International City Theatre streams potent political play in time for election

‘Daisy’ recounts first negative political ad so devastating it only aired once.

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Library of Congress Youtube

Still image from a televised 1964 political ad, the focus of ICT’s upcoming streaming production of “Daisy”.

Imagine a world where a Democrat and Republican are vying fiercely to be president while Black-rights protests shake the country and Russia poses an existential threat.

That might be 2020, but it also describes 1964, when Civil Rights protests, the Russian nuclear threat, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy and even a looming conflict in Vietnam all felt destabilizing, perhaps akin to how we feel now.

The International City Theatre (ICT) is offering a streaming version of Sean Devine’s award-winning play “Daisy” which captures that feeling. Set in 1964, the play dramatizes the creation of the first negative political advertisement that was so devastating to viewers it only aired once on television.

The play’s characters are based on real members of the Madison Avenue agency that produced the controversial one-minute ad, commissioned by incumbent Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign.

The ad – still viewable through the Library of Congress– doesn’t mention Republican opponent Barry Goldwater by name. Instead, it plugs directly into the 1964 public’s fear of nuclear war, showing a small girl plucking daisy petals followed by images of mushroom-cloud explosions.

“We must either love each other or we must die,” Johnson’s voiceover states during the bombing images.

At the end of the commercial, a narrator asks viewers to vote for Johnson on Nov. 3 because “the stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Sound familiar?

ICT had planned to stage the play this past spring, but that plan was derailed when COVID-19 restrictions shut down theatres and other performance venues.

See related story: Long Beach theatres go dark amid virus scare

Producer and director caryn desai (sic), told the Signal Tribune in a phone interview that though ICT decided to postpone three other scheduled productions, she wanted to produce “Daisy” during this presidential-election year.

“This was a play that had so much to say, and was so relevant right now,” she said. “I wanted to tell this story.”

Rather than being overtly about politics, part of the appeal of “Daisy” is that it focuses on creation of the ad and its psychology, desai said.​

“I didn’t want a play that was going to bash one side or the other,” she said. “That’s not how you bring people together for understanding.”

As restrictions to public gatherings kept getting extended from spring into summer and then into fall, ICT had to keep postponing the play, each time having to request different dates from the licensing house in New York.

Finally, desai requested the streaming rights, to which the playwright agreed.

“We were so hopeful that we were going to tell it on stage before people started voting so they could think,” she said. “Because elections have consequences.”

But streaming the play wasn’t as simple as filming a staged version, desai said. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), whom desai contacted about filming, specified strict protocols.

During rehearsals and filming, ICT would have had to ensure the presence of a medical professional, conduct regular COVID-19 testing and quarantine the actors and crew, all of which would have proved expensive.

Instead, the six-person cast, scattered all over the LA area, rehearsed via Zoom video-conferencing, and the play– not just a reading of it– was produced online by video editor Mike Bradecich.

ICT costume designer Kim DeShazo had to create costumes based on measurements the actors sent her and then deliver them to their homes for fitting, desai described.

Props also had to be delivered to the actors, including green-screens for backgrounds on which set locations could later be projected.

“I can’t tell you how sad it makes me that we could not do this play this play on stage because these actors are amazing,” she said. “We had to jump in and do whatever we could do.”

Set more than a half century ago, the play highlights the relevance of history and shows how people have gotten through major crises such as those we face today, desai noted. It also says something about those who demanded banning the ad as unacceptable back then and invites us to consider who we are now.

“It begs the question, who do we want to be in the future?” desai asked. “Can we do better for each other and our world?”

The ad is also still studied today, as is one of its creators, Tony Schwartz, whom ICT describes as a “legendary communications guru […], the man behind the commercial that may have fundamentally changed how we elect our leaders.”

While desai said she doesn’t know what 2021 will bring in terms of live or virtual theatre, ICT will continue serving the community with entertaining and thought-provoking productions such as “Daisy.”

“This is the role theatre plays in society– trying to bring relevant ideas and make people think,” she said. “Creating dialogue sometimes is not just dialogue with another person. Sometimes it’s a dialogue within yourself– what you think, what you believe.”

ICT’s streaming production of “Daisy” will be available for on-demand viewing from Saturday, Oct. 24 through Nov. 7. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at ictlongbeach.org or call (562) 436-4610.