In just a few days The American History Theater will present its first play of the 2022 Season. The play hits some of the organization’s usual buttons, addressing mental health, suicide and other tough topics. But, what makes this play so very special is that it is AHT’s first original, copyrighted play. CHOICE, written by
Alli Mayville and directed by Hal Berry, will debut April 8th at the Light Box Theater and explores the very serious epidemic of bullying in our society.
The idea for the play was conceptualized by AHT founder and CEO, Hal Berry. For years he hoped to write a show about bullying. The original inspiration came shortly after the Columbine High School shooting in the Spring of 1999.
“After the Columbine shootings, I began to read and research bullying in general,” said Berry. “ I think the motivation was a personal recall to my own life.”
Berry was bullied by a neighbor, cousin and in school, but nowhere near as bad as the bullying he hears of now, he says. What Berry wanted was a talent to write a play raising awareness around how bullying can tear a person down and push them into dangerous mental health states.
Berry found that talent in Alli Mayville. At the time, Mayville was a returning college student in her senior year at SDSU working the bar at a restaurant Berry frequented.
“Like a Hollywood movie, I walked in by myself and decided to sit at the bar and a beautiful blond lady, attending the bar, asked me what I wanted,” said Berry.
Thus began a 7-year friendship that has culminated with our upcoming show. As luck would have it, the beautiful blond bartender was a creative writing student. Berry and she arranged an internship for her with AHT and she began to come up with a storyline from ideas Hal gave her. Mayville began by researching bullying and the trauma that can arise from it. She says she asked her bar patrons about bullying and was surprised when they just “rolled their eyes, as if bullying is something that we all just deal with.”
Mayville says the writing process was “very Johnny Depp in ‘The Secret Window”. She wrote her first draft of the show in a week and a half holed up in a cabin in the woods. From there she and Berry met in a Starbucks weekly as Mayville shared her work, then developed and tweaked characters and scenes with his feedback. Mayville says she deeply valued Berry’s feedback
“Hal, being the forever teacher he is, would play devil’s advocate when I needed it, challenge my ideas, and make me defend my words through careful thought and dissection of what I was really trying to say,” said Mayville.
She says finding a creative partner in Hal has, by far, been her favorite part of learning to write and produce a play. Mayville also credits her family with their help along the way.
“I hit a snag in the writing process and my amazing family offered to help by projecting the script on a screen in their living room and doing a read through so I could take notes and edit as I was hearing the words spoken,” said Mayville.
Mayville also says she is grateful for the support of her mother, whom she turned to when the subject matter of the play got to her.
“I will admit, there was a point during the writing process where I had to go to my mom and tell her I was not okay,” said Mayville. “Writing about other people’s trauma is devastating and I really struggled to separate myself.”
Finally, in the Fall of 2019, the play was seemingly ready for production. Scheduled to debut in early 2020, the show has since been postponed for two years due to COVID19. In that time, Berry and Mayville have had time to re-read and do some rewrites.
“What happened next, which is not unusual, we reread our play, looked at each other and decided to rewrite most of it,” said Berry. “That process took a year and a half of meetings over lunch, great conversation, laughs and a bonding that has been incredible.”
Now, with the show just a few days away, both Mayville and Berry have been spending most of their weeknights in rehearsals. Mayville says she is most proud of their cast.
“Our cast is filled with so much passion, talent, heart, and beauty.,” said Mayville. “I have been so humbled watching them bring this play to life.”
What Mayville and Berry both hope audiences take from the show is a better understanding of the problem, but also of themselves and the world they live in. Although the play is not about bullying in the traditional sense, Mayville says, “it asks the audience to hold a mirror up to different aspects of our world, our self-esteem, our choices, and how we view and treat each other.”
“This play by Alli is exactly what I was looking for,” said Berry. “ It raises awareness about bullying and abstractly explores the forces at work in deciding their and our fate.”
Mayville does wish to convey a trigger warning to audiences. There is a gunshot, suicide and harsh language. But, the characters were inspired by true life events and “the harsh realism people have faced due to bullying,” she said.
This play will sadly be Berry’s last directorial journey, but what a journey it has been!
“CHOICE” opens April 8th at the Light Box Theater in Liberty Station. The show will run three shows for two weekends. To grab tickets and learn more about The American History Theater go to our website at www.americanhistorytheater.org.