To begin, here’s a somewhat lengthy bit of unsolicited background about me and The Theatre: I used to love The Theatre. It excited and possessed me. When I was very young, I was painfully shy. I blushed when people talk to me (I still do this sometimes) and found it difficult to speak up in class or around crowds. And yet, some internal part of me was drawn to the idea of performing. I pushed myself to try out for elementary school and community theatre plays, and people were amazed that suddenly I spoke, loudly and clearly and without hesitation. The idea of acting was thrilling to me, and it seems I wasn’t completely terrible at it. I was in all manner of plays and musicals (though I didn’t have much of a singing voice) all throughout elementary school and high school, usually snagging lead or at least sizeable speaking roles. The first time I ever visited New York City, I stayed four nights and saw a different Broadway show each night. I memorized the “Rent” soundtrack. I shed tears just talking about “West Side Story.” I loved The Theatre.
Then I moved from my smallish Midwestern town to a larger Midwestern city for college and decided to continue dabbling in The Theatre, but being around people whose whole lives were consumed by The Theatre suddenly made it considerably less appealing. So many Theatre People were painful clichés, and suddenly the songs I had loved and the words I read seemed so cloying. Even newer, more innovative takes on The Theatre just seemed hackneyed. Around this time, I fell out of love with a lot of my previous obsessions, and I think there are several reasons behind that, but now’s not really the time to get into that. The point is that I had pretty much given up on The Theatre.
I moved to New York a little less than four years ago completely sans enthusiasm about The Theatre, which had been overflowing during my first visit a decade before. My mom bought and sent me tickets so that my boyfriend and I could see “West Side Story” on Broadway, but despite my former love of the show, I really couldn’t get into it. I decided to look for something a little more off the beaten path for my next attempt to recapture any feelings for The Theatre, and snagged tickets to a low-key (but sold-out and much-loved) production of “Two Gentlemen of Lebowski,” a performance of a former viral sensation that took “The Big Lebowski” screenplay and rewrote it in, well, “Shakespearian.” I love “Lebowski” and Shakespeare, and when the play first become an Internet phenomenon, the entire text was available online (it’s now a published book and therefore not available for free on the Interwebz) and it made me giggle repeatedly and marvel at the melding of two worlds. But somehow, when I saw it performed, the magic just wasn’t there.
Then, my boyfriend got tickets through a work colleague to see “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at the Public Theater. By this time, I really thought I truly hated The Theater, and was hesitant to go. When we got there, our playbills referred to the show as an “emo rock opera” and when the lead, Benjamin Walker (who later starred in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a film I did not see and I’m not sure that anybody else saw), came out on stage and said, “Are you ready to rock?!”, I do believe I audibly groaned. But then something crazy happened. I loved the play. It was witty and intelligent and well-acted, and the songs didn’t make me bored or angry. Maybe I didn’t hate The Theatre after all!
Side note: “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” moved to Broadway shortly after I saw it, where it faced dismal attendance and closed after only 120 performances. Y’all don’t know what you missed. Either that or I’m not a good judge of things.
Which brings me, I suppose, to “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.” Noting my ambivalence about The Theatre, it’s hard for me to stay on top of things. But a friend of mine, who happens to be far more literarily and culturally engaged than I am, alerted me to this play, which was doing a run from the end of April to the end of May at the Soho Rep, a tiny theatre that I, of course, had never been to.
This is a thing that happens to me now, as an out-and-proud Disney fan — friends just randomly send me links to Disney-related news or videos. But this was more than just something I had already read on a theme park blog. Someone had made art about Walt Disney. Someone had brought him to The Theatre. I probably had to go, right? Yes. I had to go. And I had to find someone to go with me.
Luckily, ever since the Disney blog meetup from a few months back, I have been assembling a cadre of in-real-life Disney friends. I lobbed the idea of the play at them and the delightful Estelle (of This Happy Place Blog fame) answered my invitation. We selected a matinee showing that was followed by a presentation from NYU professor Andrew Ross, who spent time in the late ’90s living in Celebration, Fla., and subsequently wrote the book “The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town.”
Just a few days before Estelle and I were due to see the play, reviews from outlets like The New York Times began trickling in. I didn’t want to read too much on it, as I wanted to form my own opinions. But the few reviews I read or skimmed seemed to verify my initial thoughts on what the play would be and was: a highly fictionalized version of the man who was Walt Disney presented in an almost jarringly artistic fashion.
