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Turning 'Casablanca' Into Experimental Theatre

Date: Apr 13, 2017
A new show stages the film's chaotic history


Did you know that little people were used during the final scene of Casablanca? Or that fog had to be brought in to make that scene's iconic airplane appear more convincing?

If so, then the new show CasablancaBOX might be for you. And even if you didn't know those obscure facts, this production may shake up your sense of Old Hollywood.

Written by Sara Farrington and directed by her husband Reid Farrington (who also created the set and video design), CasablancaBOX theatricalizes the frenzied circumstances in which the 1943 movie was made. As we learn, long before it won an Oscar for Best Picture, the project was pummeled by dramatic personalities, studio politics, and even world events.

Both husband and wife cite the source material as one of their favorite movies, and they began working on the show over three years ago as artists in residence at HERE Arts Center, where CasablancaBOX is currently enjoying its world premiere production. But they also found that the film's plot, in which a group of characters alternately stand up to or buckle under World War II fascism, strikes an even deeper chord than anticipated.

"Aside from me thinking it is the best screenplay ever written, the relevance has really accelerated in the last three years," Sara Farrington says. "The timing is crazy. The war and agony, the refugee crisis that built Casablanca politically – I feel that upheaval and the sense of the fabric of society falling apart now as they did then."


Her script chronicles backstage antics like panicked rewrites, Ingrid Bergman's doubts about her character's motivations, Humphrey Bogart's offscreen difficulty with his wife, and co-star Peter Lorre's morphine addiction. (A cast of sixteen brings this furor to life.)

Granted, not all of the events in the play occurred during the actual making of Casablanca. "I've accordioned time a lot," Sara says, in order to provide broader biographical sketches of the players. "You cannot write a Wikipedia play; you have to dramatize it."

But CasablancaBOX is more than a glimpse behind the curtain. It also allows audiences to see the film head-on. Literally. Reid Farrington's design projects scenes from the movie onto scrims while the onstage actors recite the film's dialogue upstage of those frames. "We are pulling from the world of film to translate back to the stage," Reid Farrington says. For instance, the production incorporates a theatrical version of Robert Altman's famous roaming camera technique, interweaving snippets of different characters' stories to arrive at a greater sense of the madness involved in the making of Casablanca, a film that few expected to succeed.

"I'm designing the play to Reid's video, and he is designing the video to my play," Sara Farrington adds. "I am classically trained, and I have never been more challenged as a writer!"

The result is a kinetic experience that the director hopes will encourage audiences to watch Casablanca in a new light, whether it be for the first or the thousandth time. "We want people to walk away from our show and want to see the film," Reid says. "While we don't tell you the film's entire plot, we leave you with an understanding of the film production. It will create an emotional connection."


Follow Doug Strassler at @DougDawg13. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Benjamin Heller. Top photo (L to R): Matt McGloin, Rob Hille, and Gabriella Rhodeen.

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