Round House Theatre kicks off virtual fall season with political game show

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Round House season (Part 1)

You’ve heard of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” What about “Who Wants to Be an American?”

That’s the premise of the new political game show “American Dreams” (Oct. 5-11), which kicks off the fall season at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland.

“‘American Dreams’ is an online imaginary game show in which you the studio audience get to pick between three people who are trying to immigrate into the United States,” Artistic Director Ryan Rilette told WTOP. “It seems like an absurd premise in some ways, but we do have a reality television star as the president right now.”

Written by Leila Buck and directed by Tamilla Woodard, the virtual production invites plenty of audience participation.

“It fits very well in the digital space, because it is highly interactive,” Rilette said. “The audience is very, very present. … You’re polled numerous times throughout the show, you’re asked to weigh in … to help the contestants with some questions, you’re allowed to ask the contestants questions, then you vote at numerous points.”

The show kicks off a virtual fall season that continues with “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence,” a four-week festival from Nov. 14 through Dec. 12.

“Adrienne Kennedy is perhaps one of the most important living American writers,” Rilette said. “As a Black woman who was writing experimental plays … in the early ’60s, her work was often relegated to the off-off-Broadway movement … never really receiving the sort of commercial acclaim that her work probably should have received.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Round House season (Part 2)

It starts with Kennedy’s latest work “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.”

“[It] was just done at Theatre for a New Audience off Broadway last year,” Rilette said.

The series continues with “Sleep Deprivation Chamber.”

“It’s a piece that she wrote with her son,” Rilette said. “It’s based on a true story of her son being pulled over by the police as he pulled into his driveway in Arlington in the ’90s. Police pulled them over because he had a slight crack in his taillight and in his own driveway in Arlington, not that far from here, he was beaten senseless.”

Next is the semi-autobiographical “Ohio State Murders.”

“It’s about a character very similar to Adrienne Kennedy named Suzanne [Alexander], who is sort of her surrogate who is invited back to her university to talk about the violent imagery in her work,” Rilette said. “Her response to it is to tell a very violent story that happened to her while she was a student at Ohio State.”

It wraps with the world premiere of “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side.”

“[It] is a sort of one-person ghost story that was written first as a narrative and then as a short story,” Rilette said. “Miss Kennedy has just included it in her latest collection, which is about to be released as a play. She asked us if we would consider doing it because it hadn’t ever been done before, so that will actually be a world premiere.”

Looking ahead to January, Round House will stage “The Catastrophist” by acclaimed playwright Lauren Gunderson, based on her husband Dr. Nathan Wolfe’s research.

“It is about one of the world’s leading virologists … known as The Virus Hunter, who set up listening stations all throughout Asia to track when viruses were moving from animals into humans and thus running the risk of becoming pandemics,” Rilette said.

The play turned out to be tragically prescient.

“He was on the front line of the biggest tracking of pandemics in the last 20 years,” Rilette said. “The last five years or so has been trying to convince the world that they needed to buy pandemic insurance to guard against the economic collapse that was absolutely going to happen when a pandemic hit. Of course, nobody really listened.”

Which brings us to our nation’s current economic collapse, during which local theaters have been shut down since March. What does the future hold for Round House Theatre?

“The plan for the spring is to allow audiences back, providing the country and state allow it,” Rilette said. “Right now, the state allows it, but the county does not. We don’t think those will be full audiences. We think it will be a socially-distanced audience of about 100 people. … The whole season is unlike any season we’ve ever done before.”

Listen to our full conversation.

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