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  • Clara Moses

When Theatre and High Finance Collide

It’s not often that the worlds of theater and high finance meet, but that’s part of what makes Sarah Burgess’s play “Dry Powder” so engaging. Set at a private equity firm in New York City, this show focuses on the differing opinions of the company’s President, Rick, and his two partners, Seth and Jenny. The story starts in the middle of a huge publicity disaster, which exploded after Rick threw himself an extravagant engagement party during the same week that his firm forced massive layoffs at a national grocery chain.


Seth assures everyone that a deal he’s about to seal with an American-made luggage company will appease the public. This tension between ice queen Jenny and relatively more humane Seth fills the play with sharp comedy and subtle drama.


Something particularly interesting about Burgess’s work is that it doesn’t overtly point to good guys and bad guys. Even the fourth and final character who represents the luggage company, Jeff, is no saint. Burgess has alluded that the play is less about business ethics and more about the finance business in general.


After “Dry Powder” premiered at Off-Broadway's Public Theater in 2016, Burgess told Fortune magazine, “I wasn’t trying to make any political or societal statement. I am interested in the tension between these two points of view, the one that says, ‘Maybe I should make a little less if it means [people] will still be employed,’ and the one that says, ‘Not my problem.’ If you really are a capitalist, where do you draw the line as far as pursuing your own self-interest?”


We’re really excited to explore this in our production of the play that will be hitting the Shaker Bridge stage this February. When “Dry Powder” first came to New York, it sold out its entire run before opening night! Now, this may have had something to do with the big names that were on the cast list: Claire Danes, John Krasinski, Hank Azaria, and Sanjit De Silva. If you’re one of the many people that turn the television to “Homeland,” then you’ll know Danes, and same goes to viewers of “The Office” and Krasinski. Or perhaps the play’s quick rise to success had something to do with the New York production being directed by Thomas Kail, who had previously directed a little show called “Hamilton.” (Yes, we’re talking about the “Hamilton.”)


Here at Shaker Bridge Theatre, however, we think “Dry Powder” holds its own even when simply read on paper. Our actors are ready to bring new perspectives to these unique characters and situations. We also love that the play was originally done in the round and we’ll be producing it this way as well. It will be exciting to put on a relatively new theatrical production that already has such an interesting history.


Burgess, the young playwright herself, has an intriguing origin story of her own. Based on how she used it when writing “Dry Powder,” she seems to have a pretty good grasp on the jargon of high finance. Therefore, it might surprise you to know that besides a brief stint as a GMAT tutor, Burgess has no business background.


Burgess is the daughter of two retired Naval commanders who grew up in Alexandra, Virginia. She graduated from the NYU film program in 2005. During most of her time in college, she imagined herself writing movie scripts, but when Burgess spent a semester studying abroad in London, she took her first theater class and found that she really enjoyed it. After that, she began working on her own plays, realizing that both the subject matter that interested her and her personal writing style were good fits for the stage.


When it comes to her interest in the financial world, Burgess says her obsession with private equity began while watching Mitt Romney’s experience at Bain Capital become a central issue in the 2012 presidential election coverage. After that, researching related topics basically became her new hobby. Burgess even interviewed various people who worked in financial services to get inspiration for “Dry Powder.” Once the play premiered, Burgess did get some backlash. Some reviewers felt that the play was heavily biased against high finance, but Burgess responded by stating that she doesn’t even think she’s qualified enough to advocate for reform. Apparently, she just finds capitalism interesting enough on a personal level to also tie it into her writing.


It’s not uncommon for writers to stick to subject matter that relates to their own experiences and surroundings, but this doesn’t always lead to original and exciting work. Luckily for Burgess, her talent took “Dry Powder” all the way back to London where her love for theater first started. It ran at the Hampstead Theatre in 2018. Also, her most recent play, “Kings,” is running close to her home at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. right now! This show is all about politics, so it’s made its way to the perfect town. We bet the girl that grew up around so many adults in powerful positions and mostly taught herself about theater, finance, and politics had no idea that her plays that would be performed all around the world, from her stomping grounds to ours!