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PREVIEW: True Stories Brought to Life in Our House: The Capitol Play Project

Photo by Tracy Swenson.

The term “site-specific” gets tossed around a lot in theatre nowadays. The once highly specific term is often used to describe any performance outside a traditional performance space. This genericization obscures what made the idea of site-specific theatre revolutionary – and what continues to give the idea power. In its original usage, the term “site-specific theatre” describes theatre specifically springing forth from a space – such that, without this space, the work would not exist or have a reason to exist.

Wonderlust Productions’ upcoming show Our House: The Capitol Play Project delves back towards the original meaning of site-specific theatre. Not only is the narrative set in the actual building that the action takes place in, but the storyline itself was derived and adapted from three years of interviews with people working in the Minnesota state capitol building. This encapsulates what the ensemble Wrights & Sights describes as “a performance specifically generated from or for one site”. The play’s cast is similarly rooted in the space itself, with a small group of professional actors intermingled with a larger group of capitol community members who are temporarily donning acting caps.


When a wild card new Governor is elected, the regular order on the state Capitol campus is thrown into chaos. While a chorus of activists, legislators, lobbyists, civil servants, and tour guides attempt to get their way, an idealistic new employee finds herself at the center of an unexpected controversy. Misunderstandings and mistaken identity lead to a crash course in the realities that both constrain and inspire the men and women who have devoted themselves to public service (inside a building brimming with idealism, cynicism, absurdity, significance, and power — plus more than a few old ghosts with something to say).

Our House: The Capitol Play Project is co-written and directed by Alan Berks and Leah Cooper. Berks spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about the world premiere of this play, coming to the state capitol building in St. Paul, MN on January 19.

What first inspired this project?

Wonderlust Productions focuses on communities that affect all Minnesotans, but whose stories are often ignored or misunderstood. Examples include people affected by adoption and military veterans. In 2014, when the Knight Foundation issued the Knight Arts Challenge, we were motivated to think about what extremely St. Paul specific community would fit into our criteria. We were also inspired by the fact that the state capitol was being restored at that time. We hear so much about partisan politics, but what about the people and processes that keep the state running day-in and day-out?

We figured there were many stories to discover about that part of state government that perhaps aren’t so easy to tell in newspapers and online, but would make for a really entertaining and enlightening play.

What was the regulatory/approval process like to get access to the Capitol? To the people there?

I’m not sure how to answer this question. People are people…they can do what they want. We reach out to departments and organizations that are connected to the Capitol and state government and invite them to story circles, and they come or they don’t come. It’s always an opt-in process.

We were honored enough to have story circles with former tour guides, with people who work in the Office of State Procurement, with a host of lobbyists (altogether in one story circle), with former legislators, etc. It’s just legwork [to make this happen]. It’s just asking.

It is true that some people are reticent to talk to us because they are scrupulously non-partisan, and they don’t want to jeopardize the trust of their co-workers or citizens. Many of those people probably chose not to talk to us. However, our process is anonymous, and the stories that make it into the play are not attributed to anyone specifically – so, over time, we were able to get more inside stories than one would think. Again, it’s just about asking and about putting in the time to build people’s trust.

In terms of using the space, it [the Capitol building] is actually a public building and there are public spaces [within it] that, during public hours, can be reserved by any citizens for use (within certain guidelines of course). We’ve worked closely with Facilities Management to make sure that we’re following the rules but they have been extremely helpful, even eager, to help us do this. There’s an actual web page where you can see the spaces available and reserve them. It’s actually not hard.

A dance scene from The Capitol Play Project. Photo by Leah Cooper.

We are doing only one “after hours” performance, though, because the cost to use the space in non-public hours is pretty high since the restoration. We’re performing when the building is open to the public.

It is worth noting that our use of the space does not mean that facilities management condones or has any input on what the play says. Any citizen is allowed to reserve public space for any purpose that stays within the technical use rules. (We don’t want to give people the wrong impression about access to these spaces. They are accessible and free speech rules apply.) Facilities Management also has some logistical rules that apply to all groups equally, which are just about making sure the space is taken care of for everyone.

A rotunda scene. Photo by Leah Cooper.

You’ve stated that this performance is the culmination of a 3-year process. Can you break down that timeline?

We spent a year and a half building relationships, connecting with people who might connect us with people who would tell their stories, letting people know what we were doing, and then finally gathering people together in story circles. We talked to activists, business people, advocates, lobbyists, legislators and former legislators, media who cover the capitol, tour guides, civil servants (current and former), and even an architect on the Cass Gilbert Society board. And more – as wide a cross-section as possible, both in terms of relationship to the Capitol and in terms of demographics.

Were there specific phases?

In early 2017, we worked on the script and did some workshops to help develop it from a series of stories into a piece of theater with an entertaining plot and real human characters (who are conglomerations of the people we met).

In September 2017, we did a public reading at the Capitol of the draft that we had with half the cast being members of the Capitol community and half the cast being professionals. Then it was back to the drawing board to revise, cut, and rewrite the script. We started rehearsals in November with a cast of 19, including 12 members of the Capitol community and 7 professional Twin Cities actors.

Our House: The Capitol Play Project plays January 19-28 at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine