Chris Cherry’s newest play, which debuted at Creative Kids Camp this summer, mixes New Deal values and modern misbehavior in a retro-futuristic adventure. Lore Rosenthal was so struck by the themes in the play – Message to Tomorrow – that she decided to interview Chris about it for Greenbelt Live. They sat down to discuss the show on August 1, 2014. (Interview edited and revised by Chris.)
Lore: So what made you decide to write Message to Tomorrow?
Chris: The impetus for this show was a thank-you card that I received last year, after the summer was over, from a camp staffer whom we had brought on to get her first teaching experience. She was so grateful. She wrote this lovely thank-you card, and in it she said that she still remembered a song I had written 15 years ago called “Take A Message To Tomorrow,” and that a particular line from the song — “Let your love for your tomorrow be the tale your time will tell” — had continued to be an inspiration to her. I was moved by that, and I thought to myself, I should build a new show around that song. So that’s what started it, and I’m just so glad that it was an expression of gratitude that was the impetus.
I decided to make the new play a sequel to the very first camp show I wrote back in 1999, called Magic In The Attic. In that play, the grandchildren arrive for a visit with Grandma, bringing a bunch of electronic toys that make a lot of noise. The power goes out, and the toys become inert, and the kids are instantly bored, so their wise grandma sends them up to the attic, where there’s a trunk of old-fashioned toys that require imagination to use. The old toys magically come to life and sing and dance, teaching the children the power of imagination.
As I considered what the new play would be about, I knew that it needed to have a futuristic bent, but I also wanted it to have Grandma’s progressive, New Deal values and this idea of a message from the past to tomorrow, and that’s when I started thinking about the 1930’s take on the future. So I wanted to send the kids back in time, but on a sort of retro-futuristic adventure. And in a parallel with the earlier show, where they had those raucous toys, now the theme would be the cell phones and the misbehavior and bad manners that can accompany their use, and the kind of community-destroying effect that they can have.
So those concepts all percolated in my mind, and then I thought, I need to do some research about 1930’s futuristic ideas. I knew all about the World’s Fair in ’39, but that was actually a largely commercial venture. So I thought, what was in the popular culture and art? I realized that the Flash Gordon movie serials were playing at the time that Greenbelt was founded – ’36, ’37, ’38. So I rented those from Netflix and watched all 13 episodes of a 1936 Flash Gordon serial, and I was highly amused. I thought, we’ll draw on some of these archetypal character types, which have been reincarnated in virtually every sci-fi adventure ever since, from Star Trek to Star Wars. I did some judicious updating. Flash Gordon’s 1936 female companion, Dale, does little more than scream and faint. Well, we’re not going to do that. In my play, Doctor Darla is as adventurous as Spark Swenson, though less well traveled, and her knowledge of science exceeds his.
Another factor that figured in my decision was that I knew that Sue Smithers, who plays Grandma, had just retired from the county library system. Sue lives here in Greenbelt, and I knew that she would love to come and be in a camp show again, because she had enjoyed playing Grandma in our most recent revival of Magic in the Attic. She also played Aunt Beverly in another camp show called Summer Circus. She’s great.
Lore: I feel like you’re never supposed to ask an artist what is the meaning. When someone paints a painting they always say “Well, what do YOU think?” But could you name four main messages that are interwoven?
Chris: There are actually a lot of interwoven themes in the show. The overriding theme comes from the lyrics of the final song when it talks about sending a message to tomorrow, that you send your love into the future by creating a better present. And Greenbelt’s progressive origins and ideals really were about caring for the future by changing the present. That idea that you could send love forward through time by improving the world is really exactly what animated Greenbelt and still does. So that’s one of the overriding themes of the play. And what that better future present entails is good conduct and sharing, both locally and globally, and it’s the antithesis of everything that Mang The Mannerless embodies, with his bad manners and his ownership of everything and exploitation of everybody and his lack of care for the environment and his desire to deprive people of the freedom to think for themselves. Grandma and her alter ego, Queen Progressiva, stand against all of that.
