44 Plays for 44 Presidents is a variety show of presidential trivia--originally created for the Neo-Futurists in Chicago--that includes one short play for each of the nation's 44 commanders-in-chief. All of the plays were written by the original group of 5 performers, and it’s very evident that they were all built to suit the talents and skills of these original actor-creators. Within the first act, the actors perform a variety of tasks: a comic “roast” of Thomas Jefferson delivered by a somewhat jealous Benjamin Franklin, slapsticking between Andrew Jackson and his successor Martin Van Buren, eviscerating multiple red-balloon Native Americans as William Henry Harrison prior to his early demise, several dumb-shows, two choreographed fights, two songs, a balletic dance number, a game show, two gunshots, and one scene where they recount the election of 1876 while delivering lemonade to the audience. In the second act, there’s a complicated dialog scene attempting to document Teddy Roosevelt’s multiple achievements, three more songs, two more fights, a call and response protest bit, and the final scene featuring actors doing double-dutch while reciting rhymed lines about Barack Obama’s life.
Finding a cast among undergraduate actors which have similar skills is particularly difficult, with many scenes requiring one or many special talents. We were faced with the challenge of either awkwardly performing the text as written, or tweaking the play to re-create the spirit of the original but allowing it to feature the variety of skills that our performers possessed. We generally chose the latter, believing that, historically, the success of a variety show was always in the virtuosity of its performers. This is also in keeping with the original spirit of collaborative creation which underpinned the original production. I was lucky to find a cast with a wide range of talents, which were brought to bear in creating over 100 characters from throughout American history.
Scenically, we tried to recreate the feeling of a modern nominating convention. At first, the video screens were fairly simple, with a few photographs or paintings of the president in each play. As we moved forward in time, in parallel with the advancements in American politics and technology, the screens made their presence more felt. In the 20th century, they began to show video content and characters started to interact with them directly.