Set in 2050, the play looks back critically on events in the 2020s, when the U.S. battle over immigration explodes.
“I’m a pre-emerging playwright,” declared Holly Arsenault.
That self-description of Arsenault, a Seattle playwright whose futuristic new drama “The Great Inconvenience” debuts July 27 at Annex Theatre, may be humble to a fault.
At the very least, this well-regarded writer has “emerged” in Seattle. Her previous work at Annex, “Undo,” which imagines a society where divorces are marked with uncoupling ceremonies, won warm reviews and a local 2013 Gregory Award for outstanding new play.
While juggling a full-time administrative job at the University of Washington School of Drama, and co-parenting her 6-year-old son Izzy (with husband Matthew Richter), Arsenault also took part in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s high-caliber Writers Group, where she workshopped two other recent plays, “The Cut” and “The Manor.”
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But many scribes get nervous when their latest in-progress creation finally reaches the mainstage. And sitting in a University District coffeehouse with her frequent collaborator, director Erin Kraft, between final rehearsals of “The Great Inconvenience” debut, Arsenault admitted to some jitters.
“It’s such a muddy time, you’re just sort of slogging through it,” Arsenault said. “It’s like trying to sculpt Jell-O.”
The process could be especially challenging given the ambitious reach of “The Great Inconvenience.” Set in 2050, the play looks back critically on events in the 2020s, when the U.S. battle over immigration explodes. “It’s set in a time where our past history has been whitewashed and perverted,” Arsenault explained. “I imagined what would happen if everything went as badly as it could possibly go.”
“When the play opens there’s been a civil war that the winning side has erased from collective memory, and the income gap between rich and poor is far worse,” Kraft added.
Some young adults working in a national museum as historical reenactors are perpetuating revisionist history — until they discover and excavate the harsh truths of the previous generation.
Was Arsenault’s tale inspired by the wave of dystopian scenarios on television and stage lately — TV series like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Westworld,” or Robert Schenkkan’s post-Trumpian play “Building the Wall”?
“It’s not like I started out thinking, this is really zeitgeist-y,” replied the writer. “But the futuristic format gives you a lot of freedom to imagine things. And it’s obvious these stories are one way we’re dealing with fear about where the world’s headed.”
Though the concept was sketchy at first, Annex Theatre members (who choose their seasons by mutual consensus) were very receptive to Arsenault’s proposal for “The Great Inconvenience.” For one thing, says Annex artistic director Catherine Smith, the tiny but vital Capitol Hill playhouse had scored a big critical and box-office success with “Undo.”
Smith watched Arsenault’s new work evolve “as politics and news of the world developed. Holly did a lot of research, and came up with something more concrete, with a simpler and stronger plotline.”
The central characters “are all Americans, whatever that means in the 2050s. They have a chosen family; they all live together. But late in the play they get a greater understanding of what family is and what it means.”
Rehearsals started the day President Donald Trump’s administration began separating adult immigrants seeking asylum from their children at the U.S. border. Arsenault calls the policy “every parent’s worst nightmare,” and it had an immediate impact on her script.
“The Great Inconvenience” was also partly inspired by historical events — including the mass migrations caused by the Nazi expulsion of Jews in Europe, and the forced removal by the British of thousands of French-speaking Acadians in Eastern Canada during the 18th century.
“The Acadian history is part of my family background, on my father’s side,” Arsenault explained. “I read ‘A Great and Noble Scheme’ by the historian John Mack Faragher, and was overwhelmed by the parallels with what is happening now. The rhetoric about the Catholic Acadians was so close to the extremist rhetoric (about Muslim immigrants) today … that these people are evil, they’re taking over, they must be expelled.”
Arsenault was so moved by the book, she wrote a thank-you note to Faragher. “I told him I was writing a play based … on the premise that the Acadian removal provided a moral and logistical template for future U.S. deportations and forced migrations.”
Though the subject matter is heavy, Arsenault promised she isn’t delivering a relentlessly grim night at the theater, but a warning of what could happen “if we as a society continue on this path.”
But, she adds, “I believe an artist’s job is to captivate you for as long as we have your attention. If we stumble into truth, so be it. But I haven’t written a play yet with no laughs in it.”
“The Great Inconvenience” by Holly Arsenault, July 27-Aug. 18 at Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St., Seattle; $10-$20; 866-811-4111, annextheatre.org