Montgomery Sutton plays John Wilkes Booth in “Booth” by Second Thought Theatre. Photo: Ellen Appel.
What motivated the man who killed Abraham Lincoln? Dallas actor Steven Walters was fascinated by the question. His new play, Booth, examines the conspiracy to assassinate the president and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. In the Friday Conversation, he tells KERA’s Anne Bothwell that there are plenty of parallels to our post 9/11 world.
Walters is a co-founder of Second Thought Theatre. He’s also a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s resident acting company. You can see him next in the DTC’s production of Les Miserables, which opens June 27.
Here are some highlights from the conversation:
On why Booth caught his attention…..Well there was so much I didn’t know about John Wilkes Booth. But as my story partner and research partner ERic Archilla and I really delved into it, there was this whole other side of Booth that opened up to me. The idea that he was a spy,that he was employed as part of the Confederate underground A network of spies that operated out of Canada, at the behest of Jefferson Davis and the confederacy.
When I began to think of him as a double agent, as an actor living in the north, it just opened up a new world to me.
Why Booth has been neglected.…As Americans, I think we like simple answers to complicated questions. And with John Wilkes Booth, it’s easier if we accept the premise that he was a deranged redneck who came out of the wilderness and committed this emotionally motivated act of terror. I think when you see it was calculated and there were political consequences to it, it just becomes way less simple.
Parallels between this story and our current political climate…Given everything that’s going on in a post 9/11 world, with the Patriot Act and the NSA wiretaps, when I think about those things and I look back on the 1860s equivalent of that, [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton and his people, they seized letters, they seized documents, they detained innocent people without naming their crime or charging them with a crime…. They did all of those things, of course, in the name of protecting us. Just like now our government presumably is doing all the things they are doing in the name of defending us against terrorism.
I think those parallels are clear and I think it’s out of curiosity that I write the play, and not out of feeling certain about one way or the other.
On the pressures of acting v. writing and directing…I would have to say that the process of writing is very relaxing to me, because it’s autonomous. I’m alone; I can work at my own leisure. The process of acting is terrifying, the rehearsal process, because you’re entering into this thing, and you don’t even know what the thing is. You’re just this tiny component part to the bigger picture and you’re just trying to make sure you’re not the one who messes it up.
But then, once you get beyond rehearsals, those two things flip. As a writer/director watching your own work, it’s terrifying because you can no longer control the outcome night to night. But then in the process of performing, it’s exciting and palpable, because you get to interact with the audience and you get to feel that pleasure of knowing that you’ve done your job right.
Harder to get an acting gig or a play produced? …….I think that there are currently not as many opportunities for playwrights in Dallas. But I think that’s changing. When you look at institutions like TACA and funds like the Donna Wilhelm Family New Works fund, they are making a huge difference, in terms of opportunities for local playwrights.
For the past 10 years, it’s probably been slightly easier to be an actor. But I think that pendulum is swinging back the other way. I hope the trend continues. There’s so much new work in Dallas right now.