When I sat down to interview playwright Morgan Bassichis about the premiere of his play The Witch House at The Garage, he had a question for me, too: "How did you find out about us?" The Garage, as its name suggests, is a tiny venue with few bells and whistles, and it doesn't get a lot of publicity. Shows have short runs, and artistic director Joe Landini is committed above all else to accessibility, which means his artists are often unknown.
But it's high time the secret got out: The Garage has some of the liveliest, boldest, and most diverse programming in the Bay Area performing arts scene, including Bassichis' play, about three adolescent boys who become possessed by three adolescent girls who were accusers in the Salem witch trials. I talked to Bassichis, who also performs, and director Anthony Julius Williams about what their show has to say about the criminal justice system, gender and sexuality, and the way we frame our history.
Your characters Tingle (Derik K. Cowan), Tracy (Bassichis), and T-Rex (Tyler Null) are all intrigued by witchcraft, but for more than just their stated reasons — making money, changing a girl's affections.
Morgan Bassichis: For those of us raised as boys, at the age of 11 or 12, ideas of manhood get louder and louder. We move away from imagination, and gender and sexuality become more rigid. Magic and witchcraft become ways to talk about what we're allowed to do and the cost of disconnecting from the other realm. So many queer people I know were really into magic as kids. Like witches, we walk between worlds. It's dangerous to see between the worlds.
What's the connection between the boys and the Salem witch trial accusers?
Anthony Julius Williams: It's really the gender issues. The fact that three young boys get possessed by the accusers and a chorus of women plays the accused sets up our inability to be fully human when we're locked into an identity.
Bassichis: I was compelled by these "afflicted girls." I wanted to know what they had to say, what wisdom they had to share about America today.
Bassichis: The Puritan worldview is based on creating enemies, inside and outside, and witches are on the inside. The play asks what is the impact on society of creating these enemies; it explores the relationship between the Salem witch trials and mass incarceration. The Garage is a block from the jail at 850 Bryant, and scapegoating is at the foundation of our criminal justice system. We should abolish that system; we should invest in communities instead of cages.
How did you stage the dreamlike movements of the characters?
Williams: From the start the whole production process was based in ritualistic movement that naturally evolved out of the language. Body-based decisions of the performers created embodied poetry; they created their own rituals that became the scenes.
The Salem witch trials are a momentous part of the story we tell about ourselves as Americans. Why is that?
Williams: The Salem witch trials summed up everything that's right and wrong about this country in one fell swoop: the attention to high ideals and the fact that we might not be meeting those high ideals. The trials deeply offend what we know about ourselves.
Bassichis: It's held up as if it didn't happen all the time. And because the accused were white, the Salem witch trials are a safer way to look at our disturbing history with scapegoating.
You're part of The Garage's AIRspace program, which offers rehearsal space and a performance venue to queer artists. How has that impacted your work?
Bassichis: [Garage founder and director] Joe Landini said, "Whatever you come up with, we'll do." It's been a gift. I don't know where else I would have gotten space and trust.