Lightning Rod Special makes ‘SPEECH” against cancel culture at Fringe

Alice Yorke in ‘SPEECH’.
Friday Anderson

Philadelphia’s Lightning Rod Special calls its Fringe Festival offering, ‘SPEECH’ — on stage at the Drake’s Proscenium Theatre now through Oct. 1— “a poisonous love letter to cancel culture” and a “satirical scrutiny of the free speech debate and the rapidly shifting terrain of civil discourse within our hyper-visible social-media-centered world.”

That’s a mouthful. And that’s the point of what writer/performers Scott R.Sheppard, Alice Yorke and director Shayok Misha Chowdhury have in mind for the Fringe’s last week, with characters who “careen through different microcosms of American culture in a searing look at how trepidation and performativity infect all aspects of our lives.”

The last time Lightning Rod Special challenged popular culture – Off-Broadway with the ‘Underground Railroad Game’ for which the company won an Obie Award – they did so by offering a savage dissection of race relations in America.

“Winning the Obie for that particular show made us hungry to keep going, to keep seeing how we could use theater to explore contemporary social issues or burning questions we face in a more personal fashion,” says Yorke.

Whether it is the broader political landscape or the more personal politic, free speech is the topic of the company’s 2022 staged offering, ‘SPEECH.’

“Our point is to not narrow focus on either side of the political agenda,” says Sheppard, who wrote ‘SPEECH’ in collaboration with the rest of the company. “With the discourse around free speech, we start to realize that we have these tried-and-true opinions that we have to deal with. We have Right wing news organizations might be using free speech as a dog whistle to upholding a status quo. Some would say, too, that we have developed an over-sensitivity to openly express ideas.

“I think our ‘SPEECH’ explores both sides of that, but also, more importantly, is interested in a new way of looking at these problems – an anthropological study of the different behaviors – a pageantry of virtue signaling propped up around all of the issues of free speech – and the different performances around those behaviors shift, or get in the way of change or how we express ourself.”

Regardless of where an audience stands on either side of that debate, things are moving quickly, and ‘SPEECH’ is trying to slow things down enough so to see where the rhetoric lands and how it truly effects and intersects with everyday life.

“One of the things that I find interesting when working on polarizing questions such as these is, like many of the topics that drive Lightning Rod Special, is that there is never a black or a white, a right or a wrong,” says Yorke. “There is so much happening in the middle that is rich to mine.

“For ‘SPEECH’, what will be interesting to the broader audience is finding those complexities, those nuances, those things that don’t boil down to an easy Facebook post or fast TikTok, and reflecting those on stage.”

With all this talk about what ‘SPEECH’ might sound like, what will ‘SPEECH’ look like?

“SPEECH will look like a revolving door where you think you’ve landed in one environment, and instead have wound up in another,” says Yorke. “The door opens and you’re not sure you’re where you expected to end up. But no matter where you wind up, or with whom, I hope that will seem uncomfortably familiar to the audience members witnessing the piece.”

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