The Fables and Foibles of American Presidents

I am fascinated by history, I admit it (and if you’ve been reading this blog, that probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you). And a good thing too, since research is a big part of my role as a dramaturg. So when a show like 44 Plays for 44 Presidents comes along my ears perk up…

Rehearsals for the play begin today, which runs in Geva’s Fielding Nextstage from September 22-October 6. The first two performances are part of the First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival, and are available for a special Fringe Festival ticket price. The performance is ALSO part of the Plays for Presidents 2012 Festival, with 45 theatres across the country producing the show this fall. Geva is excited to be part of this festival, with this presentation by the Geva Theatre Conservatory, giving college students the opportunity to experience the process of creating theatre in a professional environment.

44 Plays… is a whirlwind tour through American history, with a two-minute play dedicated to roasting – I mean, toasting – each of our nation’s presidents. The production’s dramaturg is Gustave Rogers, a student at Nazareth College. Gustave has assembled an incredible amount of research for the cast, and in addition to the reverent highlights of each President’s term, it’s full of quirky bits of information. For instance, did you know that Martin Van Buren’s nickname was “the Little Magician”? Or that our 9th President, William Henry Harrison, died after being in office for only 30 days and that his death is viewed as the beginning of a curse against Presidents who take office in years ending with zeros? Or, that Zachary Taylor, who was in office only a year before his death, died from mixing cherries and milk? (makes you think twice about putting a cherry on top of an ice cream sunday, doesn’t it?) I had no idea that Abraham Lincoln, that venerable, honest Abe, our 16th President, could easily throw three men at once in a wrestling contest. Our 18th President is referred to as Ulysses S. Grant, but did you know that his real name was Hiram? Turns out, he had been signing his name Ulysses H. Grant, and when he enrolled at West Point, his sponsor accidentally enrolled him as Ulysses S. Grant, and liking that his initials were now U.S., he kept the new name. Grover Cleveland was our 22nd AND 24th President. On leaving the White House after his first time, Cleveland’s wife Frances said “Mind the furnishings. We are coming back.”

And speaking of furnishings, I don’t think it’s new information that William Howard Taft (President # 27) was a very large man, but I didn’t realize that significant changes had to be made in the White House to suit his girth. Apparently, he got stuck in a bathtub, and had to have a larger one installed. The new bathtub, pictured at the left, would hold 4 grown men. As Gustave notes in his research materials, what’s missing from this photo is Taft’s dignity…

Of course there are more dignified stories in the research materials too – stories that show both the political and the personal side of our Presidents, and thereby, of American history. One thing that this show, and Gustave’s research packet makes clear, is that the course of our future is determined in no small part by our elected officials, led by our President. Geva will be partnering with Rock the Vote and the American Association of University Women, who will be in the lobby during performances to make it easy for audience members to register to vote, and participate in the selection of those officials.

Gustave ends the research materials this way, and I think it’s a fitting way to end this post:

“As cliche as it sounds at this point, from here on out there is only the future. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next – most of us are lucky to know what’s going on at the moment! But history is a tool from which we can learn, anticipate, and adapt to new events as they come. And as for the future of the American presidency, I feel the Animaniacs put it best:

The next president to lead the way,
Well it just might be yourself one day,
Then the press will distort everything you sa-ay,
So jump in your plane and fly away!”


If you’re interested in checking out Gustave’s full research packet, click here: GEVA44Presidents dramaturgy packet.  See you at the theatre – or at the polls!


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