St. Paul writer's satire, "Groupthink," isn't autobiographical but it's fair to say he knows the territory
AUGUST 9, 2022
Robert Dorfman, right, directs Pedro Juan Fonseca and Damian Leverett in “Groupthink” for Six Points Theater.
Sarah Whiting photo
By Chris Hewitt Star Tribune
Mathew Goldstein used to work in public relations. He doesn't anymore and his new play, "Groupthink," offers some clues why.
"It's based on things I've seen and it's sort of how I view the world, in a sense, but I wouldn't say it's autobiographical," says Goldstein of the play, which has its world premiere Saturday at Six Points Theater.
Nevertheless, it is set in a PR firm whose employees work with some unsavory clients, much like Goldstein once did — a fast-food giant that doesn't pay workers fairly, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that's harming customers, slumlords and worse. He's now a speech writer in Washington, D.C., who declines to reveal for whom he works.
"People in the play deal with some nefarious clients and have to make decisions accordingly," said Goldstein, whose main character is a twentysomething named Kevin, played by Damian Leverett. "That's the plot: How insane is this? How terrible are these people? And what sacrifices do we have to make to do our jobs?"
As a newcomer to a firm, Goldstein didn't have a lot of control over which accounts he worked on. That may be why he disliked his job and switched to speech writing. He still does work tailored to the needs — and voices — of his clients but he's able to choose people whose values match his.
For some, that could be the secret to finding success in the world of public relations. Stacy Bettison, who owns Bettison, a firm that specializes in crisis public relations, said she has never been asked by a client to lie for them. As a result, she never has been forced to choose, as Kevin in "Groupthink" thinks he must, between doing the job and doing the right thing.
"Doing what is right is what your job is," said Bettison, who's also a lawyer. "That's how I view it. Doing the right thing and doing your job are not mutually exclusive."
In an era when we're also conscious of "spinning" stories, Bettison thinks public relations is often misunderstood.
"There seems to be a perception that PR people are these hired mouthpieces and we will say anything to make the client look good, whether or not it's true," said Bettison, who insists on telling the truth. She also acknowledges that it's sometimes wise for someone accused of wrongdoing — whether or not the accusations are true — not to spill everything.
"Let's say we have 20 facts, 10 of them are bad. The PR person's job is to say, 'What do we need to say and what facts are no one's business? We don't need to overshare,'" Bettison said.
A key difference between Bettison's situation and Kevin's is that Bettison can choose clients whose messages align with her ethics. But Kevin and his young colleagues, like a lot of millennials, are not in positions of power.
A satire, "Groupthink" also explores the frustration of twentysomethings who were told that if they worked hard, they would get ahead. Goldstein's characters, who thought they saw a light at the end of a long tunnel, are beginning to believe that's not true.
"For my generation, my personal opinion, the first notable thing we remember is 9/11 and an ongoing war after that. And as we were graduating from high school we had a giant recession, where a lot of our parents may have lost jobs and homes, and then we graduated into a market that was not great and then a pandemic that hurt a lot of people and a public health crisis. You couple that with huge student loans, so nobody can afford to buy a house, and health care is incredibly expensive and inflation and injustice," said
Goldstein, 29, whose mother, Barbara Brooks, is producing artistic director of Six Points.
Although the field of public relations is the background of "Groupthink" it's really about a less formal way in which members of the public relate to one another. Audiences will learn a bit about PR but Goldstein's hope is that they'll laugh along with characters who are really learning about themselves.
"Someone asked me what the play is about," said Goldstein. "I said it's about a bunch of people who make decisions and then have to figure out, 'How do you live with them?'"
Who: By Mathew Goldstein. Directed by Robert Dorfman.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 28.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.
Protocol: Aug. 14 and 16 performances feature physical distancing.
Tickets: $25-$40, 651-647-4315 or sixpointstheater.org.