Ear cocked to the political zeitgeist, Troy Heard shepherds Orwell’s searing Animal Farm onto the stage
(Edited for length and clarity.)
If power oinks, absolute power oinks absolutely. This enduring truism plops us right into the piggish heart of Animal Farm, Orwell’s satire of tyranny, which, like other works of his — recall the Trump bump in 1984’s sales — seems so newly relevant to so many. From school, you may remember, if hazily, the basic summary: The livestock on Manor Farm drives off repressive farmer Jones and sets about creating a workers’ paradise. Soon, predictably, Napoleon the pig seizes power, there’s a purge, utopia is in tatters, the cowed animals learn that some animals are created more equal, oppression returns, and the big pig sinks to the level of humans.
This is the story Troy Heard is putting on the Majestic Repertory Theatre’s stage this month, closing out the company’s second season. If you mostly remember Heard as the madcap impresario of such shows as Blood Orgy of the Chainsaw Chorus Line and other macabre, out-there theatricals from his tenure at the Onyx Theater, you should know that these days — and this political climate — find him going for a little more “heft.”
After negotiating fruitlessly with the Orwell estate for the rights to adapt Animal Farm himself, he eventually settled on an existing version that works in Majestic’s small — let’s say intimate — space on Main Street. We spoke to him recently to ask the very obvious question ...
Will this show be Troy Heardified — will there be chainsaws and zombies?
I’ve taken a step back from chainsaws and zombies this year. (Laughs.) Honestly, I don’t know what people would expect from Animal Farm, because not many have seen the stage adaptation. They all know the book, and everyone has their own movie in their mind from the book. We’ve approached it with a strong sense of Americana. There’s original music in the show, songs composed by Peter Fand. His background is in folk and Americana. So he brings a very interesting sound to it.
It’s still the basic story. The reason this is a classic is that it’s applicable to any country that has a ruler, be it Stalin, which was what Orwell was writing about, or Castro ... there’s a lot of Trump in it. One of the main characters is Squealer, Napoleon’s press secretary. When I cast it, I cast a guy who reminded me of Sean Spicer. But now he’s had to become Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The guy who plays Napoleon asked me, “Do I have to play Trump?” I said, “Nah. We’re going to play this the way this is, we’re going to create this world, and everyone who sees it will be able to draw their own conclusions.” It could be Trump, it could be their high school principal. It works across the board.
The subtitle of the book is Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. It’s very much a fable. These are animals going through this. Which is another reason why it’s applicable to any dictatorship.
What made you want to do Animal Farm in the first place?
We call this our “revolutionary” season. We started planning it in November 2016. So we’d just gotten out of the election — you asked about zombies and chainsaws. Actually, it was nice to create a season that had a little more heft to it. The first season had Little Shop of Horrors, Cherry Orchard with zombies, Carrie, and so on. But that was a holdover from the Onyx, and it was very outré — I figured if you were coming to Commercial Center (where Onyx was located), it wasn’t to see high art. (Laughs.)
But to be able to tell a story of our county, and reflect our community, reflect our state, reflect our nation onstage, that was a very interesting challenge. So I picked a slate of shows that reflected different elements. We opened up with Hair because it was the 50th anniversary of the summer of love, and in 2017 we found relevance, through race, through international relations. Even though we were still telling the story of ’67, you draw your own conclusions. Take it through Kid Sister, which was about poverty in Florida, and An Octoroon, which is a modern representation of race, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which is the flip side of Octoroon, and Marie Antoinette, which is the 1 percent onstage. And now we have another revolution. What a way to wrap up the season.
Do you have a sense that audiences are more primed for, as you say, “heft” and political meaning than two or three years ago — did something in the audience’s mind turn with that election?
Absolutely, absolutely. I think we have a whole new generation of young audiences who are more attuned to the political atmosphere than they were in the past 10 years. The key, though, is not to produce a didactic diatribe. It still has to be entertaining. Octoroon was one of the funniest scripts I’ve read. Marie Antoinette has ’em rolling in the aisles — until Act 2, when the revolution begins. You’re gonna find that with Animal Farm.
What are the challenges of putting Animal Farm onstage?
Well, it’s definitely a physical acting challenge, because you’re portraying animals. They’re playing honest emotions, the truth of the moment, but how do they convey which animal they are without a full animal costume? They’re not walking around with a horse head on.
Will the actors incorporate animal sounds into the dialogue?
Some. We’re playing around with what’s the appropriate neigh, what’s the appropriate oink. It’ll take the audience a moment to adjust to the language: What does an oink mean in that world? Is it a negative thing, a positive thing? You’ve got to interpret it yourself. It’s a little bit like Shakespeare.
Does it change the experience when the audience is so intimate with the production?
It does! When you see a show on the proscenium like at The Smith Center, you see things on a grand scale. And while you may be emotionally engaged, there’s still a distancing. But when you’re in such a small space, it’s like having a conversation. And the other cool thing is, you see everybody else in the room. That’s the one thing theater has over Netflix or anything you could watch at home — you’re sharing the room with strangers. That’s always been fascinating to me, to sit in an audience and know that at any moment you could stand up and shout. What keeps us from doing that?
Well, that’s the next step in entertainment: immersive theater that involves the audience.