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Election, Stage Left

January 9, 2008

Political theater may preach to the converted, but it can still teach us something about the world

Theater is a difficult business to be in at the best of times, but it's even more challenging in an election year. With the mass, commercialized media of television, the Internet, talk radio, and movies possessing an exponentially greater ability to reach voters, many people are apt to dismiss the intensely localized, live medium of theater as irrelevant to the democratic process. The fact that most political dramas espouse a liberal point of view and play largely to like-minded audiences only serves to further ghettoize the art form. Even those among us who believe in the stage's potential as a vehicle for entertainment and social change are annoyingly difficult to please. Some audience members regularly kvetch at producers and playwrights for being too preachy, while others harangue them for not being political enough. Caught between a ballot box and a presidential race, what's a poor theater artist to do?

This predicament is deeply ironic when you consider the intimate relationship shared by politics and theater over the years. Ever since the earliest known political satire, Aeschylus' The Persians, was first performed in the fifth century B.C., the stage has served as a pulpit for political commentary. From Shakespeare (Henry V) and Schiller (Wallenstein) to Brecht (Mother Courage) and Miller (The Crucible), playwrights have embraced the medium's reliance on metaphor and allegory to convey searing messages through subtle stage poetry. In the U.S., the birth of the Federal Theatre Project (a component of President Roosevelt's New Deal aimed at providing work for unemployed actors, directors, and playwrights) led to a more confrontational approach in the late 1930s. Agitprop plays like Marc Blitzstein's pro-union drama The Cradle Will Rock and Clifford Odets' labor strike play Waiting for Lefty had a transformative effect on the political landscape. More recently, hard-hitting works by the likes of Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Anna Deavere Smith (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), and Sarah Jones (Bridge and Tunnel) have sparked controversy and public debate. Meanwhile, the wide reach of theater activism endeavors like Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues and The Lysistrata Project (which sparked 1,029 simultaneous readings of Aristophanes' antiwar comedy Lysistrata around the globe on March 3, 2003) have spread awareness about such issues as violence against women and the war in Iraq through grassroots campaigning.

Theater has long possessed a reputation for being the most inherently political of art forms, thanks to its immediacy and mutability, and the relative speed and low cost with which a production can be mounted. With the possible exception of the musical version of Xanadu, it's hard to think of a work for the stage that doesn't have some kind of political idea buried somewhere beneath the surface, no matter how obliquely.

Documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth might be weighty, well-made films of global significance. They certainly generated a great deal of buzz when they were first released. But how many filmmakers can claim to have reacted to world events with the swiftness of, say, the Living Theatre back in the 1950s, or, to give a contemporary example, local theater director Mark Jackson, who incorporated new lines into his play The Death of Meyerhold in reaction to news about the capture of Saddam Hussein?

Bay Area residents looking to galvanize their hearts and minds in the run up to November 4 could do a lot worse than seek inspiration from the theater. Some companies are dealing with the presidential election head-on. Political theater stalwart San Francisco Mime Troupe is developing an as-yet-untitled play: In the words of head writer Michael Gene Sullivan, it is about a small, dying Rust Belt town "which, because of an electronic balloting glitch and the Electoral College, becomes the deciding factor in the election." Unconditional Theatre is presenting Swing State Stories, a "documentary play" based on interviews with Northern California election volunteers, in political clubs and canvassing training sessions. Meanwhile, Climate Theater plans to send up both the democratic process and the media with the reality-TV-inspired America's Next Top President. Even plays with no specific connection to the election may take on new meanings this year, whether their creators intended them to or not. By virtue of the power of metaphor, several upcoming productions will doubtless assume a significance above and beyond what they might achieve in non-election years. Such plays include Gogol's satire about petty government officials, The Government Inspector, at American Conservatory Theater; Macbeth, Shotgun Players' take on Shakespeare's power-hungry Scottish thane; and Magic Theatre's world premiere of Wendy MacLeod's Birnham Woods, in which a middle-class dinner party takes a sinister Orwellian turn.

From the numerous conversations I've had with local theater directors and playwrights in recent weeks, it seems that everyone is united in a desire to create work that inspires people to think more deeply about the world. But with the exception of organizations whose output is directly inspired by the democratic process and/or party politics (Unconditional Theatre, the Mime Troupe, etc.), this aim has nothing in particular to do with the presidential race; it's simply part of their guiding philosophy. In a sense, every year is an election year in the world of theater. "All theater is political if it engages you," Edward Albee said in a 2005 speech. "If more people took theater seriously ... we'd have different election results."

But that's the problem. Most people don't take theater seriously. Even those who regularly attend do so more for kicks than because they're looking for a kick in the ass. Despite theater companies' good intentions, how much of the work produced this year (or, indeed, any year) can hope to make an impact beyond merely showing audience members a good time? All too often, theater fundamentally fails to engage audiences because it plays up to — rather than challenges — their expectations. Every now and again, someone will ask why the theater, given the largely liberal audiences the art form tends to attract, doesn't produce more right-wing plays as a means to shake people up and engender debate. But playing devil's advocate isn't the answer. When recently asked this by a Daily Telegraph journalist, Lisa Goldman, the artistic director of Soho Theatre in London, answered: "What would a right-wing play have to offer? Antidemocracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? ... That the slave trade had a civilizing influence? That women should stay in the home? How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place? In my view, what theatre needs is not more right-wing plays, but better left-wing ones."

Goldman is absolutely right. Many theater artists understand the need to provoke audiences. But in attempting to challenge expectations, producers frequently forget that they're supposed to be producing works of art rather than pieces of didactic rhetoric. This latter problem often stymies the Mime Troupe's efforts, for instance. Last year's production, Making a Killing, was intended to rally navel-gazing Bay Area audiences around the onus on the individual to take responsibility for the problems going on right in front of him. But the rambling subplot and easy potshots at Dick Cheney served to undermine the power of the message. The same could be said of Shotgun Players' latest production, The Shaker Chair, in which a middle-aged woman goes from apathy to activism. Predictable characterizations, self-conscious dialogue, and the poor use of what could have been a strong symbol failed to engage this reviewer.

Where is the contemporary theater's answer to movies like Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking, which forces audiences to question standard beliefs about the "evil empire" of big tobacco from an ostensibly smart liberal stance, and Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, the claustrophobic yet eerily gentle portrait of Hitler's last days? I know stage plays with similar punch are out there. I've seen a few and heard about others, and I doubt that the people behind them are of a right-wing persuasion. David Edgar's epic political play, Continental Divide (which received its world premiere at Berkeley Rep in 2003), is a case in point. In Edgar's exhaustive examination of the U.S. democratic process, the fact that the most sympathetic character was a Republican candidate gave me pause for thought. Stephen Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the "A" Train (produced locally last year by SF Playhouse) proffered a similarly complex viewpoint by espousing personal accountability and responsibility over radicalism. Meanwhile, Kerry Reid, a theater critic and playwright friend in Chicago, has been raving about Mickle Maher's The Strangerer, which explores the 2004 Bush-Kerry debate through the prism of Albert Camus' writings (whose The Stranger was on Bush's 2006 vacation reading list). The play caused Reid to declare: "The Strangerer accomplished what was perhaps impossible — it almost made me understand Bush. And it reinforced my deep distaste for John Kerry as a candidate." Not a bad outcome from a night at the theater, I'd say.

The Strangerer's impact on Reid illustrates a larger point: that the theater's current potential for opinion-shaping resides not so much in persuading right-wingers to change their minds (since I think they generally steer clear of theater anyway), but rather to mobilize lefties by helping them better understand what they're up against. It is to theater's great advantage that its core liberal audience is generally open to considering other points of view. The same cannot be said of, say, conservative talk-radio listeners, who are on the whole more inclined to stick single-mindedly to one way of looking at the world.

If the theater is attended largely by left-wingers today, it's because they're generally the section of the population that still cares about the arts. Perhaps this situation will change and audiences will become more politically balanced. But in the meantime, directors, actors, and playwrights must work harder than ever to grab our attention because we have become so anesthetized and stymied by world events that we're not easy to shake.

Forcing lazy liberal thinkers to sit up in their seats shouldn't be too difficult for anyone possessing artistic talent and a desire to engage the public. From universal health care to progressive income tax, there are dozens of policy ideas that many Democrats accept unquestioningly. Thoughtful theater makers need not look far for material. Whether they can leverage the issue to create art that provokes, entertains, and perhaps even brings about change is another matter. If Bay Area theater companies can meet this challenge in the coming months, I'll be happier than a Republican congressman handing out buttons at a high-school abstinence drive.


  • Some of the comments you make express precisely why I don't make explicitly political theatre. As you say, one's politics come through no matter what you do. I would rather look at issues like addiction, information overload, existential isolation, cultural evolution, how people deal with changes in their context, gender, bitterness, hope, recursive history, anger, victimization, and justice than how dumb Bush is.

    Show me two points of view in conflict. Let me see how each point of view seems totally correct to it's proponent. Resolve the story, but let me struggle with the ideological implications of what I've seen.

    I'm a big believer that if you tell a good story, people will pay attention. Whatever you feel about the world will be expressed in that story whether you intend it to or not. It is a part of you, and cannot truly be contained.

    By Blogger Dan Wilson, At January 17, 2008 at 9:48 AM  

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