Scottish Playwright Visits Malibu to Work on American History Project
• Pepperdine Students Will Perform His Play at Its Debut in 2012 Edinburgh Festival
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
Pepperdine University theater students will be bringing a forgotten chapter of American history to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer.
Acclaimed Scottish playwright Peter Arnott was in Malibu this week to work with the students who will be performing the play he was commissioned to write for the school. He took some time out to talk with the Malibu Surfside News about the project.
"It was very exciting to see the sun set in the Pacific," Arnott said. "My first Malibu sunset. It's a very welcoming place, a great bunch of kids. Very exciting. The kids have given up spring break [to work on the play]."
Arnott described the project as "newspaper theater made countercultural."
The play deals with the "Bonus Army," who, 80 years before the current "Occupy movement," marched on Washington DC.
"WWI vets, as part of compensation for war wages, were promised bonus compensation when they died or retired," Arnott said. "Hundreds of thousands of veterans were out of work during the depression. They asked the government 'give our bonus to us now.' There were protests. In 1932 they occupied Washington D.C. Veterans and their families built a Hoover town. They called it the 'Bonus Army.' It was just like the occupy movement."
Arnott said that, in the end, the military was called in, and the protesters were cleared out by troops commanded by Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton. A cavalry charge, followed by troops armed with fixed bayonets and canisters of adamsite gas-an arsenic-based tear gas-were used to disperse the protesters, while spectators reportedly called "shame,shame!"
According to newspaper reports, approximately 10,000 men, women and children took part in the Bonus Army protest, 55 were injured and 135 arrested. A 12-month-old baby allegedly died from tear gas exposure and a woman miscarried.
The Senate defeated the bill that would have allocated the bonus funds to the veterans by a vote of 62 to 18.
"The show is primary sources: songs, interviews, news stories. It resonates-vets and the crash right now. It's important for this class," Arnott said.
"There are these images of the Bonus Camp burning and smoke drifting across the Capitol building. It's compelling."
Arnott is incorporating the folk music of the period into the work. A washtub bass and several washboards stand next to the piano and Arnott's guitar. He's working with fellow Scot John Kielty on the music.
"It's the folk tradition," Arnott says. "It's about change.
He's using songs collected by American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. According to Arnott, Woody Guthrie's song "Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?" was written about the Bonus Army.
"I came across the story in 1981," Arnott says. "I've been waiting since then to tell this story. The only way to do this is with a lot of people."
A total of 28 students—21 actors and seven technicians and production designers—will be heading to Scotland to perform the play under the direction of Pepperdine alumnus Alex Fthenakis. They will be responsible for all aspects of the production.
Malibuites will have an opportunity to see the play next year, at the Smothers Theatre.
Arnott knows first hand about the impact of tough economic times.
The native Glaswegian says "Scotland was always a place you leave. Now it's a place where people come to do things. Culture is important. We're not as paranoid about immigration and have a mischievous sense of whatever annoys the British most."
A press release on the project describes Arnott's visit as "the first part of an unprecedented educational and cultural collaboration between the university and leading members of the Scottish theatre industry."
"During the trip, Arnott spent time working with students on the play commissioned by the university, but also met with members of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, "serving as a representative of the Scottish theatre community to foster greater theatrical links between Hollywood and Scotland," the press release states.
The students participating in the project will spend an eight-week artistic and educational residency in Scotland.
"During the residency the students will spend time in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Highlands meeting theatre artists, cultural practitioners, academics and fellow students."
The project will culminate in the presentation of two productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2012.