When Booth opens at Second Thought Theatre this Friday, it will be the product of many years of friendship and work by co-creators Steven Walters and Erik Archilla. The pair met as freshman at Baylor University and have sporadically worked on the political thriller about John Wilkes Booth since they created it as an assignment for a class.
The play, which outlines the events leading to President Lincoln's assassination and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's subsequent efforts to bring Booth to justice, was well-received by their professor, who encouraged a reading on campus. Despite early praise, Walters says that the first version of the play was not good. "It was rich with information but it was not a great play at that point," he says. "Still, we always talked about how we thought it had massive potential."
Over the years, Walters and Archilla reworked the story several times, even pitching it as a mini-series. In 2013, they were the recipient of a $40,000 grant from the The Arts Community Alliance Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, which went to the development and production of this iteration of the play. "TACA was critical to us being able to actually finish the play," Walters says. "It allowed us the time and the resources to dive in and really get it done."
One consequence of Booth's having spent so many years in the incubator is that it took on new meaning and complexity as the world around it changed. The events of September 11, in particular, gave John Wilkes Booth's story new relevance. "What, as Americans, are we willing to sacrifice in order to preserve our freedom?" Walters muses. "Do the ends justify the means? With the Patriot Act and the NSA on the political global platform, it's a very relevant question. When we first started writing the play, that wasn't present in our minds."
Second Thought's self-stated mission is to stage plays "to confront convention, challenge convictions, and welcome conversations." Walters, one of the theater's co-founders says Booth's grown-up subject matter also indicates a tide shift. "Ten years ago, we were provoking questions about sexual identity and youthful angst," Walters says. "This play helps to represent our evolution. We're getting older and we're asking ourselves different questions. What is this country going to look like for my children? What am I going to be as a man? What is my moral compass? Those are the plays that we're trying to write."
The playwrights are determined that the audience will walk away having contemplated these issues, too. Although the performance space at Bryant Hall is already quite intimate, with seating to accommodate around 50, the set has been designed to involve viewers even more closely. "The architecture of the set feels oppressive to me, like it's closing in and falling down and breaking apart," says Walters, who also directs Booth. "I want the audience to feel immersed and trapped."
Walters and Archilla again pay tribute to TACA, acknowledging that features like the set have been executed on a much grander scale than would have been possible without such a significant gift. Looking toward the future, they imagine paying that gift forward by taking Booth to other cities. "We have to create works in our community and send them to other communities," Walters says. "It's our responsibility to infuse those other communities with the voice of ours."
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