Interview: Preston Discusses "The Lincoln Vaudeville"

This weekend, Christopher Baker’s play The Lincoln Vaudeville will be performed at Austin Arts Center. The play, directed by Trinity Theater and Dance Dept. Professor Michael Preston is a Vaudeville inspired exploration of the politics of the Civil War.
Preston is a good friend of Playwright Christopher Baker and his wife. Baker decided partially because of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, to write of the mythologizing of the presidency. “It’s all about race, politics and the presidency as seen through the lens of the Civil War, but It’s completely up to date on what’s going on now.” The play presents episodic Scenes from the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Mary Todd Lincoln and clownish Civil War era humorist Dan Rice, depicting racial politics and the intrigues of the White House during the Civil War through Vaudeville performances and musical numbers. In Vaudeville, Playwright Baker and director Preston found an opportunity in the format of vaudevillian “acts.”
The source material and the humorous format work well together because of the way they contrast. Preston says that, like other plays he has worked on, there is a mixture of high and low art in The Lincoln Vaudeville. “A lot of my directorial and artistic career has been about trying to take high and low things, lofty and bawdy, and put them together.” Preston goes on to cite Shakespeare’s plays as an influence on the structure of the play, because he was known to feature clowns and lower-class characters alongside loftier characters not unlike the deified Lincoln.
“I’ve always been a bit obsessed with Lincoln. He’s a fascinating character who wasn’t really prepared to become president, like most of these people aren’t….I’m hoping to bring things to Trinity that will experiment with things we’re going through now. Race is something that this campus and this country have been dealing with since that time.” The cast alternates the central roles among themselves, conscious of the fact that by taking up the role of Lincoln, they should also infuse their own background and experience into the performance. The effect of this loose casting is a muddling of the stories and perspectives of history.
“It’s been interesting to bring people from around the world to play figures we all grew up with. We can see what they bring to the conversation in this time when we’re not supposed to be an immigrant country anymore.” Preston explains that by meshing recorded moments from the 1860s and placing them alongside fictionalized moments and discussions, the audience can feel and react to the relative nature of truth.
Preston hopes that The Lincoln Vaudeville will provide useful historical context in presidential matters to those who see it performed. “I get pissed when people say ‘It’s a circus in the White House.’ A good circus needs immaculate planning. I don’t know how to explain what we’re going through now without that Vaudeville element: the high and low getting smashed together.”
The Lincoln Vaudeville will be performed Thursday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, April 13, at 5:00 p.m.; and Saturday, April 14 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

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