A respected professor falls from grace when his lack of academic credentials is revealed T.J. Brady’s four-actor drama Two Dollar Bill, getting its world premiere by Utah’s Pioneer Theatre Company Jan. 15-30. Turns out Professor Bill Dudley never earned an undergraduate degree, but that didn’t stop him from rising through graduate school and into a tenured position at an elite American university.
Directed by Matt August, the play is a kind of snapshot of American ethical behavior — asking, “how malleable should standards be?” — as seen through the lens of higher education.
Here’s how Pioneer bill Two Dollar Bill: “At an elite University Bill Dudley, a distinguished professor of history, has been nominated for a prestigious award, but the attention over that nomination has cast a confusing light on his academic credentials, with career-changing consequences for the professor, the dean of faculty, his graduate assistant and a student he teaches.”D
“The initial idea for Two Dollar Bill came out of an NPR story I heard in my car over eight years ago about Marilee Jones, who was the Dean of Admissions at MIT,” Brady told me. “She became embroiled in scandal when it came to light that she had lied on her resume 25 years earlier for an entry-level position in the MIT Admissions office. Hearing this story set my mind on fire, and I started scribbling in my ever-present Moleskine notebook. I sat in the car for an hour, just jotting down thoughts about the emotions I was feeling and the arguments on both sides of the issue, and those early scribblings were the start of Two Dollar Bill. I was not interested in doing a true story about Ms. Jones, so I fictionalized a set of characters and chose an academic field I had a personal passion for (History, specifically Military History), and sought to dramatize the argument inside my own head in a way that I hope will be satisfying for an audience.”
This is Brady’s first produced play. He is a television writer, with teleplay credits the TV series “Lie to Me,” “Narcos,” “Army Wives” and “The 100.”
The Two Dollar Bill cast includes Ephie Aardema as student Megan Tyler; Corey Allen as by-the-book graduate assistant Ron Ellis; Lesley Fera as the deeply invested dean of faculty; and Mark Zimmerman as Civil War expert Prof. Dudley.
The creative team includes scenic designer James Wolk; costume designer Aaron Swenson; lighting designer Michael Gilliam; hair and makeup designer Amanda French; sound designer Joshua C. Hight. The stage management team includes Tanya J. Searle and Stephanie Ellis.
Brady shared some thoughts with me in between rehearsals.
The world of American military history as well as recent combat in the Middle East is touched upon in the play. What’s your own history with or interest in the armed forces?
T.J. Brady: I attended and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1996. As a child, I was fascinated by the military so I read as much military history as I possibly could. As you can imagine, that education only deepened at West Point and I began to see the real value of history, which is not simply memorizing facts for trivia’s sake, but to understand all the factors that contributed to past events and apply those lessons toward making better decisions in the future, both on and off the battlefield.
You were raised on a farm in Warwick, New York, and after West Point you went on to serve as an Army officer in a tank battalion, achieving the rank of Captain.
T.J. Brady: I want to make it clear that I am not a combat veteran. My service took place during a period of relative peace, 1996 to 2001
Are you a Civil War buff? Why choose the Civil War here over, say, World War Two?
T.J. Brady: I chose the Civil War because it is the one war in our history where we, as Americans, don’t demonize or dehumanize our enemies, because we were fighting ourselves. Brother against brother, family against family. Using the Civil War as the main focus was my not-so-subtle attempt to find a thematic resonance between the characters’ academic arguments and the central conflict of the play. To me, it is essential in drama that each side of an argument be relatable, understandable, and have the potential to change…
The play suggests a distrust of the rigidity in institutions, particularly academic ones. Do you have some personal history — or personal beef — with academia?
T.J. Brady: I have no ax to grind with the academic world. Any sense of animosity that comes across at institutions in Two Dollar Bill is likely a manifestation of the chip I have on my shoulder about how our society values credentials in certain fields over actual work in those fields. In my own journey, I have bumped up against a bias toward writers who have gone to prestigious writing programs or universities, but I have to admit that this bias has only made me work harder and become a better writer. Funnily enough, almost every writer I’ve encountered from a prestigious program has been a phenomenal talent and even better person. I think there is something in my DNA that needs to feel like I’m battling against overwhelming odds or that others have been given a head start and I need to catch up. It’s almost as if I need to structure my journey like the protagonist of a story and create obstacles to overcome, even if those obstacles are largely in my own head.
