Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Kate Abbruzzese, who plays Allie, reads through the script at a table read for Chautauqua Theater Company’s upcoming production, Dairyland, written by Heidi Armbruster, Monday at Brawdy Theater Studios.
According to Heidi Armbruster, writing a love letter to your father is “complicated.”
The actress and playwright said the “lightly autobiographical” first installment of Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshops, Dairyland, is an ode to her dad and his work as “the cow guy” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Armbruster’s play begins its three-day workshop at 8 p.m. tonight in Bratton Theater.
Dairyland tells the story of New York City-based food-writer, Allie, who hails from Wisconsin, where her father, Henry, still works as a dairy farmer. The plot centers on familial relations, but also focuses on food politics in the United States. Throughout the work, Allie navigates between New Yorkers, who preach the virtues of organic food only, and the opinions of her Midwestern farmer father.
“The play is about trying to see both sides of it, or at least put both sides into conversation,” Armbruster said.
Putting these two views in conversation with each other evolved from Armbruster’s own experience. Recently riding in her dad’s pickup in Wisconsin, Armbruster said she read Michael Pollan aloud to her father, who expressed partial disagreement with the infamous agriculture and food writer.
“He said, ‘What makes that so special? That’s just farming,’ ” she said.
The discussion inspired Armbruster, who was also influenced by her own love affair with farmers markets and a farm-to-table dining experience at Blue Hill Stone Barns that she said “was like worshipping at a temple of food.”
“I got interested in the space between theory and practice,” she said.
According to her father, “even in something that’s not organic or artisanal, for the majority of farmers, keeping your animals well-cared for and healthy is in everybody’s economic interest.”
Armbruster’s work juxtaposes characters deeply involved in the urban farm-to-fork militia and the family farms trying to remain profitable as agriculture changes. Susana Batres, who plays organic guru Sunshine, along with several other roles, said she sees Sunshine as a manifestation of tensions within the American food system.
“Not everybody has money to go out and buy organic milk that costs $5,” Batres said. “She’s pretty much on her high horse in that regard.”
The new play dramatizes holier-than-thou proponents of solely organic foods. Kate Abbruzzese, who plays Allie, said Dairyland shows the stark contrast between what Americans believe their food system looks like and its daily processes, which are not as cut-and-dry as categories like organic or industrial agriculture.
“One of the big issues is the idea of real farmers — the real muck and dirt and grit and, frankly, excrement, that is involved in farming. The diseases and the births and the mess and the blood, sweat, tears; the real physical world of farming, versus this really nicely, sweetly packaged, clean, presented-on-a-plate-for-you version of what we want food to be,” Abbruzzese said. “What’s the real fact of food?”
At one point in the production, Allie helps her father birth one of his calves, a part of the play directly involving many of the aforementioned substances from the “real physical world of farming.” This scene was a major selling point for CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch in selecting the play for workshopping.
“Onstage, a calf is born,” she said. “Then, on the back page of the script … is this beautiful thing: [Armbruster] basically says that can be as real or as unreal as long as it captures the magic of the theater.”
The mystery behind an onstage birth demonstrates the difficulty of the New Play Workshops. Crews have about a week to prepare a complete set. But director Lisa Rothe sees the scene in a mostly emotional rather than logistical light.
“That scene is not as much about the birthing of the cow as it is about the relationship between Henry and Allie,” Rothe said. “I think it’s actually quite simple. The more complicated you get, the worse it would be. They get to rediscover their relationship with each other through the birth of a cow, and I find it very moving.”
The play will change as it’s tweaked during its three-day workshopping at Bratton. But cast members, the director and the playwright believe audiences will connect with the combination of raw emotion and topical political issues, which are both timely and timeless.
“I love a play that is pertinent to the time we’re in,” Abbruzzese said. “It’s an important intellectual topic and when you can make people connect with it emotionally, then theater does its job. Good theater is timeless and touches on basic human need, human emotion.”