Lore: What about the stops on the different planets? It seemed like each planet had a sub-theme?
Chris: Yeah. The overall genre of the play is a quest story. So having my characters travel to the larger moons of Jupiter was a great way to have stages of a quest. At each of the worlds that Spark, Darla, and the grandkids visit, the dominant feature of the culture ties into a way of misbehaving that has been foreshadowed by the grandchildren during their visit to Grandma’s house earlier on: Being too much for themselves, too much in a rush, texting instead of actually conversing with their grandma, taking pictures without asking and posting them to the web, like the Zoominsnaps, so that they’re not actually having an experience; they’re just recording experiences. So each of those cultures reflects in a macro way these sorts of micro infractions of the kids and hopefully gets the audience thinking about what they’re doing themselves.
As the story progresses, we also find out some things about Spark — that he’s actually an alien himself and that he is homeless, as a result of the environmental degradation of his planet. By the end of the play, he thinks of Earth as his home. He says, “Let’s go home.” This beautiful blue planet that he saw from Mars when he was a child, before his people were forced to flee and become refugees, becomes his new adoptive home, and he’s determined that it doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Lore: It seemed also there was a materialism theme.
Chris: Definitely. As Spark, Darla, and the grandkids get closer and closer to Mang’s throne world on their quest, the severity of the dysfunction of the cultures they meet grows. So it’s not until we get to the third moon that we meet the Havalots and the Morthanyoos, people who are just consumaholics. All they care about is getting more, and that’s being promoted by Emperor Mang and his ally, Nunu Tossaway. We know from clues along the way that Mang basically owns everything on the worlds he’s conquered. All the businesses have his name on them, and he is promoting this overconsuming way of life. And Nunu, when she’s confronted by Spark about the disastrous environmental results of that lifestyle, says well, I’ll just find a new world. You know, throw this one away once it’s all ruined. She has to see the light, and eventually, she does.
Lore: It seems like the main themes were about sharing, good manners and caring for your community, so how did you feel like the consumerism critique fits in with that?
Chris: I think it does fit in. If you are over-consuming and you’re using more resources than is good, then that’s anti-community, both locally and globally. So I think those things are actually quite related.
Also, the satirical dystopian scenarios in the play, where cell phones and social media have gotten completely out of hand, are not very far from reality. Facebook is now valued at $190 billion — more than IBM. Yet it’s just people posting photos and talking! It doesn’t actually make anything. And Facebook is gathering all those people’s data all the time, to use and sell, to market more products to people.
So Emperor Mang’s plan to use cell phones to pave the way for his invasion of Earth isn’t so farfetched. Your phone now reveals your location all the time. It tells everybody where you are, and if your cell phone is on inside a store, you may get a coupon e-mailed to your phone based on the department you’re in. There’s something creepy about that.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the National Gallery of Art to see two Van Gogh paintings recently acquired by the gallery. The room where the paintings are displayed was filled with people, all of whom were taking pictures of the paintings with their cell phones! They were just like the Zoominsnaps in the play. Instead of looking at the paintings, they were looking at little images of the paintings on the view screens of their phones — and only long enough to snap a photo and move on. Here were two masterpieces by Van Gogh, on public display for the first time in many years, and these real-life Zoominsnaps didn’t experience or appreciate the art at all. They were just there to acquire images to post!
Lore: So do you have any anecdotes for yourself or from any of the teachers or counselors that anybody said anything about this show that you could tell they were paying attention to the show’s message?
Chris: I get emails from parents, saying “Thank you so much” and “This was wonderful and we talked about this.” It’s been a springboard for discussion with their kids, so I know that they get the message. I also have some anecdotes about the camp staff, because the play amplifies some of the themes we stress during our staff training.
I’ve always had a really strong commitment to training young people for employment, and it has intensified since 2008, when the youth employment rate went through the roof and still hasn’t recovered. I feel like a New Deal city should have a jobs program for youth, and we don’t, but we do have an extensive internship program at Creative Kids Camp. I feel like I’m consciously following the New Deal footsteps of providing jobs for young people. So it’s kind of like our CCC in 2014.
