We spoke to playwright Helen Banner about the upcoming performance of her play Intelligence with Dutch Kills Theater Company which is heading to the Edinburgh Fringe next month. Two young Foreign Officers are forced to rethink their secret views on American diplomacy, working on a back-channel negotiation with Sarah MacIntyre, a charismatic but controversial special envoy. As events on the ground push them deeper into role-play to try to understand the leader they are contemplating, the question of when we make bargains with violent men becomes ever more personal and a future of war or peace hangs in the balance.
How is your preparation for the Fringe going?
It’s been exciting! We’re working out the tech here in New York before transferring everything to Edinburgh and our design team are busy re-imagining the set, sound, lights and costume for a new venue. The play centers on a clock and it’s fun listening to this amazingly talented team throw out ideas for how time and light can interact with the performers. I can’t wait to see all the elements in action in August.
You mention working on this show through three different presidential administrations. How has the changing political climate affected the show?
We’ve had to react to an unprecedented level of change in the story’s real world context. The first early workshops of the play happened in the Obama era and we were aggressively exploring American imperialism, the theater of international relations and the rising use of special envoys. By the time we got to the first production at NYTW’s Next Door Space, we were feeling much more protective of the State Department as we watched its personnel being drastically cut under the Trump administration and talked with concerned diplomats. The play definitely grew messier trying to capture that rising crisis. Now under the Biden administration and big strategic withdrawals, the narrative has moved past that moment, but a complexity remains interwoven into the play. The institutions of diplomacy seem more important than ever, but when and where American intervention is deployed remains contentious as internal domestic pressures continue to sap America’s ease with its own authority. The pressure this puts on individuals within the diplomatic system is intense and each of the characters is evolving their own sense of the future and their capacity for dissent.
What’s your favourite moment or line in the play?
Early on in the play, Sarah says “I’m a post Cold War Reagan-Gorbachev, the ‘world is opening up’ kid,” which hints at my own experience coming of age with the fall of the Berlin Wall and my fear that in some ways the potential and excitement of that moment in history has irreversibly slipped away, but it also conveys the main character’s punchy story-telling. I like that this isn’t a docu-drama, but an emotional dive into history, diplomacy and theatre.
How do you want your audience to feel after seeing the show?
I’d like the audience to almost feel like they could now step onto the stage and take over the role-play, choosing their own negotiating position from the character who has connected with them the most. What do they believe could still happen? Where do they want American diplomacy to go?
What are you most looking forward to at the Fringe this year?
I’ve missed live theater so much and I want to soak up all that the Fringe has to offer. I’m also going to be at the Roxy Upstairs every day watching our cast; they’re a fierce trio of actors and each performance is going to be unique.
Intelligence is being performed at Assembly Roxy between the 3rd-29th August. Tickets start at £11.50 and can be purchased here.