Playing in the Weeds


by 
Andy Knight
 | Oct 08, 2018

The Comedy of Sarah Burgess

Kings Logo
Jules Willcox

​​Kate (Jules Willcox)

Paige Lindsey White

Lauren (Paige Lindsey White)

Tracey A. Leigh

Rep. Sydney Millsap (Tracey A. Leigh)

Richard Doyle

​​​Sen. John McDowell (Richard Doyle)

Kings is directed by Dámaso Rodríguez, who makes his SCR mainstage debut with the production (although some of the theatre’s new play fans may remember that he directed a reading of The Prince of Atlantis in the 2011 Pacific Playwrights Festival). Rodríguez is currently the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore., and was previously the associate artistic director at Pasadena Playhouse and the co-artistic director of Furious Theatre in Los Angeles. He has assembled a top-notch cast for the production that includes Richard Doyle, a founding artist with more than 200 SCR productions under his belt; Tracey A. Leigh, most recently in SCR’s production of All the Way; Paige Lindsey White, Abundance at SCR; and Jules Willcox, who makes her SCR debut.

The design team includes scenic designer Efren Delgadillo Jr., who makes his SCR debut; costume designer Leah Piehl, whose designs at the theatre include last season’s production of Once; lighting designer Peter Maradudin, whose lighting has been seen in The Weir, Fences and many other productions at SCR; sound designer Cricket S. Myers (The Siegel, Red and A Doll’s House, Part 2, among many others); and stage manager Jenny Jacobs, who makes her SCR debut.

Additional Resources

  1. Audio: “Take the Money and Run for Office” from This American Life (March 30, 2012)
    • A look at the relationship between lobbyists and politicians, especially the intersection of fundraising and political influence. 
  2. Video: “Congressional Fundraising” from “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (April 3, 2016)
    • A look at the amount of time members of the House and Senate spend fundraising—and the various ways they do it. 
  3. Article: “A Loophole Allows Lawmakers to Reel In Trips and Donations” from The New York Times (January 19, 2014) 
    • An article about destination fundraisers and the loophole that allows lobbyists to subsidize them. 
  4. Article: “Washington Man” from The New Yorker (October 29, 2012)
    • An article about Jeff Connaughton, who spent much of his career in different roles in Washington, D.C., including campaign staffer, chief of staff and lobbyist. 
  5. Article: “The Billionaire’s Loophole” from The New Yorker (March 14, 2016)
    • An article about David Rubenstein, one of the co-founders of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. The article also looks at the history of carried interest.

In Washington, D.C.—where who you know determines what you’re worth—money can buy connections. And those connections can get you paid. That’s the world that lobbyists Lauren and Kate live in, or more accurately, excel in. Lauren, a self-professed “tax nerd,” lobbies for the finance industry and has powerful donors in her pocket. Kate’s clients include a number of medical associations, whose legislative concerns range from patient care to prescription drugs to medical devices. Both Lauren and Kate are resourceful and tenacious—and unafraid to exploit the system to get what they need from politicians. For them, it’s simply a part of the job. And it’s effective, too.

That is until they meet Representative Sydney Millsap, a freshman congresswoman from Texas. Fresh off of a special election, Millsap, the first woman and first person of color to represent her district, is a rising star. At Millsap’s destination-fundraiser in Vail—a weekend of skiing and rubbing elbows with donors and lobbyists—Lauren and Kate approach the congresswoman, hoping to discuss their legislative agendas. Kate wants Millsap to introduce a bill on behalf of the American Podiatric Medical Association. Lauren hopes Millsap will vote against the Carried Interest Fairness Act, a bill that would reform how private equity managers are taxed. But Millsap is impervious to their lobbying, and even goes so far as to say that she won’t vote for legislation she doesn’t believe in. To Lauren and Kate, it’s clear that Millsap has no idea how Washington works. She’s toast and not worth their time.  

But against all odds, and despite her party’s attempts to push her out, Millsap’s star keeps rising. Suddenly, Washington insiders, like Kate and Lauren, are facing an overnight sensation: a political celebrity who won’t play by the rules, but won’t seem to go away. And yet she’s still hard to take seriously—that is until her agenda begins to truly disrupt the status quo.

