477- 2055; odysseytheatre.com