Boycott Esther, a new show at Azuka Theater, which debuted on May 1 and runs until May 19, was created by Philadelphia playwright Emily Acker after a cancellation of a pilot she was working on for the Weinstein Company. The cancellation came about when the sexual allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced. With the internet and media in a frenzy over the controversy and feeling inspired by the emergence of the #MeToo movement, Acker began writing Boycott Esther in response to her solidarity with the movement.
Although the premise responds to the discussions around the movement, at the heart of the play is the digital conversation, questioning the power that lies in the discussions centered around these issues. Acker explained, “I also wanted to spark discussion on how theatre represents our modern world in the digital age. How should we represent the internet and digital experiences on stage? What does the art of theatre look like with social media, video projections, video chats, social media hangouts? I am interested in the intersection of the live art form of theatre and the increasingly digitized world we live in.”
The play provides thought-provoking content for audience members to consider around the influence or role the internet and social media plays during scandals and movements, but also ties in an unexpected perspective from individuals in the accused position through the portrayal of a Hollywood mogul. Together with the play’s director, Maura Krause, and lead actress Allison Ormsby, along with a cast of characters from the production, they were able to tackle the creative process in only a few weeks.
What is Boycott Esther?
Emily: Boycott Esther is an original play that I wrote and Maura directed and it’s getting its premier at Azuka Theater running through May 19th. The premise of the play is about a young woman who has been hired by a Hollywood mogul (who quickly become enmeshed in sexual assault scandal). She meets with him after the fact and he asks her to meet and listen to him as he tries to figure out what to do with his life; how, perhaps, to climb back into his old roles. She pens a letter online investigating those questions: Is there a world where these men come back? Is there a place for forgiveness in our society for these people?
The backlash of the internet is where the heart of the play lies and how we deal with these movements in our digital world — that’s sort of the arc of the play.
It’s such an interesting perspective on the whole situation. What’s the reasoning behind the perspective?
Emily: I think it’s two reasons. One, as a writer outside of this play and within this play, I have an interest in representing the internet and digital spaces on stage and finding the intersection of those things, especially for young voices, people who are more adapt and savvy with the online world, and for that to find a home on stage. What does theater look like as a live art form while presenting that world? As a piece of theater, I find that exciting. I find that investigation of the craft exciting.
Two, the play isn’t really about “me too.” It’s more, actually, about the internet itself and the way we use it, how we brand ourselves on it, the lack of nuance, how we present ourselves online, and how scandals can quickly become black and white online with each personal staying in their singular camp. That’s why the internet is there, it’s at the heart of the story.
As a director, how did tackle portraying the Internet on stage?
Maura: Emily and I have known each other for a long time so her interest in finding new and theatrical ways in representing the internet since it’s such a huge force in everyone’s life at this point — that’s something we’ve been talking about since before Azuka committed to producing Boycott Esther.
Emily was pretty clear in her script about the storytelling beats that needed to happen through the internet, so we brought on a projections designer, but we also, ended up in this really exciting way, having our sound designer make a proposal for sounds that would help communicate the pace and overwhelming drive of the internet. Ultimately, the challenge for me, as the director, was just making sure the projections and that digital world felt fully integrated with live performances.
Is this the first play you’ve both done together?
Maura: Emily and I are co-founders of a group called Orbiter 3, which is Philadelphia’s first producing playwrights collective, modeled after the famed New York playwrights collective, 13P, but with our own Philadelphia-style spin on it. Em and I worked closely through Orbiter 3 but never as director and playwright. We’ve been in each other’s spheres for a really long time, but this is the first full production we’ve gotten to work on together.
What’s your mission for the audience?
Emily: We often say that a play poses more questions than it does answers. I think one of the most satisfying things for any playwright is just to have their play engender meaningful conversation around their subject matter and that’s definitely something true about this play. I think that because it’s a subject that so many people if they have been paying even a little bit of attention to the news over the past three years has some sort of context so everyone will receive this play in their own way.
I’d also say that something Maura and I are super passionate about as female theater artists is featuring female characters who are flawed, even mediocre, and having them still propel a story in a way that is meaningful to the audience without having to be likeable or a beauty queen or any of those things, so that is something I hope that stands out in this particular production.
Can you talk about the creative process from concept to execution?
Emily: Maura, I would consider her my closest artistic collaborator, so as soon as I finished the first draft I’d send it to her for notes (she gave very smart and necessary ones). From there, she’s been attached to the project very closely. We have a unique collaboration in that we trust each other wholeheartedly to speak our minds and step on each other’s toes. What you might presume as a director’s role or writer’s role, we have a very fluid relationship in living between those two things in certain moments.
Maura: It’s really this amazing gift to have a playwright that has that kind of visual, detail-oriented sensibility to know that if I missed something because I’m paying attention to something else, Emily will catch it. That’s just a really incredible way to work. Because we’ve known each other for so long, I really trust her opinion. We spent a lot of time coming up with choreography because there are a lot of moments where Allison is alone as an actor on stage. By week three, we were gearing up for tech for getting the show in the best shape we could and then we started to bring in design elements.
Do you face any challenges as a female playwright and director?
Maura: I think that’s a tricky questions because being a director or a playwright is an incredible challenging thing no matter what your background. Occasionally, I have come into situations where people assume certain things about me or about my way of working or that I may not have a particular brand of flavor or authority that they are looking for, so I have run into that. But, frankly, most of the time, the people that are frustrated by my way of working are people I don’t necessarily feel excited about working with anyway.
Some friction and some tension is a natural process of collaboration and I’m super down for that. In the past ten years, there have been some times where I have felt some gender biased attitudes, but for the most part, I feel really lucky to have my collaborators. I feel really lucky to be welcome in the Philadelphia theater community, I think it’s an amazing community. One of my actors said, “You make everyone in the rehearsal room feel so safe,” and that’s my way of working. It’s about finding who is comfortable with that and who wants to work with that.
Emily: I completely agree with what Maura is saying. I would say that a lot of times in the Philly theater community, the theater directors are often male. That either consciously or subconsciously potentially they are excited about stories that speak to them, either aesthetically or the character is someone they can relate to. I tend to write stories about disagreeable women, and I know that about myself so either consciously or not consciously those stories aren’t for everyone and come across those roadblocks for sure.
In this process, I would say it was helped by women, by me and Maura, and it was a joy to work with her. We have a very specific outlook on making art. Generally, you just find people who you want to work with and want to work with you and I think, for the most part, it works out.
This new work runs from May 1 to May 19. Azuka continues its pay-what-you-decide model for this show where audiences are invited to experience the art on stage and pay based on the value of their experience after. For reservations, visit azukatheatre.org. Boycott Esther runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is recommended for audiences 13+.