Lightning Rods

SEP 10, 2017

Director Michael Mayer’s unconventional icons

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In the opening moments of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the titular transgender rocker belts to audiences, “You want me, baby, I dare you / Try and tear me down.” With an equally obstinate frankness, the stifled teenagers at the center of Spring Awakening cry out, “Do they think we want this?” Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer is fascinated by such bold, insatiable characters—and over the past two decades he has made a career out of bringing them to life in productions that have rewritten the rules both on and Off-Broadway.

Mayer makes his A.R.T. debut with the world premiere of Rob Roth’s play examining the friendship and fame of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. WARHOLCAPOTE follows a diverse career in theater for the director who, after receiving an acting degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the mid-eighties, would have two plays (Side Man and The Lion in Winter) and a musical (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) running simultaneously on Broadway by 1999.

Mayer’s work earned a worldwide following with Spring Awakening (2006), based on Frank Wedekind’s nineteenth-century play about the blossoming sexuality of repressed German teenagers. The show featured a notably young cast headbanging to an alternative rock score, giving contemporary expression to the angst of Wedekind’s classic characters. The production refused to shy away from themes of suicide and sexual assault, and earned eight Tony Awards including Best Direction.

Mayer soon moved from angst to political alienation with American Idiot (2010), a rock opera based on Green Day’s 2004 album. With the energy and style of a rock concert, American Idiot followed young people in the US navigating the repercussions of war and drug abuse. Shortly after, Neil Patrick Harris donned platform heels and glitter for Mayer’s revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell’s boundary-breaking musical about an East German transgender woman’s journey to self-acceptance.

Mayer has an eye for contemporary relevance across boundaries of era and place. From the pulsating desire of Spring Awakening to the raucous glitz of Hedwig, the intrigue for Mayer in these stories lies in their unfettered depiction of modern life, their fusion of narrative and rock music, and the ways in which they explore new theatrical forms.

Drawn from over seventy hours of never-before-heard conversations recorded by Warhol over the course of his intimate friendship with Capote, WARHOLCAPOTE has had a similar appeal to Mayer. “In the same way that Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and Hedwig all subverted the idea of what a musical could be,” he explains, “WARHOLCAPOTE subverts the idea of what a play can be.”

Warhol and Capote offer the same dramatic but unconventional promise which drew Mayer to Wedekind’s teens and the lost souls behind Green Day’s album. He describes the protagonists as “equally, and in completely different ways, utterly fascinating.”

Although Capote died in 1984, and Warhol only three years later, they remain cultural icons—Capote for such novels as In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Warhol for his prominence in the Pop Art movement. As characters in the ongoing story of America’s fixation on fame, Mayer says, “they are still lightning rods for a cultural anthropological exploration.”

In many ways, WARHOLCAPOTE is a continuation of Warhol and Capote’s own vibrant anthropological endeavors, both because the two conspired to create a play in their lifetime, and because of its documentary style. “It’s very much in the realm of the work that Truman Capote was exploring with In Cold Blood,” Mayer explains, “and completely aligns with Warhol’s idea about what can be art.”

Annabeth Lucas is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. 

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