Galileo in America is an original theatrical work that I’d been working on intermittently for about eight years when it finally premiered in 2012 at the Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL) at UC Irvine. It started out as a project with a group of Los-Angeles based actors and writers that I gathered together to conceive a project about the German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s exile years in Santa Monica, when he worked on a new production of his play The Life of Galileo with British actor Charles Laughton while being subjected to close surveillance by the FBI as a suspected communist. Materials gathered for the piece included Brecht’s own war-years journals as well as the FBI files on Brecht, released under a Freedom of Information Act request. After bringing artist Antoinette LaFarge into the project as scriptwriter, we workshopped an early version of the piece in 2004, at the Goethe Institute, Los Angeles, as well as at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades.
By the time we opened the full-length work in 2012, it had changed a great deal. In Galileo in America, clowns and inquisitors share the stage with Brecht and his daughter Virginia, Charles Laughton, and Galileo himself. Equally cabaret and courtroom, it is nominally set in the 1940s, when Brecht fled to Santa Monica to escape the Nazis. But in the surreal time-space of the piece, Brecht meets both characters from one of his own plays and the FBI agents who had him under surveillance as a suspected communist. We see him working on the new production of his play about Galileo’s struggle with the Catholic Church and wrangling with the noted film actor Charles Laughton over the translation. Meanwhile, Brecht and his friends are being bird-dogged by some inept FBI agents, while Brecht is having trouble with Galileo’s daughter Virginia, who is giving Brecht grief wover his rewriting of her life story. The denouement comes when Brecht is forced to testify before the inquisitors of his own day, the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee.
For the premiere in the xMPL—a brand-new high-tech black-box space—we designed a Brechtian event that constantly undermined any sense of immersion or illusion. The onstage and off-stage areas were blended, the set was minimal, the theatrical technology was highly visible, and the audience was seated tennis-court fashion, close up to the action and staring straight at one another through the actors who occupied the middle ground. In addition, over the stage we hung a row of three off-kilter, double-sided projection screens that became a space of meta-action for the piece. At one point in the piece, live cellphone transmissions were used as a 20th century equivalent for the revolutionary far-seeing invention of Galileo’s own day, the telescope.