In his new play Five Presidents, which opens June 23 at Bay Street Theater, Emmy-winning writer Rick Cleveland dramatizes a meeting of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford on the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral in 1994. Commissioned by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the play is both comic and moving.
The Sag Harbor theater has extended the play’s run by one week, to July 19. Cleveland spoke to Dan’s Papers about the origins of his play and where his interest in presidents began.
You won an Emmy and Writers Guild of America award for your writing on The West Wing, penned two episodes of House of Cards, and wrote and starred in the one-man show My Buddy Bill. Now you’ve written Five Presidents. What is it about Washington politics and the presidency that keeps bringing you back to writing about the topics?
Politics are America’s bloodiest sport. And I’ve been interested in them since I was the kid who stayed indoors to watch the Watergate hearings.
What prompted or inspired you to write about a meeting of the presidents—and why did you choose Nixon’s funeral as the occasion to set the story in?
After Nixon’s funeral, photos began appearing with these five men standing together. They all looked united in grief. And those photos haunted me. So I started to wonder what they might have talked about behind closed doors on that day. As for Nixon’s funeral, I think the presidency was changed forever after his resignation, and those five presidents were the first to experience that change. I also think that day provided President Ford with some closure. But I don’t want to say anymore, lest I run the risk of spoiling the ending.
In writing this play, did you conduct research into what actually happened on the date of Nixon’s funeral to make the story more true to life? Or did you take a purely fictional tack?
I made sure I knew the facts, and I tried to use the presidents’s own words wherever possible, but there was no transcript or reporting done on their meeting behind closed doors on that particular day. In fact, I’m not even sure they met behind closed doors. But without taking that poetic license I wouldn’t have been able to write the play.
Have you made any revisions to Five Presidents following the productions at the Arizona Theatre Company and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater—or will Sag Harbor audiences be seeing the same play?
They’ll be seeing mostly the same play. I do continue to work on the script. As for Arizona and Milwaukee, I got to see the play in front of an audience a bunch of times. And that afforded me all kinds of opportunities to change things, edit things, or go deeper into things. I find an audience to be the best kind of dramaturgs. They tell you what works by their laughter, and they also tell you what doesn’t work by their coughing, shifting around in their seats and noisily unwrapping their candy. Also, by they’re texting.
What is it you hope audiences will take away from seeing this play?
A reminder that these men may come from different political parties, but by and large, they have more in common than not. Especially as ex presidents. Also the play is a reminder that it wasn’t that long ago that our country’s politics weren’t nearly as ugly and divisive as they are now.
How did you feel learning that, due to popular demand, Bay Street Theater extended the run of Five Presidents by a week?
Hey, I’m thrilled that they are selling tickets. If they don’t sell tickets, we don’t have an audience, and if we don’t have an audience, we don’t have a play.
Do you aspire to see Five Presidents become a film someday, as your play Jerry and Tom did?
There is already some interest in pursuing the piece as a movie. And now I think I understand a little better what makes a movie different from a play. Jerry and Tom was very much a “play on film.”
Five Presidents opens at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, on June 23 at 7 p.m. with a pay-what-you-can performance. Performances continue through July 19. Tickets are typically $55–$75. High school students receive free admission to Sunday matinees. Anyone under the age of 30 may purchase tickets for $30. Tuesday performances will be followed by a talkback with the cast and Bay Street Theater Artistic Director Scott Schwartz. For showtimes and tickets, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.