Making Art in the Time of Trump

A Conversation Between Matthew and Nathanael Vaky, creators and stars of The Masque of Power

NATHANAEL:   When Donald Trump was elected President, I was devastated. I really was. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to do. When he gave his acceptance speech at the inauguration, I said to myself, “Well, at least I can make art. Now I have a reason to make art.”   And so I called my dad and I said, “We have to do a show in the Fringe, this year. We just have to.”

MATTHEW:   I have always been interested in making Political Theatre. I had a street theatre company in Pittsburgh called First Step, doing plays about South Africa and Workers Rights. I wrote and directed a play about violence at Abortion Clinics called “A Gift for Jesus.” I wrote and performed a one man show called “Jesus at Guantanamo” that was performed in Minneapolis and Washington DC. Whatever creative talent I may have has always been channeled into trying to change the world. As naïve as that sounds, that’s what I believe art can do:  Change the World.  When Nathanael called me about doing a show for the Fringe, I thought these are the times that need Art the most.

NATHANAEL:   But the problem becomes you are preaching to the choir.

MATTHEW:   How can you change things when the only people who will see your show are the ones who already agree with you?

NATHANAEL:   You aren’t changing anything. You are just pissing on Daddy’s shoes.

MATTHEW:   Thanks for that lovely metaphor.

NATHANAEL:   When we started working on The Masque of Power, we kept bumping our heads against the idea that we are just saying what everyone in our audience will already believe.

MATTHEW:   The title comes from the Elizabethan Masque, which was a kind of theatre performed for the royalty by the royalty. A self-congratulatory celebration.

NATHANAEL:   But they used Commedia Masks, which was a kind of ironic since Commedia can be pretty subversive.

MATTHEW:   It was all about the power struggle between servant and master. That intrigued me so much since we now have a millionaire president who claims to be looking out for the little guy even as he profits from most of the decisions he makes as our leader. Money is so powerful in our society. It’s what we all want, but it is the source of so much corruption and greed, which seems to lead to such corrosive behavior.

NATHANAEL:   So we explored Commedia characters and scenarios. They seemed to always be fighting over money or a girl. It was a really fun part of the rehearsal process. We also took a workshop with The Elevator Repair Service and started incorporating random movements and gestures into the show.

MATTHEW:   We had a series of unrelated scenarios that we really loved but it really didn’t have a shape to it. And worse, it didn’t really SAY anything that mattered or that we thought would address the problems of division and anger that we saw all around us. We kept bumping into the WHY of the show. What is the point? What difference is it going to make anyway? How do we move beyond the knee jerk reaction of just getting mad at the world?

NATHANAEL:   And how do we NOT make it just a trite show about asking everyone to just get along.

MATTHEW:   We would do a scene with masks and then we would take them off and discuss if it worked or how to fix it. All those things that normally happen when you are creating a show. But a weird thing started to happen, we started to incorporate these frustrations INTO the play.  We started to let the actors behind the masks JOIN the show.

NATHANAEL:   That’s when the play took off and started to write itself.

MATTHEW:   We incorporated the idea that some things were real and somethings were the play.  Sometimes we wore masks and sometimes we were being real. It helped us understand other viewpoints too.

NATHANAEL:   Yea, we could use the masks, as all actors do, to explore ideas that weren’t necessarily our own. But when the audience sees us with a mask, they know we are wearing a mask.

MATTHEW:   And let’s be honest, sometimes without the mask, we aren’t being real or ourselves.

NATHANAEL:   But it helped us get to the “Why” of the play.

MATTHEW:   Nathanael said at one point,  “These are the Raft Times.  We are in the middle of one huge storm.”

NATHANAEL:   I think I used some expletives.

MATTHEW:   Yes you did. But the genius of the metaphor is the same, with or without the swearing. These times are like a huge storm and art in general—and this play in particular—is our raft. We can’t stop the storm, but we can survive it.

NATHANAEL:   This play is our raft. And it’s real. We built it together. And it’s real.

The Masque of Power was created by and stars the father-son team, Matthew and Nathanael Vaky and is playing at Mixed Blood Theatre August 3 – 13, as part of the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Tickets are available here.

Matthew Vaky spent 25 years in Minnesota and performed at The Guthrie, Mixed Blood, the Illusion Theatre and of course at the Minnesota Fringe Festival with his son, Nathanael.  He is a resident of Washington DC, where he was seen in The Container at Center Stage, The Life of Galileo at The Theatre of the First Amendment, The Birds and The Night Alive at Quotidian,  A Servant of Two Masters at Annapolis Shakespeare, and Chesapeake at The Bay Theatre. He is on staff at GALA Hispanic Theatre, The Studio Theatre, and Capital City Public Charter School.  His two one-man shows, Jesus at Guantanamo and ROGER (Not His Real Name) have been performed around the country, most recently at the United Solo Festival in New York.

Nathanael Vaky has been a resident of New York City for twelve years and received a BFA in acting at Marymount Manhattan College. He has collaborated with his father, Matthew, on many projects including Brothers and This Play is Trash at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, War in the Family at the Center for Independent Artists, and ROGER (Not His Real Name) at the United Solo Festival in New York. He is currently in the New York-based comedy improv and sketch group The Pen15 Club.

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