Lisa Peterson Talks About What the Hell is a Republic Anyway

Lisa Peterson

by Carol Rocamora

In this time of isolation, uncertainty, artistic deprivation, and darkened theatres, what could be more invigorating and inspiring than the New York Theatre Workshop’s “What The Hell Is A Republic, Anyway?”  This new four-part series is among the first of NYTW’s visionary “Artistic Instigator Projects.”   Its purpose?  To invite theatre artists to develop new work and to share it with audience in existing on-line formats and “in ways yet to be imagined,” in the words of artistic director James Nicola.

Denis O’Hare

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that a idea like “Republic” – conceived by director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare – could be as perfect a fit for our times as it has become.   This dynamic artistic duet had been researching and developing a new play for the past five years called “The Song of Rome,” a companion piece to their previous “Iliad,” commissioned by the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.  “We thought we should be thinking about how governments come together and fall apart,” explains Peterson,  “and how the 500-year long experiment called the Roman Republic would help us talk about how our own American experience is on the verge of crisis.”  Then came COVID, Peterson continued, and it became clear to them that “Zoom could be a wonderful medium for this piece, where we could share our research and concerns about the American experience and explore it.”  The fact that we’re on the eve of a crucial national election, she added, made the concept all the more timely and urgent. 

So “What The Hell Is A Republic, Anyway?” was born – a series of four interactive on-line episodes featuring Peterson, O’Hare, dramaturg Anna Morton, and project manager Merrick Williams.  So far, there have been two forums – Episode 1, “Rome & America: Joined at Birth” (September 22)  and Episode 2, “Citizenship” (October 6).  They will be followed by Episode 3, “How Republics Fall Apart” (October 20, with a pre-recorded encore on October 25) and “The Election” (November 2, with a pre-recorded encore on November 8).   Each episode addresses the question: What can America learn from the republic that inspired ours – namely, the Roman Republic that lasted for 500 years before it devolved into an autocratic empire?  Each one dives deeply into Roman history, in an effort to understanding our own past and present.

From the moment the first one opened (on Zoom) – featuring Peterson at home in her New York kitchen and O’Hare reading a book in his Paris apartment – we knew we were in for a unique, dynamic and stimulating experience. The format of each episode includes on-going conversations between Peterson and O’Hare (both scripted and unscripted), audience participation and interaction, power-point slides, breakout sessions, interviews with scholars, and even a vote among all the viewers.  The tempo is brisk and lively, and the feeling is spontaneous.  But, as Peterson reveals, each forum is carefully developed.   “We’ve worked long distance together for years,” she explains.  “We tape our conversations, and listen to the transcripts.  Everything is rehearsed and scripted – the only unknown is the audience.” 

Having had the pleasure of being an audience member for the first two episodes, I can confirm how exciting they are.  The atmosphere of spontaneity is invigorating.  (At one point, O’Hare’s nine-year-old son called from the next room; at another, O’Hare sang an aria while Williams attended to a technical glitch.)  Above all, the feeling of connection in the time of COVID is so revitalizing.  “That’s the one thing that theatre can do in its live form,” says Peterson, even on-line.  This is a time when we feel so lonely, and each episode provides us with ninety minutes when we’re not alone.”

So far 150-200 audience members from all over the country and around the world have tuned in and participated in each of the first two episodes – including viewers from New York to California, Lima, Peru, and Tel Aviv Israel, among others. What do these inspiring “artistic instigators” hope will be the outcome of this unique series?  “I think we’re shoring up the commitment of our audience members to participate in civic action. Even though we’re separated, we’re part of a community.” 

“What The Hell Is A Republic, Anyway?” a four-part series with Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, produced by the New York Theatre Workshop through November 8.  www.nytw.org

Share