We spend a lot of time talking about professionalism. We have a staff manual that’s 50-some pages long, and the staffers take an open book test on that manual at the beginning of the summer, and then we underline those lessons throughout the summer, helping them develop a work self that’s different from their school self. School is the institution they’re familiar with, so they bring that self to work. But they’re used to socializing at school, and they have to learn to keep their personal and professional lives separate, which is a professionalism skill that a lot of adults lack, but that we really, really work on with them.
We also talk about how the cell phone makes that more challenging. It erases that boundary between your professional and personal life. It used to be that a friend certainly wouldn’t call you at school, when the only line into the school was through the school office. But now that friend can be in your pocket, or your mother can be in your pocket, while you’re at school.
Our camp staffers are not allowed to have their phones on at work, because they need to be caring for the kids, and we talk about how you can’t really do two things at the same time. Even if you’re simply using your phone as a clock to check the time, you will inevitably see a message that upsets you or engages you. I tell the trainees about having some staffers over to dinner one time. We had a lovely dinner, and then after dessert one of them pulled out her phone, checked it, and burst into tears. And I thought to myself, I didn’t invite the person who left that message into my home, which is one of the things that Grandma says in the play.
So the cell phone is a wonderful tool, but it can erase that boundary, and all of a sudden you’re not good for anything at work — and you still have the kids to care for. So it’s really challenging for the staff, but we underline that they can wait and get their messages at the end of the day. After work one day, I was delighted to hear a teenaged staffer on his cell phone saying, “Dad, you know I cannot check my messages. I’m at work. I couldn’t get your message until now.”
Lore: Have you ever thought about having an after-show discussion with the audience about the play? Have you ever done that with any of your plays?
Chris: I’m not really big on talk-backs because I think it instantly turns the experience into something else.
Lore: It goes from art to education.
Chris: And from heart to head. I’d rather it percolate in them. I hope that they have discussions on their way home or at the dinner table or even later, days later. I’m not a fan of the post-play discussion. It changes the experience.
Lore: Have you ever thought about making this available in the evenings, again more to spread the message than to show it? And have you ever thought of taking your shows outside of Greenbelt?
Chris: Actually I have done that before, and it entails retooling a show into a different production, with a smaller cast. A few years ago, I rewrote one of my full-length plays, Perseus And The Gorgon, so that seven actors could play it, and we performed it in Silver Spring and in downtown D.C. in December of 2009. The show was portable, and the actors were college students and recent college graduates, and that experiment worked.
The challenge for me in terms of taking my shows into other communities — and it’s something I’ve worked on and wrestled with for a good while — is that I always have something else in the hopper.
I have two seasons. I’ve got from January through March, when the annual Greeenbelt youth musical for teen actors is in production — that is, when it’s in rehearsal and performance; I’m working on it before then, of course. Then there’s the summer camp show. As soon as the youth musical is over, from April until August, I’m working on that.
So I really only have September through December, when I need to be working on both those projects in advance. So to put a third production into my calendar is a lot. And that Perseus project proved that to me. The ensuing youth musical was a challenge!
So finding that extra production slot is tricky for me, and finding the actors’ availability is also tricky. But it is something that I’m interested in doing. I just can’t do it every year.
I would like my plays to have a life beyond Greenbelt, just because I think they’re good and I think that they say some important things and say them well. But figuring out how to go from the community in which they were created, and the way in which they gestated and formed, and the love out of which they arose — figuring out a way to put them into a larger venue without losing all that is a challenge.
I’ve spent a lot of time in New York, and I’ve taken several courses in professional theatrical producing there. Here in the Washington area, I’m also employed part-time by a leading national non-profit theater. So I know a lot about the world of professional theater. At that level, theatrical producing is principally a hunt for cash, either from investors or from grant-makers and donors. Either way, it’s a dreary task, and it can pretty quickly devolve into a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. I’d rather be writing my next play and putting it on at the Greenbelt Arts Center or the Greenbelt Community Center.