Bringing theatre to Baghdad: An improbable performance

Scott Mackenzie’s more than 20-year directing career includes a theatric performance in Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palace in Baghdad, Iraq.

Scott Mackenzie was 10 when he played his first dramatic role in a local production of Peter Pan. He recalls, “That was it. The bug had bitten. I have been in and around the theatre ever since.”

He went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in theatre and taught 15 years at Westminster College in Pennsylvania before joining the Alma College faculty in fall 2016 as professor and director of theatre and chair of the Theatre and Dance Department.

In his first year at Alma, he directed Our Town and The Laramie Project. He looks forward to directing more Alma productions in the years ahead.

His theatre career was interrupted in 2005-06 when Mackenzie found himself in the unlikeliest of places halfway around the world. As a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, he was deployed to Baghdad, where he would help train and equip the Iraqi Ministry of Interior forces, which included the police and border forces.

<em>Scott Mackenzie, in Baghdad.</em> Scott Mackenzie, in Baghdad.‘Bigfoot’ in Baghdad

Concurrent with his teaching career, Mackenzie spent 26 years in the military over a 30-year period. He started in the Air Force, then Air Force Reserve, then switched to the Michigan Army National Guard, and then Army Reserve when he moved to Pennsylvania. He went to officer candidate school as a member of the National Guard, and at the time he was in Iraq, he was an infantry major. He was stationed in Baghdad’s International Zone — a secure area with modern conveniences.

“When I got there, I was really wondering if I would forget everything I knew about directing plays,” he says. “It was a weird thought in my head. But I was very fortunate, safety wise, when I was sent. It was an easy tour. I went to work in an office every day. My biggest injury risk was carpel tunnel.”

He asked his superiors if he could do a play. When given the go-ahead, he discussed the opportunity with his wife back home, who suggested Bigfoot Stole My Wife, a play by Ron Carlson based on a series of monologues about the headlines one reads in tabloid publications like the National Enquirer. Some were silly, others were moving. The monologues were people telling about their stories.

“We had auditions,” he says. “The actors included people from the State Department, the military and civilians. Everything was solo, so it didn’t matter if someone couldn’t make rehearsal; we just skipped over them. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. They all made it every night. Ron Carlson, the playwright, heard about it and wrote a special monologue about the futility of war.”

Serious about theatre

Opening night for the show was Feb. 17, 2006. The four-show run took place in one of Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palaces, which had been converted into the U.S. Embassy.

“The building was huge,” he says. “We turned a corner of one of the ballrooms into a theatre stage. It turned out to be a pretty good production, and the people who saw the play really enjoyed it. The audience included American troops, ambassadors, Iraqi employees of the embassy and other members of the coalition forces.”

Mackenzie returned to Westminster at the conclusion of his deployment. Now, fast forward to 2017, and Mackenzie applauds the work ethic of the Alma theatre students. While Alma is a new place for him, “I can’t imagine the people being nicer,” he says.

“I have found that Alma students are very serious about theatre,” he says. “These are great kids. I had great experiences with Our Town and The Laramie Project. The first-year students who acted in these productions did great work and blended in well with the older students.”

Story published on August 23, 2017