The title of the play was my first clue: a reading. Of a screenplay. Not a play. A movie. The set was a boardroom, funereal music piped in. The actors — portraying Walt, his brother Roy, his daughter Diane and his son-in-law Ron — sat at a conference table with their scripts, a pitcher of water and a platter of fruits and vegetables. Larry Pine, the commanding and captivating actor who played Walt, spoke the nondialogue script cues into a microphone. He gave us the scene numbers, the settings, the character directions. Dialogue that is spoken is choppy, staccato-like. The actors jump in on each other’s sentences. It is Art, you are seeing Art, and don’t you forget it. Thankfully, it finds a rhythm and you kind of fall in with it, this world, this story of Walt Disney dying as told by an iteration of Walt Disney that capitalizes on the world’s most outlandish theories about him.
As a person who can’t go a day without thinking about Disney, it’s safe to assume I am a bit more knowledgable about Walt and his ideas, his products, his parks than the average man on the street or theatregoer or even Disney tourist. So of course I’m going to notice and be somewhat bothered by inconsistencies and incongruities and anything incorrect. But just because I choose to have a hyperfocus on these things doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else. It’s not like you have to pass a trivia test to pass through the Magic Kingdom turnstiles. Some days I feel like I wish you did have to pass a test, and I’m sure other Disney aficionados occasionally feel this way as well. I know I’ve stood behind people in attraction queues who were being disrespectful or annoying, or maybe they were talking about something they knew nothing about, and I’m sure I rolled my eyes and sighed and felt like a better person than those people. People are possessive about the things they love. Loving what you love makes you feel good. And people are competitive. People like to feel smart and accomplished. But it’s off-putting to people who don’t share your passion. You come off as pretentious or rude, or insane or obsessive. If you find people who are passionate about the same things, banter can escalate into judgment and pissing contests. You shouldn’t have to feel like you’re the “winner” of your interest — that you know more than anyone else and challenge someone whose opinions vary slightly. But it happens a lot.
What I’m trying to say here is that judgmental part of me was balking at the things I knew were wrong. There were many elements of the character of Walt Disney in the play that were clearly nonsensical. But Walt Disney is such a widely known and highly mythologized figure. There’s no way to address everything he created without addressing the deity-monster complex. There are persistant reports that the man was ragingly racist and anti-Semitic, which have been, for the most part, been proven to be not quite so true. But who takes the time to find out? Who wants to? On the flip side, for many people, Walt Disney was a god. Love of his creations can cause blindness to the man’s faults. He had faults. I’m not naïve enough to think you get to such a position in life by being flawless and unrelentingly good.
Not to mention that millions of people are pretty sure Walt Disney’s head is frozen somewhere. You just can’t not address that. You can’t.
I guessed that playwright Lucas Hnath had made this decision on purpose. It was clear that some research had been done, but I felt like the gaps between the truths and falsehoods had to be intentional. It seems this was a correct assumption. In an interview with NYU Local, he said, “I would say that the play is not about him as a person so much as the idea of Walt. There’s the personal in the play, but the Disney ethos is the aesthetic that is also part of the play. [...] My research is intentionally very spotty, because I’m worried about the plays turning into book reports or bio-plays, or becoming ploddingly researched. I’ll find a few things that [pique] my interest, and then like fence posts, I’ll thread together a couple of factoids about these people by filling in the rest with things about me or my family.”
Moving on to the actual substance of the play — Walt was dying. He was done with “fairy tales and fairy things.” He wanted to focus on real things. Like nature documentaries. But when nature was not being real in the way he wanted it to be real, he had to manipulate it. He was a perfectionist. He knew what he wanted and he set out to get it. He wanted to build EPCOT. The city, not the theme park. He was obsessive and focused. I’ve read Neal Gabler’s biography, and I really enjoyed having these elements of the man come together for me. I could relate to it, and I feel that the play captured this.
Moreso, though, as the character of Walt repeatedly coughed blood into handkerchiefs and put away a bottle of vodka and ruminated on acquiring land in Florida and his unbuilt city and dealing with obstacles and being the namesake of his unborn grandson and freezing his head, it became clearer that this was more than just a tribute to or critique of the man who was Walt Disney. It was a meditation on legacy — what we leave behind versus what we want to leave behind, ambition and creation, finality and eternity. It’s a powerful thing to address through The Theatre, especially with Walt Disney as a guide. The result was itchy, darkly comic and quite captivating.