Playwrights' Perspectives

Playwrights’ Perspectives: The Light Years

By Hannah Bos (Playwright) and Paul Thureen (Playwright), and Oliver Butler (Developer/Director)

Hannah Bos: Growing up in my mom’s antique store in Evanston, Illinois, I constantly encountered both the 1893 and 1933 Chicago World’s Fairs. I still have a little Heinz pickle pin that I wore as a kid from the 1893 Fair. Every holiday season we had collectors come in looking for a commemorative spoon or thimble for a relative who had gone to the fair when they were younger. So those stories came into the store as the souvenirs went out.

We know there’s a play that exists between the three of us, and we will find it.

I’ve always loved the Brigadoon aspect of World’s Fairs — how the world competed for the fair and then watched the chosen city. Millions of people traveling to see first hand, together, exhibitions of what the future might hold. A few glowing months…and then they were gone. Most of the buildings would disappear immediately. They were built to be temporary structures. As a company, we’ve always been obsessed with the memories that architecture holds. But with World’s Fairs, in absence of that, the stories and the tiny tchotchkes were really what were left as the reminders of what had been.  

Oliver Butler: I grew up hearing stories of Steele MacKaye from my father, who met Steele’s great-grandson Robbie MacKaye in Rhode Island in the ’60s. I was instantly fascinated, particularly by the incredible breadth of Steele’s theatrical innovations. Along with the technological marvels described in The Light Years, he was also — unknown to almost everyone today — responsible for such ubiquitous inventions as modern theatrical fire code, folding theater seats, and even the free Playbill. He was such an influential man of the theater and yet no one seemed to know him. He felt like a family secret.

As I brought these stories to Hannah and Paul and we dug deeper into Steele’s history, we learned about his astonishing (and also largely forgotten) Spectatorium project at the 1893 Fair. It’s an incredible story of obsession, failure, and the human price of progress. For me, certainly colored by my own introduction to him, the story of Steele is also a story about fatherhood and family. Steele himself was a playwright, director, actor, and inventor. It’s exciting for us to work together as a team of creators to make part of his story part of our story that we’re bringing to the stage.  

Paul Thureen: We often start with these personal connections when we begin work on a new play together — Oliver’s dad’s chance meeting, World’s Fair ephemera in Hannah’s mom’s shop. Then as we work together over an extended period of time (seven years in the case of The Light Years), our own individual histories and ideas combine with shared interests and research and slowly a new world begins to emerge. It’s a little bit like solving a mystery and we trust that we will figure it out together. We know there’s a play that exists between the three of us, and we will find it. It’s a process of three creators working to ultimately create a play with a singular voice. Along the way that slow-bake process is challenged and the world is enhanced by the creative contributions and dramaturgical insight of countless generous actors, our design team, trusted friends and colleagues, and the Playwrights Horizons team. Together, we’re looking for the connections and collisions that will shape our story.

During that work we learned that both Chicago Fairs occurred during major economic downturns: the Panic of 1893 and, of course, the Great Depression. Because of this, it’s no coincidence that they also both occurred during times of political upheaval and violence; in fact, both Chicago Fairs were darkened by the assassination of the mayor at the time: Carter Harrison Sr. two days before the close of the ’93 Fair and Anton Cermak right before the opening of the ’33 Fair.  

Like World’s Fairs, these dark times return and return again. But in the middle of it all are workers and families and kids dreaming of bright things.