A few years ago, Philadelphia-based playwright Emily Acker was hired by The Weinstein Company to help write the revival of a 1980s Britsh comedy television show, “Three Up, Two Down.”
During the infancy of its pitching, though, the mammoth film company was hit with a catastrophic scandal, as the first sexual assault accusation against the organization’s founder started to surface, bringing Acker’s project to a screeching standstill.
Although the television series never made it off the drawing boards, Acker began archiving her personal experiences with the national turmoil, which eventually transformed into a new play, “Boycott Esther.”
Premiering with Azuka Theatre through May 19, the story very similarly follows Acker’s experience, as the play surrounds a young woman, Esther, in the wake of her career following sexual accusations against her Hollywood mogul boss.
“It’s definitely the inspiration for the play, but the play is entirely fictionalized…it is sort of the background for the show, absolutely,” said the Northwestern University graduate. “As it was going on, the scandal took flight nationally, so a lot of my friends and family – it’s what we were talking about at the time, because I had this unlikely closeness to this national story.”
The play works to deconstruct society’s convictions toward current accounts surrounding sexual assault, particularly the ripple effects of the #MeToo movement. In doing so, Acker allows audiences to view the play through the eyes of individuals treading on all sides of the common narratives, including exploring the psyche of those who have been assaulted and those who have been accused.
While she stresses that there is no moral ambiguity, the play strives to ask more questions than provide answers, such as what happens to perpetrators in the aftermath of allegations, or, on an even greater scale, whether or not society can still consume the art of a great artist who happens to be depraved.
The main character of Esther takes it upon herself to ask such questions.
“I definitely don’t want to get the message that I’m sympathetic for sexual abusers of any kind,” Acker said. “But I do think the play asks more questions than it offers answers, and it does present sides in their raw state without making any kind of statement or judgment on what to believe and what not to believe. In my opinion, the best theater are the ones that generate a conversation, so that is my intent.”
The show’s timeliness and relevance does not solely lie in the actualities of sexual assault, but, perhaps, even more so, the play probes at how we, as a society, process such accusations in the era of social media.
At its core, the show centers upon the complexity of consequences in the internet age, such as how such scandals move through time at the velocity at which they move, how society processes such conversations digitally, as opposed to in person, and ultimately, how does that change the way we interact with one another.
“I don’t think (social media) is a platform that’s conducive to real conversation,” said cast member and Point Breeze-based actor Steven Rishard. “It seems to be people screaming at each other all the time…I hope audiences would think about the complexity of what it is to sort of try to hold real discussions in a format that is not conducive to it. I think talking with each other face-to-face and conversations between two people are always going to be more dynamic and more productive than trying to sort of figure out our larger problems in this swirling cesspool of Facebook.”
Rishard, whose scope of credits ranges from television shows like “The Americans” and “Law and Order SVU,” to regional theater companies, such as the Wilma HotHouse and Philadelphia Theatre Company, is tackling the complicated character of Barry Bloom – the Hollywood mogul accused of sexual misconduct.
Barry Bloom plainly personifies a circle of celebrities whose names made headlines hinged with assault accusations over the last few years. For Rishard, a Louisiana native who performed in New York City for more than a decade, approaching the dark headspace of this almost all-too-familiar persona aligns with most of his prior acting roles.
“I’ve spent my career playing unlikable people, and my job is to either make them likable or be as despicable as possible,” Rishard said. “ He’s just another one of these men who sort of can’t make room for other people, because the space he takes up is so large. He’s ego, he’s credo, whatever it is for him. He’s one of those guys.”
Both Acker and Rishard describe the internet as a character of the production. Not only does technology act as a cornerstone of the show’s plot but it serves as an integral part of the design-scape.
Utilizing technical sights and sounds, the show emulates the movement and velocity of social media on stage, as portraying the internet is an emerging realm of theatrical design in contemporary theater.
For Acker, the play offers a lens to view the nuances of present-day notions, including the impact of the internet and sexual assault accusations. “Boycott Esther” aims to not only shed new light on these concepts but to be inclusive of various perspectives.
“I hope to make sure that, no matter who you are or what your views are on this, that you feel represented or that you have a place to feel, at least, that it’s open-minded to letting you into the story,” Acker said. “Meet the story where you are.”
To learn more about the play, visit: www.azukatheatre.org/boycott-esther.