James Kaelan's mobile-first, multimedia theatre experience, America the Beautiful, touches on some sensitive political nerves in today's divisive America. Part found footage film, part interactive live action mind-bender, ATB profiles the steady and horrific radicalization of Billy Reynolds - just your average, decent, moderate guy. When he and his wife, Carly, move to San Bernardino and begin remodeling their home, he decides to chronicle the project on his phone. But what he ends up chronicling is his own recruitment into an alt-right militia that eventually results in his decision to carry out a horrific act of hate and violence.
Ron, the charismatic leader of the alt-right group, The Sentries, who reels Billy into its fold, presents a level-headed, if not terrifying, rationale for his racist beliefs. He is simultaneously captivating to watch and a dreadful reminder of the hateful personalities that have taken center stage in the media since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. That said, the screen stands as a safe medium that stands between the audience and Ron's rancor.
But that's where America the Beautiful changes the game on unsuspecting audiences. When the film ends, and spectators are sufficiently disturbed by the events that have unfolded on screen, they soon find that in fact the movie isn't over - it has simply come to life in the venue itself. Carly sits in front of the crowd trying to make sense of the film's events, conversing with members of the audience. Before long the conversation is interrupted by an unwelcome guest. Ron enters the room, and what transpires is a heated altercation between him and Carly, while the audience looks on.
To be clear, this is a performance. During a number of showings of America the Beautiful in Los Angeles throughout 2019, audiences were surprised, compelled to action, and legitimately confused about the veracity of the experience they were having when Ron entered the room. The experience brought the story and, more importantly, the themes of the story to life in a more urgent and relatable way. Kaelan's production had accomplished that coveted artistic achievement: provoking thought and action from its audience, and causing them to question their reality.
But, in a testament to the project's virtuosity, there was one particular performance that went perhaps a bit too far. In partnership with Field Team 6, a political activism non-profit based in Los Angeles, ATB was shown on August 10, 2019 in Sherman Oaks, CA. When the film ended, and Ron burst into the room to confront Carly and the audience of unsuspecting viewers, people became viscerally agitated. A handful of individuals truly believed that Ron was a threat to Carly and others in the room. As a reader, you may find yourself doubting that you might be so fooled by a performance. But when capable artists meet timely societal sensitivities, audiences have, and always will, find themselves responding emotionally as their willing suspension of disbelief melds into a lucid dreamlike state of altered reality. And that's exactly what happened on August 10, 2019.
As Ron began spitting his manipulative and hateful rhetoric in the Field Team 6 venue, audience members stood up in protest. They pulled out their phones to record his actions in case things escalated to violence.
And then it happened. One member of the audience stood up and pulled out her phone. "I'm calling the police," she shouted with a shaky tone somewhere between anger and alarm. That's when Brennan Kelleher, the actor who played Ron in the film and in the live performance, knew it was his cue to leave. "I had to speed up my exit to avoid and further escalation," he laughed about it afterward. "It might be the most dangerous performance I've ever done!"
There's no doubt we live in an environment of escalated political tensions these days. America the Beautiful hit a nerve that nearly resulted in the arrest of an actor portraying a character with the kind of hate filled rhetoric that we see spouted almost daily by real people in the media. The discourse that followed that performance, and indeed all of them, was a sobering and open dialogue about the extremist mindsets that put our democracy at risk - and the ideas that individuals had to change the course of our deep social divides. What more can a storyteller ask for.
Check out a clip of the project right here:
Allusionist Pictures strives to tell important social cause stories that provoke conversation, action, and change. ATB did just that, more effectively than any of us could have anticipated. We're proud of the work, proud of the team, and proud of the people who watched, participated, and took action as a result of it. Here's to more projects with purpose.