That’s the premise of Sarah Burgess’ Kings, which ​has its ​west ​coast premiere on South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage (October 13 – November 10, 2018). This comedy, fresh off of its world premiere at New York’s Public Theater, puts American politics under a microscope. But instead of looking at partisan bickering or political theatre, Kings scrutinizes the inner-workings of Washington—specifically, the intersection of fundraising and legislation. In Kings, the nexus between the two is the lobbyist. Lobbying firms, with their political actions committees (or PACs) and their networks of wealthy donors, are expert fundraisers and therefore wield great influence over legislators, who desperately need money to finance their campaigns. It’s no surprise then that the interests of the industries and individuals who spend the most on lobbying activities are rarely forgotten by legislators when it comes time to make new laws.

In the first scene of Kings, Representative Millsap, in reference to the minutiae of legislation, says, “I like the weeds.” Playwright Sarah Burgess does, too. Her play, set in a complex world full of loopholes and blurred lines, doesn’t gloss over or shy away from the details. It delights in them—and Burgess’ ability to theatricalize the intricacies of workaday Washington is striking. In Kings, laser-focused characters, subtle power play and esoteric debates intermingle to provide a sobering and surprisingly funny snapshot of a broken system.

It’s no surprise then that Burgess’ interest in complex institutions permeates her other work. She first gained national attention as a playwright in 2016, when her play Dry Powder premiered at The Public. (NOTE: SCR did a reading of Dry Powder, under its original title, Liquidation Play, as a part of NewSCRipts in 2014.) Like Kings, Dry Powder immerses its audience in a complicated, little-understood world; but in Dry Powder’s case, it’s the world of private equity—the business of buying businesses.

But whether they’re set in Washington or on Wall Street—both spheres that might seem daunting to the average theatregoer—Burgess’ plays require nothing more from an audience than an active ear and a readiness to dive head first into the outrageous. Her taut and sharp dialogue, masterful command of structure and sardonic wit do the rest. And the rest is simply fascinating.
Learn more about Kings and purchase tickets.

***

One of the thornier debates in Kings centers on carried interest—specifically, how it is taxed and what that means for private equity fund managers. For those who don’t work in the finance industry, here’s a primer on the topic.  

What is private equity?
Private equity is comprised of funds that are invested directly into private companies (that is, companies that don’t trade their shares on public exchanges), or used for buyouts of public companies—usually struggling ones—thus making them private. Private equity firms establish their funds with money from a variety of sources, from wealthy individuals/families to endowments to sovereign wealth or pension funds.(Contributors to the fund are limited partners, while the private equity firm that manages the fund is the general partner.)

Once the fund is invested in a private company, the goal is to make the company profitable (through a variety of techniques, including operational improvements or restructuring). Then, the investment is realized with an initial public offering (I.P.O.)—i.e., relisting the company on the public exchanges—or by selling it off to another public company or a different private equity firm.

What is carried interest?
Carried interest is the share of the fund’s profit that the general partner (the private equity firm) takes after the investment is realized. The standard is 20% of the profits that exceed a previously agreed-upon minimum rate of return. Private equity firms collect carried interest on top of their standard annual fee, which is usually around two percent of the assets managed.

What is a capital gain?
Simply put, a capital gain is the profit one makes from the sale of an investment, such as stocks or bonds, real estate and other tangible items.

Long-term capital gains—assets held for more than a year—are taxed at a far lower rate than income. For those in the top tax bracket, long-term capital gains are taxed at a 20% rate and income is taxed at 37%.

The “loophole” controversy
Under the U.S. tax code, carried interest is considered a capital gain and therefore taxed at the lower rate (plus a small investment tax). The private equity fund manager’s two percent annual fee, however, is taxed as income.

Critics call the carried-interest tax rate a “loophole” and argue that carried interest should be taxed as income because, most of the time, the general partner is simply managing the fund and not significantly contributing to it. Proponents of the current carried-interest tax rate—such as private equity fund managers, venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and real estate developers, all of whom benefit from the carried-interest tax rate—reject this argument and claim that carried interest is, in fact, a capital gain because of the risk they take on when investing and managing a fund.

Over the years, members of Congress have introduced bills to change the carried-interest tax rate, but most have gone nowhere. The recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, however, includes a provision that requires an investment’s holding period to be at least three years (as opposed to just over a year) for fund managers to benefit from the low carried-interest tax rate. This has little effect on private equity, though, since private equity investments are held for five to seven years, on average.

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