Like any new play, The Agitators has had a long road of development from inspiration to the stage. From start to finish it took around three years for Mat Smart to develop his play about Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass’ little-known friendship.
Explore the history of The Agitators and its development from Mat Smart’s first moments of inspiration to the production onstage at Geva Theatre Center starting October 17th.
Spring 2014: Tinkers to Evers to Chance
Mat Smart premieres his play about a family’s love of baseball called Tinkers to Evers to Chance at Geva Theatre Center. To better acquaint Mat with the Rochester area, Geva’s Literary Director Jenni Werner shared with Mat some of Rochester’s stories and sights, Mat took trips to historic places, including the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. Along with many others at the time, Mat was struggling with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Shortly after leaving Rochester, Mat wrote to Jenni with an idea for a play inspired by Douglass and Anthony’s friendship that he hoped might contribute to an important national conversation. Geva loved the idea, and secured funding from the New York State Council on the Arts to commission Mat to write the play (as well as a grant from the New York Council on the Humanities to bring Mat to Rochester for research) and for a series of meetings with historians, community leaders, and our audiences.
Spring 2016: “Failure is Impossible” at Geva Theatre Center
Two actors read excerpts from the speeches of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony that Jenni had compiled. The theatre was packed, and in a post-reading discussion with Jenni, the actors, Mat, and two local experts, the crowd marveled at the contemporary feeling of the issues. They talked about the movements following in the steps of Anthony and Douglass – like the Disability Rights movement, Black Lives Matter, and the LGBT struggles for equality.
Summer 2016: Research
Mat spent several weeks during the summer of 2016 here in Rochester. Following the “Failure is Impossible” event, Mat had meetings with every local expert who could help with research to provide insight into the lives of these beloved Rochestarians. Mat spoke with historians at the Mt. Hope Cemetery, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the University of Rochester’s Rare Books Collection, and the City Historian at the Rochester Public Library – among many others. As Literary Director and Resident Dramaturg, Jenni tried to give him access to all the people who could help him fill in the background of the play. Mat was in constant communication with Jenni, who served as a sounding board for him to bounce ideas off of. They shared insights and selected a director for the first workshop of his play in our Festival of New Theatre (FONT).
Fall 2016: 1st Workshop(s) – FONT and Election
By early October of 2016, Mat had the first ten pages of the play written, and the first draft was ready just prior to FONT.
Geva held two workshops for The Agitators in the FONT festival. At the first workshop (Rochester; October of 2016), Mat and the team started with one day of rehearsal with the cast, followed by the reading that night, a day for re-writes, another day of rehearsal, and a second reading that evening. Though the two readings were only one day apart, Mat received a lot of feedback from the actors and the audience, so the two scripts from each reading – with the rewriting process in between – were vastly different from each other. Susan B. Anthony’s tone changed substantially between the first and second readings. And, although we had a good sense of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick – as a private person – wasn’t really represented beyond the movements for which he was an advocate. In the second draft, his character and family came through much more.
Following FONT, in early 2017, Mat and Mark Cuddy (Geva’s Artistic Director) hired a director (Logan Vaughn) for the production’s October 2017 world premiere at Geva, and together they selected a cast and design team. During this time between the first and second workshops, Jenni gave Mat a good deal of notes and questions to consider. By analyzing the script, then reflecting back to the playwright, dramaturgs like Jenni can help writers like Mat see if they’re going in the direction they want to, and they are telling the story to the best of their ability. While the first draft of the play was concerned with the friendship of Anthony and Douglass, it was also very heavily steeped in the enormity of the movements they championed – and that was a lot to take in for one play. The second draft was more focused on their friendship and how it evolved, grew, and shifted as the country changed, and the impact that had on their relationship.
May 2017: 2nd Workshop – New Harmony, Indiana
The first day of rehearsal for this workshop was mostly comprised of conversations between Mat and the cast; Mat was curious about how the language would play if Susan and Frederick were played by actors of the appropriate age rather than two actors playing them for the entirely of the play. So, in this workshop, there were three Fredericks and three Susans, all of different ages. From this workshop, he discovered that the integrity of the story would not be sacrificed if Susan and Frederick were played by the same two actors across all the ages, and the team also learned a lot about the necessity of not shying away from their flaws as people. To tell this story today, it’s crucial to show the complexity and humanity of these extraordinary icons so we can also relate to them as ordinary people.
June 2017: 3rd Workshop – New York City
This workshop brought together the director, the cast, and the design team in the same room for the first time. They spent a week going through the play, in detail; there were many rewrites and everyone was able to contribute to the process. The cast explored how and why to say the lines, and when something didn’t connect for them, Mat was there to provide an explanation of what he was going for, or to make adjustments. The designers had a hand in the dramaturgy, and constantly asked Mat and Logan Vaughn (the director) great questions, because they need to know how things work in order to bring the story to life onstage. In this workshop, Jenni’s contribution to the process was to be a resource to all the artists in the room by continuing to help clarify the story, providing historical context, and helping others articulate what they were piecing together. With each draft, the play has only grown more complex and vital.
Fall 2017: The World Premiere of The Agitators
The cast of the world premiere – Madeleine Lambert and Cedric Mays – and the creative team have their first rehearsals together in Rochester. They explore the friendship of these great figures of American history and flesh out their characters as fully realized human beings, complete with flaws and complicated emotional experiences. Mat makes important revisions and cuts/additions to the in preparation for his play’s world premiere at Geva Theatre Center.
The Agitators runs from October 17-November 12 on the Wilson Stage at Geva Theatre Center.
The framework of this piece originally appears in the 17-18 Geva Guide, based on an interview between Literary Director and Resident Dramaturg, Jenni Werner, and Associate Director of Education, Lara Rhyner.