The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan wrote—and tons of journalists, students, and other essay writers have repeated. Playwriting alumnus Stephen Belber explored that notion in his play McReele, which the fourth-year drama students perform October 17-21. McReele is the story of an exonerated death row inmate who leaves jail and, with the help and encouragement of a supportive/enabling journalist, ends up running for state senate. His ideas are intriguing, his candidacy is a breath of fresh air, but is the main character, Darius McReele (any connotations his last name has with the fast-food chain are intentional) for real? Does it matter?
October of an election year is a particularly interesting time to be producing this play, which premiered Off Broadway in 2005. “It’s possibly more relevant now,” Belber said in a recent interview with The Journal. “There’s such extreme skepticism now as to whether Obama’s sweeping hopey-changey thing was really real, or whether he’s had to veer toward the middle. The play deals with authenticity. Is this guy full of it? Are all politicians full of it? Or not?”
The playwright was speaking from his home in Brooklyn shortly after the Republican convention. At the convention, he said, “Romney was talking about how excited we were [about Obama four years ago] and how disappointed we’ve been in him. [McReele] adds its two cents to what everyone’s still talking about—is Obama still worth taking a chance on? Is he doing the right thing by constantly compromising, or should he be taking a stronger stand—and risking not achieving as much? A lot of what the play is about is how strongly you take a stand.”
Having grown up in Washington, D.C., Belber loves politics and thinking about politicians and their motives. He also came to love theater after doing some acting in high school and at Trinity College, where he studied philosophy. After graduating, he went back to D.C. and started working in journalism for the Saudi Press Agency; he later moved to New York City and covered the U.N. for the agency. “Journalism made me look out at the world of social justice, at that gray area where there are two morally compulsory paths and we have to choose one,” he said. “Part of what this play is about is being a journalist and having to make an ethical decision—but what if going with your heart leads to a moral compromise?”
Eventually Belber began started writing one-person prose shows in which he also acted. After writing a full-length play he applied to Juilliard, where he matriculated in 1994. “Juilliard really allowed me to take myself seriously and dedicate my time to learning the craft,” he said. “To be given health care; to be one of four writers in a program with two acclaimed writers [Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang; see related article on Page 14] at the helm; to be obliged to come in with material each week; to have that core community—the friends I made in the program are friends I have to this day.”
Another bonus, Belber said, was the access he and his fellow playwrights had to the Juilliard actors. “Nowhere else can you work that quickly with that level of talent. They’re at your disposal and you have to learn to collaborate. And the production values at Juilliard are so astounding—you’d better have made the right choice about what you want in that living room, because they will put it there. The actors will deliver what you write with such commitment that you’d better make sure you write it well.”
After graduating, Belber had several plays produced, did work for film and TV (including a stint with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), and directed a romantic comedy-drama called Management that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. When he got a call from James Houghton, the director of the Drama Division, a few months ago about the possibility of the fourth-year students doing McReele, Belber was thrilled. “I want this play to live again, and I’m extremely excited that it’s at Juilliard,” he said. “Juilliard actors are so committed to researching and learning and living with their characters all the time. They’re not making a movie on the side or raising a family—they’re fully immersed.”