I love that the play will likely have audiences debating the severity of the Professor Dudley’s breach. His Shavian obnoxiousness, particularly in front of his colleagues, does not help his case. Is it OK with you that some will think he’s an unethical villain and a serial liar whose entire career is in doubt, while others might see him as a gifted but flawed teacher who has positively influenced thousands of students?
T.J. Brady: It is my sincere hope that this argument occurs amongst audience members after the play — at dinner, drinks, and hopefully much later than that when the next, inevitable scandal about lying (NBC’s Brian Williams, for example) takes over the internet and public consciousness for its allotted 15 minutes. My favorite plays have done that for me (Red by John Logan; Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris; Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, to name a few). The idea that something I’ve written might serve as a reference point in someone else’s argument is thrilling to me, and if I’ve done my job right, the audience split should be about 50/50 in terms of which side they take.
In preparing the play, what discussions have you had with professors and deans to provide some authenticity? That is, was this a research-heavy play?
T.J. Brady: Despite the subject matter, the research wasn’t that intensive. The amazing thing about history is that two equally credentialed and respected scholars can have diametrically opposing opinions about a historical event, even when they are referencing the same set of facts. That’s what I love about the study of history — the “facts” aren’t the end historians seek, they are the means to an end. Most of my research was done via the internet and the hundreds of military history and Civil War forums, and I cherry-picked the battles and accounts that suited my story. No one should leave this play feeling like they’ve had an actual history lecture.
I did get a good deal of help from Professor Ron Dufresne, of St. Joseph’s Univeristy, Professor John Hall of the University of Wisconsin, and Professor Bob Goldberg of the University of Utah, in terms of how the academic world was structured and disciplinary proceedings. That said, my fictional university is a convenient mish-mash of all of their input. Again, I cherry-picked things to suit my story and make no apologies for that. It’s not a documentary about how a university’s administration handles a crisis.
This is your first produced play after writing for television’s “Army Wives,” “The 100” and “Narcos.” What development has Two Dollar Bill had? Has director Matt August been attached from the beginning?
T.J. Brady: Two Dollar Bill had a three-day development workshop at Pioneer in April 2015, to which I owe a great deal. It really opened my eyes to how theatre works and how rewarding it can be. Matt August is the single-most-important reason that Two Dollar Bill has made it to the stage. Our children attend the same school, and a chance conversation outside a kids’ jumpy castle at a birthday party got the ball rolling. When I learned he was a theatre director, I asked him for advice on how to overcome the credential bias I had been bumping into as I tried to get theatres to even consider my plays. That conversation led to him reading the play and passing it to Pioneer artistic director Karen Azenberg — and the rest is history. Throughout the entire process, Matt’s input and advice have helped me improve the play and I couldn’t imagine a better collaborator. I hope that Matt and I will continue our collaboration on other productions of this play, and well as the other play I’ve written, LP/OP, which was presented at Lincoln Center in November 2015 as part of a showcase for armed-forces veterans who are involved in the arts.
Can you give a hint about the nature of LP/OP?
T.J. Brady: LP/OP is about what really happened on the last night of a soldier’s life in Afghanistan. The play covers both the night in question, as well as the official military investigation several months later.
How has Two Dollar Bill changed or grown in Utah rehearsals? Have there been rewrites?
T.J. Brady: The play has changed a great deal in the rehearsal process. Not so much in restructuring or re-plotting, but I’ve learned that I can trim lines and write less because the director and cast have shown me that they can often get a point across without needed to explicitly state it. So it has definitely gotten shorter. I’ve been making trims, cuts, and tweaks every single day and have confidence that the play has only gotten better.
A year ago in the January 2015 slot of Pioneer’s season, the company presented the world premiere of my play Alabama Story, which will get three regional productions in 2016. Check out Pioneer’s further commitment to the development of new works in its 2016 third annual Play-By-Play Reading Series, exploring three new titles in January, February and March. My new play Two Henrys is among the titles.
Pioneer Theatre Company presents at the 932-seat Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre at 300 South 1400 East in Salt Lake City, on the campus of the University of Utah. Visit the company’s website. www.pioneertheatre.org.