Theaters across U.S. share ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ radio play adaption during election year

A radio play version of "It Can't Happen Here" produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
A radio play version of “It Can’t Happen Here” produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre premiered on YouTube Tuesday night and will be available for listening until Nov. 8.
(Courtesy of Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

As wildfires spread and COVID-19 raged in parts of the country around mid-August, 16 actors signed onto Zoom to record a radio play adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.”

“The world was crashing in on us,” Tony Taccone, the play adapter, said during a YouTube live Q&A at the virtual premiere.

Lisa Peterson, the director, said Carolina Sanchez, who plays the character Sissy Jessup, would tune in wearing scrubs. Sanchez made a career change to nursing and went back to her home state in Florida to study. Others also logged on from remote locations like Canada. At one point, the Zoom audio recording sessions had to be cut off when those who lived in Portland, Ore., were, in one way or another, affected by wildfires.

With limited time and resources, the play was ready for distribution through the Berkeley Repertory Theatre by Tuesday evening this week. It’s available for listening across the country in four free episodes on YouTube until Nov. 8.

The dystopian play deals with the rise of a demagogue who becomes president of the United States by promising to return the country to greatness. The play starts on May 1, 1936 in Vermont, six months before a presidential election. It follows Doremus Jessup, a local community newspaper editor, who sees populist candidate Berzelius Windrip as the beginning of a potential facist dictatorship. Jessup writes about it but soon realizes editorials aren’t enough. Once Windrip is elected, the plot takes a dark turn.

Malcolm Warner, the executive director of the Laguna Art Museum, announced that he plans to retire on Dec. 31. Warner has held the position since 2012.

Lewis wrote the story (originally, a novel) during 1935 as fascism was rising in Europe, unemployment was high as a result of the Great Depression and many wealthy people vocally opposed the New Deal.

Berkeley Rep and Taccone, the theatre’s artistic director at the time, first put on a play adaption of “It Can’t Happen Here” in September 2016 and ended production about a week before the presidential election.

Taccone reached out to Berkeley Rep’s current artistic director, Johanna Pfaelzer, to revisit the material this year in the form of a radio play featuring a number of actors from the 2016 production and a handful of actors new to the project.

“He felt like it was a moment to reexamine this play ... with an impulse to say this is a story that really reminds each one of us of the power that we have to affect the government through our vote,” Pfaelzer said.

Asked about the difference in production from 2016 to 2020 during the live Q&A, Taccone responds that four years ago most people assumed Hillary Clinton would win but now American sensibilities have changed.

“What’s changed is that we believe it,” Taccone said. “There’s no question — the strife and the collapse of a conversation in the U.S., the level of tension over race, class, climate change, the overt authoritarian government and the assault on democracy that Mr. Trump has led the charge for — has changed the entire view of the play.”

Peterson pointed out that they committed to the play in 2016 regardless of the election results.

“We were going to do it because it’s an American classic and we used to say to each other all the time that [the play] is actually about this troubling tendency in the makeup of America,” Peterson said. “It’s more than just about Winthrop. It’s not just about Trump. It’s not just about one person running for president. Although that was so eerily aligned, it’s more about something in the American character.”

As of this week, 105 theaters, colleges and libraries partnered with Berkeley Rep to share the radio play with their respective audiences, including South Coast Repertory.

“I’m actually becoming a very big fan of the radio play format because it engages the imagination in your brain to add the visual component, which is so sorely missing from our theatrical experience right now,” David Ivers, South Coast Rep’s artistic director, said.

Ivers added, “It’s also at a crucial time in our country where whatever side of the spectrum you fall on politically, exercising, promoting and really empowering people to vote is essential to our democracy.”

South Coast Rep produced the radio play “Ten Dollar Taco” as the final part of a series called “El Teatro de la Comida” and is in the process of putting together more digital programming. Berkeley Rep is also working on another audio project focusing on 10 writers and their relationship to a specific location in Berkeley.

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