Theater archives

The Co-Directors of ‘Private Manning Goes to Washington’ on Freedom, Information, and Activist Theater


The latest from the Representatives — a four-year-old group specializing in “radically intimate” theater staged in apartments and other small or unconventional spaces — centers on two real-life figures who paid a heavy toll for the principle of free information. The first is Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst currently serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified U.S. military documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks. The other is Aaron Swartz, a pioneering hacktivist who died from suicide in 2013 while facing numerous, excessive charges by U.S. federal prosecutors for stealing and disseminating academic articles from JSTOR.

In Private Manning Goes to Washington, playwright Stan Richardson has a fictionalized Swartz team up with an unlikely collaborator — his (fictional) high school bully, now working as a drama therapist in prisons — to create a piece of theatrical activism advocating for Manning’s release. Their play-within-the-play imagines a White House encounter between Manning and President Barack Obama on his last day in office.

The production premiered in a shorter version this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe; co-directors Richardson and Matt Steiner (who also plays Swartz) aim to explore not only themes of secrecy and whistleblowing, but also the power and limitations of activism, empathy, and theater. The Voice spoke with them by phone the day after Thanksgiving as they worked to load the production into their performance venue, the Studio @ 345.

The Village Voice: Why explore these issues in a play? What can the theater do that, say, a nonfiction book or documentary movie can’t?

Matt Steiner: That’s actually a conversation that the characters have in the play. Aaron says, we want to treat this play like a meme. We want something that is a Trojan Horse of empathy, [that] makes people care, because, as another line says, the play’s actually not the thing. The play’s only the beginning.

Our play also gets into the idea of, what is the value of theater right now? Especially with these election results. What’s our responsibility and what’s our power? And what can theater do that other things can’t do? And what can theater do that it’s not necessarily doing right now?

Aside from the obvious fact that Swartz and Manning both made restricted information available to the public, what do you see as the major similarities and differences between the two?

MS: The differences would be ones mostly of identity — Aaron Swartz being, at the time of his death, a mid-20s, cisgender, straight, white male, and Chelsea Manning, aside from the leak, being known for her fight from prison for gender reaffirming surgery.

The largest thing that connects them is this faith in people, and the idea that information should be free and that when people have more information they are empowered, and that government does need checks and balances. And I think they believed those checks and balances were out of whack.

There is a debate about whether people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are heroes for shedding light on wrongdoing, or sneaks who threatened national security. Does the play take a position on that?

MS: A large part of the play is Aaron and Billy [his bully-turned-collaborator], arguing about those larger points: Is Chelsea Manning a hero or not? If the play takes any stance, it would be that the greatest wrongdoing would be to not care, to not be curious, and to not know about these two people who have had drastic effects on our lives, whether we know it or not — one who paid with his life for this work he believed in, and the other who is in federal prison.

Do you think Swartz and Manning have been ignored or forgotten?

Stan Richardson: It’s different in both cases. In Swartz’s case, there’s a large-scale inability to fully understand what he was doing. In Manning’s case, what she released was so vast that if you really take it in, it’s like having a spotlight shone into your eyes. You’re sort of blinded by how much terrifying information it is. And when we have that experience, we just want to close our eyes.

How has the play changed since Edinburgh?

SR: In Edinburgh, it had to be about 45 minutes. So the play became like a bullet. Everything was very on message. By letting the play breathe and be longer, you see these characters’ lives beyond the thing they’re trying to accomplish. [And] we went from a 90-seat traditional black box in Edinburgh to a 60-seat space here. There are so many more opportunities for storytelling in a smaller space. The audience can see a hand fumbling with an envelope — information that could not be as easily read in a larger space.

Does the sense of intimacy also help when it comes to depicting current events that might otherwise seem remote?

SR: It does. Although when I said I wanted to revisit Chelsea [after writing an earlier play, Incredible Things, Awful Things, staged by the Representatives in 2012], that was back in November of last year. I didn’t start writing it until May. Once we were in the middle of rehearsals, we learned she had attempted suicide. And it became relevant in a way that I really don’t like.

What do you mean?

SR: Meaning one of them [Swartz] is already dead. I don’t want the other one to be dead, too.

Do you consider the play a call to action?

SR: I think it’s a call to reflection. We don’t take the time to do that in this country. That’s why art and politics don’t engage very much. Because art is about trying to take your finger off the trigger, taking a moment to take in the complexity and the nuances and why you care about something. That’s why Aaron Swartz wanted information to be free — because thinking is a mark of civilization. It’s not just about the results.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.