By Bonnie Farber, marketing director for It Can’t Happen Here
In 1934, Sinclair Lewis never could have predicted that It Can’t Happen Here, his dystopian novel depicting the rise of a populist demagogue, would be a bestseller again in 2016. It Can’t Happen Here depicts a scenario in which Buzz Windrip, a blustery and blunt Senator from the Midwest, is elected to the U.S. presidency and establishes a fascist dictatorship. Lewis, writing against the background of a fascist Europe and mass unemployment at home, perceived that the climate in America had rendered it ripe for pro-fascist sentiments.
The novel was an instant hit and remained a bestseller for two years.
In 1935, the newly-formed Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a branch of the Works Progress Administration, discovered a way to establish itself as a major cultural force in the nation: the organization would bring the work of one of its most respected novelists to the stage. Enter Hallie Flanagan, a remarkable theater scholar, appointed to be director of the FTP by the Roosevelt administration.
Flanagan approached Lewis about the idea of doing a stage version of the dystopian novel. Lewis agreed, provided the play would be produced not just in New York, but in several FTP theaters across the country. Flanagan matched Lewis with a co-writer, FTP playwright John C. Moffitt. Although the two weren’t on speaking terms by the end of the writing process, the play version of It Can’t Happen Here did come to pass. On a night in October 1935, it was performed simultaneously in 22 theaters in 16 cities across the nation.
It Can’t Happen Here tells the story Doremus Jessup, a small-town Vermont newspaper editor who initially warms to Buzz Windrip’s campaign, an alternative to the left-leaning People’s Party. Like most of his friends and family, Jessup at first ignores and tries to rationalize the danger signs. Only when one of his own family members is murdered by the Corpos, Windrip’s newly-formed militia, does he realize that Windrip and his crew of henchmen have no intention of respecting the Constitution or following the rule of law. Jessup’s long-time associate and love interest, Lindy, had warned him that if Windrip came to power, he would establish a dictatorship. Only when it’s too late does Jessup realize that complacency has blinded him to the danger that men like Windrip pose. Finding his courage, he joins the Resistance.
The 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival production joins a number of nationwide readings and productions of this frighteningly relevant work. For Kit Bix, this momentum has proved irresistibly compelling.
“A few weeks after the November 6 election, I drew up a list of anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian protest plays and distributed it to some friends in the theater community,” says Kit. “I imagined that, like myself, they were seeking ways to combine theater work with resistance. One of the plays listed was It Can’t Happen Here, which Darryl Henriques, a veteran of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, had sent me. He had organized one of the nationwide readings of the play.”
“I knew I wanted to do a theatre event as a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota,” Kit says.
“But the FTP play was three hours long and as Hallie Flanagan had observed, it was pretty poor. Still, the story and the character of Buzz seemed so prescient. I was intrigued by the revival of interest in the novel, post-election. I kept thinking about the play. Last spring, when the Fringe Lottery was announced, I thought why not? I figured it would be challenging but not impossible to condense the FTP script into a 60-minute Fringe slot. Of course, there was no guarantee that I would win a venue.”
Hundreds of proposals for plays are sent to Minnesota Fringe each year to be chosen for the festival by lottery. “I had applied in previous years and had never gotten a slot,” says Kit. “This time, I won.”
“The Fringe provides an amazing opportunity for emerging artists and particularly for first-time producers to stage a show on a small budget,” Kit explains. “They provide the company with a great venue, a lighting designer, a house manager and wonderful volunteers. It seemed ideal for a benefit production. I am not a fan of not paying actors. But, I had a tiny budget and I knew that if I distributed the proceeds among the company it would only leave a small amount—if anything—left to give to ACLU.”
“I always thought of this project as a fundraiser and wanted to make sure that all the profits went to ACLU. Because it was a charity event, I found several places that were willing to lend us rehearsal space, gratis.” The requirements of one of the places that donated space—the Public Library—was that none of the participants would profit from the show. “I wasn’t sure if I could find a director and actors to work for free, but I knew lots of people in the theater community who were frustrated with the administration and Congress, and who had talked about finding ways to use their skills and talents to take action,” says Kit. “About 75% of the friends I approached were not only game, but eager to take part.”
Many theatre artists don’t have disposable income to donate to organizations that oppose the administration and the GOP. “I think that’s why they were willing to work for free and donate the profits to the American Civil Liberties Union,” Kit says.
Audiences at Minnesota Fringe have embraced the power of the play. The first three performances played to sold out crowds. The play’s unsparing depictions of how rapidly democratic institutions can be dismantled, and dissent suppressed and punished, can be frightening. The audiences seemed gratified that the ticket sales would go to the ACLU.
For Kit, resistance is a constant since the election. “I find I’m no longer capable of leaving the world outside the theatre for two hours—or even one.”
It Can’t Happen Here was written by Sinclair Lewis and John C. Moffitt and adapted for the Minnesota Fringe Festival by Kit Bix. Directed by Bryan Bevell and produced by Kit Bix, the production features Charles Numrich as Doremus Jessup and Meagan Kedrowski as “Buzz” Windrip and a stellar cast of 17 actors both new and familiar to Twin Cities audiences. All profits are donated to ACLU-MN. Tickets are available here.
Bonnie Farber is a storyteller who writes for internal communications and integrated marketing in Madison, WI.
Original poster design by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey.