A corner has been turned this summer; I know you’ve felt it. Women have taken it on the chin for, well, forever. So much of the national conversation has been focused on the unthinkable regression of women’s autonomy over their own bodies, redress and safety from violence, and the horrifyingly misogynist men that occupy positions of power. It’s been a veritable crusade to undo a hundred years of progress for women’s rights. Then Barbie came along and crushed that conversation with some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking commentary on all of us, and our relationship to the female experience.
Barbie opened a collective vein, and we’ve been bleeding pink since opening day. The themes of this summer’s most potent blockbuster persist and have brought more attention to the Tony Award-winning play, POTUS: Behind Every Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. It’s an unflinching and salacious take on the lives of seven women in the orbit of the fictional President of the United States. The play hilariously takes us on a madcap, comedic joyride inside the West Wing, focusing on the First Lady, the mistress, the Press Secretary, her ex who is a press pool photographer, and the President’s secretary.
We never actually meet the President, but we do see the outlandish—yet far too real—efforts made to keep him from screwing up. Vanessa Williams, Rachel Dratch, and others have popularized these characters in a highly praised run on Broadway since 2019. The Virginia Repertory Theatre is staging their own rendition of the instant classic beginning September 1st, and we got early access to the Director Dorothy Holland and VA Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Rick Hammerly.
Christian Detres: Let’s do it. So for the record, tell us your name and your position here and how you came to be in this spot.
Dorothy Holland: My name is Dorothy Holland. I teach in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Richmond. I’ve been here since ‘99. So, my god, 24 years and I’m here on this project because I got a call. I had worked many times with the stage manager, Ginnie Willard, at U of R. And she said, give me a call. So I called and she said, This show, POTUS, I think is right up your alley. So she sent the script, and I read it. And I texted back, Ginnie, it’s not only up my alley, I think I saw my name in the watermark on the paper it was printed on.
CD: It’s kind of a bold, unique way to go about telling a story surrounding the heights of power. All from the perspective of the White House staff and First Lady – essentially the handful of women that feed the hierarchy and in turn are fed by it. It’s an all female cast right? The playwright is a young woman too. Selena…
DH: Selena Fillinger—remember her name. She’s a genius. The play feels so contemporary in a chilling way, and yet, it’s a comedy. It’s hilarious. Being able to dig into this play and the questions that this brilliant young writer raises has been special, particularly along with the other women in the cast. I don’t dictate to the actors what to do; we explore this script together. We ask, “How do you connect to this piece?” Suddenly, we have three generations of women involved in interpreting dramatic scenarios that we can all relate to. It’s amazing how we’ve all experienced similar things, even though times have changed. And yet, we all relate to it in different, very meaningful ways. We’re looking forward to sharing it with the audience.
That’s the fun part—when it really pops and the audience is there, when you’ve got the laughs and it becomes a real shared communal experience. Selena Fillinger has said what prompted her to write this play was her curiosity about women’s relationship to male power under patriarchy: how you access it, what you’re allowed to do with it, and who you subjugate in order to benefit yourself through proximity. Well, she set the play in the most proximate place to male power you can be—in the West Wing of the White House. POTUS is about these seven women who are behind the scenes, making it all happen and keeping it all going.
CD: They all have unique relationships to that very imposing power structure too. The First Lady, the mistress, the Secretary, the WH Press Pool photographer, etc.
DH: Very unique. The delineation of the seven characters could not be more distinct and diverse, which is what makes it great. Women are not a monolithic group. We have all sorts of differences in terms of class and race and ethnicity and experience and all of that. Audrey Lorde, a famous black feminist theorist gave a speech in the 70s called “The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House“. One of the Master’s tools is division – making competition to fight for to get close to power. We see that happening in the play. It’s incredibly smart, smart, smart exploration of that kind of proximity, complicity being caught up grasping for status. It’s also just incredibly funny. It requires incredible comic timing and stamina because it’s often very, very physical. It requires a clarity of thought and a clarity of action. There were so many levels cooking, and cooks. Fierce, fast, funny. We have a cast that can do that.
I want to highlight the role of the Press Secretary in the play. She’s in the press corps. She’s on the scene a lot, but she’s there much in your (the writer of this article) position. You find out what’s going on in the halls of power and you reveal something meaningful to the rest of the public. So if there’s really a character in the play that is the playwrights voice, it’s this journalist.
Rick Hammerly: And now you know why this woman is directing. Watching her yesterday with the actresses, how specific she is and how generous she is letting them find stuff…
CD: You’re interpreting this show through your lens here as a director. I realize it’s a collaborative effort with your actors but where do you feel like you have the most fun with it? Where do you think you were able to bring yourself into the production? Where is your personal stamp felt in the show?
DH: That’s a really perceptive question to ask about the actors. I love actors, especially when they can bring their real selves to the stage. When they’re released from the obligation to produce a predetermined character and can truly express themselves, magical things happen. Given the right range of latitude from the director, actors can discover new facets of themselves. They build characters that are real, not cartoons, allowing the audience to see actual people in high-stakes, unusual circumstances. The more freedom I can give the actors to bring their authentic selves, the more the audience can see themselves through these portrayals.
On the other hand, I absolutely love design and tech. I’m always looking for visual metaphors to complement the narrative. The audience not only engages with the play and characters but also experiences moments of visual metaphor—be it through lighting, furniture, or set pieces—that transport them to the West Wing of the White House. The goal is immersion in the art, bolstered by a rich visual language that complements the prose and physicality of the cast. Let’s just say it has to live in a certain style.
I invest energy into figuring out what we need to let the visual elements breathe. When a stage looks just right, it thrills me; it tells the story. Chris, our scenic designer, has done an amazing job. The joy truly is in the details. I derive immense pleasure from realizing something complicated and drilling down to the minutiae. Visual metaphors, along with props and lighting, elevate the show from good to great. If you’re searching for ‘okay,’ you can find that with little effort. But I’m not in the business of searching for ‘okay’; I’m searching for ‘beautiful.’
While I’m on the topic, I want to acknowledge the support crew here—the tech people who paint things, build the flats, and everyone else involved. Working with them has been an absolute joy. They’re problem solvers who take pleasure in finding solutions.
RH: I just have to say it was a unique and illuminating experience, sitting in for the first read. At one point, the only other male in the room, our lighting designer, Steve, left and I realized I was the only man in the room. What was really interesting as I watched this group of women get acquainted with the play I was able to watch them become connected to it and each other immediately. A lot of times it takes a few passes, but they finished a read and I already felt this unit of women have come together with a sort of universal understanding together. I felt a little like I was intruding, but also I was honored to see it. It was a very different experience.
CD: I was telling Dorothy before you got here that I used to work for BUST magazine, which is a third-wave feminist pop culture publication. I’d go so far as to say it’s THE third-wave feminist pop culture magazine, but obviously, I’m biased. I believe I was the only male employee there, ever. That office is like Mecca to young feminist journalists. I saw young, tough, complete powerhouses—19, 20-year-old interns, writers, designers, makers, activists—make a pilgrimage through this institution.
Seeing Laurie Henzel and Debbie Stoller, the founders of the magazine, operate was illuminating. These are snarky, witchy, just plain awesome women who do their thing free of any sense of patriarchy. There’s a different flavor of camaraderie. I’m not saying it’s better or worse; it’s just different. That’s something I got exposed to, and I think this play captures that essence without making it seem unusual.
It’s about how seven highly functioning, quick-witted women work together without a man in the room. The dynamic is slick, effective, and, like any arrangement of talented people attempting to collaborate, it’s messy—and often hilarious. Sometimes, we dudes are lucky enough to witness it.
RH: It was interesting putting this season together. You know, you put together the things you believe in, and then you take a step back and you see some patterns. And when we did that this year, I stepped back like wow, three or four shows are really female centric and female perspectives. At which point I was like, I need women to direct these shows.
CD: I think Hollywood has been especially slow with this. Are you gonna make a film that’s just geared towards a female audience? Are they going to come out and spend money on this? Like, are they gonna support other women? You get the tropes that they don’t. There’s always an excuse to hedge their bets with some classic, tried and true male gaze.
RH: I have one word for you. Barbie.
CD: Haha, we were talking about Barbie the entire time before we started recording. In fact, I was like, I don’t know if I’m gonna get into Barbie in the actual interview because this will go on forever. My recorder will die before we move on to another topic. I think Barbie is, without getting too deep because we can talk about it all day is – I’m not gonna say it’s a crowning achievement, simply because I think there’s more to be said, but it is definitely the sound of the glass ceiling breaking. It opens the door for female led and designed blockbusters. It’s the feminist JAWS, or Star Wars.
RH: Things have changed so much in the last ten years or so. It’s been deliberate for the studios trying to balance out their output and remain profitable. It’s not just the same old white guys getting a voice in the room. So all of a sudden it’s important to have female directors, to have directors of color, to have stories that explore things other than the white frayton we draw with all the time. The white crayon doesn’t have that much color. Think how how much more color a white crayon has on a multicolored surface. When it’s one of many it stands out. Oooh that’s good.
CD: It’s true. And we ALL get a richer experience. And that’s why I can read this play and be impressed, but I’ll tell you something. When I hear Dorothy talk about the play it hits different. We can both get it, champion it but you or I could not bring the energy she can to it. It’s a story that can only properly be distilled and displayed by someone with skin in that game. That knows those women-only moments, conversations, conundrums. The fact that she, you, Dorothy, have such a tight connection with your actors in bringing authenticity to the stage is excellent.
DH: There’s the saying that everyone in life should have to wait tables for a few weeks. Well, I believe every director should have to get on stage and act in order to understand what they’re really dealing with. Something I don’t think directors are given enough credit for is you have a cast of 10 people. They’re not all the same, or at the same level of mastery of their art. These two people, they’re good to go. This one needs a little help. This one needs their back patted. This one needs to make sure that this one accepts them. It’s not babysitting, that sounds sort of reductive, but you are managing different people to get them to a level where they can produce a balanced work together. We are coaches.
CD: I want to talk to you again after POTUS opens and record my impressions of your version. What are your anticipations and or fears for how it will play to a Richmond audience?
RH: When I first read the script, I thought, “Oh my God, this is so exciting, so irreverent, so saucy for a Richmond audience.” But I also recognize that we’re in a unique phase right now, trying to bring people back into the theater. We have to think about how to reach those who have sat out for a few years due to COVID fears and may not be coming back. We need to re-engage people.
A lot of our current programming, as much as I hate to use the word, is “safe.” It’s more entertainment-based. The aim is to give people a chance to escape from their homes for two hours and just enjoy themselves. For instance, we just put on Beautiful, the Carole King musical, so that people could come and have a good time. It has an escapist aspect to it.
However, POTUS offers both the comedy and fun of an escapist event while also being incredibly relevant. It mirrors where theater is right now in New York and across the country. The themes and conflicts it addresses are on everyone’s minds, particularly our relationship to political power and women’s specific relationship to that power. I was very aware of this when I chose to stage it. I believed it was going to be produced everywhere because of its topical nature, but I had no idea just how prolific it would become in terms of being staged this year. It’s going to be everywhere.
CD: Well I’m glad that we don’t have to miss out.
DH: We got one of the first bites at the apple. As a matter of fact, they’re doing it up at Arena Stage in DC, and I found out we somehow got there before them. That’s great, hehe. I like that the play is political without being too political. It’s also female-centric. I keep using the word “saucy,” but it fits. We’ve written “explicit language” on all the posters and posts. Without the explicit language, the play would lose its point. You need that element for the entire plot to get going and to present a problem that needs solving. It’s an adult show. I told one of our older patrons in full transparency that the show contains some language and adult situations. She responded, “Well, that’s good because I’m an adult.”
CD: I wasn’t born here, but I’ve spent a good amount of time in Richmond. I’ve seen the city change and have been intimately involved with RVA Magazine in propelling local arts into a more modern setting. That’s been our mission. “Adult themes with less pearl clutching” should have been our motto when we started.
RH: I also believe that not every audience has to be engaged with every single part of your season. Different things appeal to different people, collectively. I want as many people as possible to see this show, but I’m also squeezing it between Beautiful and a Christmas musical, which is sort of like Designing Women. Those are more about entertainment and joy; they’re warm and cozy. This play, on the other hand, is challenging.
DH: We’re challenging, It pokes people in the right way. And you know, you can choose to engage or you can say okay, this one’s not for me, I’m gonna wait for those silver bells at Christmas. That’s fine. But I think it is part of our responsibility to engage as many different types of groups and different people with the programming and I think this season does that.As for POTUS specifically, it’s more sexual politics and actually, it’s certainly not Democrat Republican. Absolutely. Not that remotely. She’s been very, very careful to not bring it all to that. It has more to do with sexual politics, and women’s relation to power and their complicity in patriarchy. I mean, that’s about it. It hammers home that patriarchy still thrives without a man in the room. We can look at that in an empathetic and funny way.
CD: Laughter is uniting.
DH: It’s resistance in and of itself. It’s yeah. And it’s healing. And I think that Richmond audiences have enough sophistication to rise above “I don’t like to hear that word. You know, the way women talk. I don’t want to hear it in public.” They will fall in love with these characters. They will see in them either something in themselves, or someone that they know. And they will be empathetic. It is so funny and so smart and generous. That they’re going to find something even if they do that. They can be “I’d rather not hear that word” all day, but they will love the show.
CD: You could always just give out strings of pearls at the box office for emergency clutching.
OTUS: Behind Every Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive opens this weekend, get your tickets HERE