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Model Citizens 

American Dreams goes virtual inviting viewers to judge who gets to be an American.

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ROUND HOUSE THEATER
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Adapting a live theater experience to become a Zoom-based theater experience is no easy task. When the play's setting is a televised game show, however, it might seem like an easier fit. And the creators of American Dreams found both advantages and challenges in turning what had been a theater production for a live audience into something that could travel virtually around the country.

Originally staged in 2018, American Dreams posits a competition program where three men—a Palestinian chef (Ali Andre Ali), a Pakistani cartoonist (Imran Sheikh) and a Mexican-born medic (Andrew Aaron Valdez)—play for the right to become an American citizen. In addition to answering civics questions from the show's two hosts (Jens Rasmussen and the show's playwright, Leila Buck), the contestants need to win over the audience, which pulls the viewers into a participatory experience of judging their worthiness to be called Americans. Salt Lake Acting Company provides the local home for five performances this week.

According to the show's director, Tamilla Woodard—co-artistic director of New York's Working Theater, which developed American Dreams for its premiere in 2018, and who directed SLAC's production of Harbur Gate in 2017—the show was originally conceived as part of brainstorming between Woodard and Buck on a concept they could work on together. "[Leila's] mom is an immigrant," Woodard says by phone from New York. "It was just inside of the last election cycle, and immigration was a big part of that. ... I said, 'What if the form we were doing for this thing was a game show? I think this is a good way to put forward something that feels fun and playful, but has ideas at the center.' Leila is very much concretely political. I'm like 'here's the fun frame,' and she's like 'here's the deep well.'"

For its in-person productions, American Dreams turned the theater space into a secure government facility, with a TSA-style security checkpoint audience members had to pass through. While such an immersive experience was of course not possible with audience members watching at home, American Dreams did retain audience participation in the form of a survey about their family history in America, answering polls, serving as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-type "lifelines" for the contestants and ultimately voting on which one "wins" citizenship. As it turns out, some of those participatory elements actually worked better in the move to a digital production.

"This format is actually great for polling," Woodard says. "It's much easier than what we had to do with a live audience, which was use a counter and count raised hands."

On the flip side, there have certainly also been challenges with adapting the show for online presentation, and Woodard notes that maintaining the illusion of the show was definitely not easy. "It's live, but how do we translate live-ness?" she says. "How do we translate a broadcast scenario, and make it feel like ABC, NBC or CNN, when essentially our network is Zoom?"

"It's the effort that matters," Woodard adds of the unique challenges of this new format. "The job was to seek satisfaction. I don't know that we got there. But I don't think there's ever been a time when I've had complete satisfaction with something in the theater."

The interactive components of American Dreams are designed to raise the stakes throughout the show, putting the audience on the spot in terms of which contestants' stories they find most compelling—or alternately, which ones they might find most threatening. Woodard notes that while there have been some trends in terms of which contestant the audience finds most sympathetic, the results can shift based on the location and demographics of the audience. "Because DACA was at the forefront [during the time of the initial production], I think audience members were more familiar with that conversation than the Israeli-Palestinian situation," she says. "We expected sympathy towards [the Mexican immigrant character]. ... In New York, though, there was an enormous amount of response to the Palestinian character."

Regardless of which character gain any individual audience member's sympathy, American Dreams works best by implicating the audience in the fate of these characters, and doing so in real time. Occasionally, audience members are asked to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the responses they're hearing—and it's easy to tell when people are growing uncomfortable about revealing what they find either positive or negative attributes in a potential "new neighbor."

"I overheard someone at the end of a recent show say, 'Wow, this is hard,'" Woodard says. "The reason we go to the theater is make-believe, but there's also that moment when you forget it's not true. I think there are some people for whom the process of moving through and judging a human, from their dance skills to articulation of their dream, is really hard to do."

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