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September 15, 2008


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This is an interesting observation, but I think it's also worth it to discuss what Chris Jones was referring to as "the politics of theater" in his posts awhile ago...when the political process as it is has already become a ten-act epic of sorts that spans months if not years, will audiences flock to see theater that is overtly political? Especially in a country so sharply divided on their opinion of the country's current state and future direction?

If you do a play that takes a deliberate political stand, you alienate audience right off the bat, which is potentially bad for the bottom line. If you do a political play that attempts to be neutral, you're not really doing politics, you're doing history. And if you attempt to do a new play that deals with politics from a centrist perspective, you get accused of not having the balls to take a stand.

So I think it's very easy to say "hey, there's an election coming up, why aren't people doing plays about politics," but the traps are many, and the exhaustion level of a politically saturated audience might mean we are clamoring for things that most people simply are not.


I need to clarify. I accidentally repeated myself, above...I mean that doing Nixon's Nixon, for example, isn't necessarily political, it's history told in a objective manner. And if a new play attempted to show all sides of a political debate it's easy to be accused of watering down how one really feels.


The generic definition of politics is 'who does what and how.' Or, as Ted Kennedy recently put it, 'Government is just another word for how we get things done.'

The politics of running for office is farcical theater itself and nearly impossible dramatize (exception: Gore Vidal's The Best Man). However, the politics of government, and more specifically, how government impacts our lives, is ripe for dramatization. Where is this generation's Grapes of Wrath? It wouldn't be an overtly political stand to show a family in the midst of a medical crisis that their insurance wouldn't cover. Yet doing so would push people to imagine possible solutions to such a crisis - which would inherently be a political solution.

If your looking for blame as to why our theaters don't create these types of productions, cast your gaze towards the theater schools that focus on the emotional dexterity involved in creating art at the expense of the intellectual foundation (i.e. those pesky college requirements involving math and history) which underlie arts formation. It was made very clear to me at my theater school that all but ignoring the wider liberal arts classes was socially acceptable to the professors as well as the students. How dumb.



At my alma mater the theatre major is actually a liberal arts degree. We had to take boatloads of liberal arts classes. It's a pretty well regarded school, but it's always struck me as odd (yet amusingly fitting) that the degree I got for studying theatre was a B.S.

Mark Jeffries

And let's not forget that, for the most part, when it comes to the sort of advocacy that I suspect Jason wants, with theater you're pretty much preaching to the choir. It's safe to say that 90 percent of the crowd that goes to NFP theaters has already decided who they're voting for--and it's not John McCain. (And in Jason's case, I think he already chased off the Skokie neo-cons to Northlight or Marriott a long time ago.)

Sorry, Jason, but I don't think that de-neutered Gogol further de-neutered by sitcom writer James Sherman is going to inspire the 10 percent of your audience already voting for Obama to go straight Democratic. And do you really want to be pissing off Bob Falls, BJ Jones, Martha Lavey, Jim Bohnen, Barbara Gaines and possibly Kevin Hagan just in case Washington doesn't work out? (Well, in Washington you may get Gaines to hire you for Shakespeare at CST.)

Finally, perhaps there are a lot of theatergoers that are sick and tired of politics and the campaign and while they may not want to turn off their brains, they don't want to go to the theater to see more politics.



My school was the same (I have a BS!), though I'm not sure I would describe the number of liberal arts classes required to be in the 'boatloads' category...eh, maybe. My point isn't towards what is required of the student, it's more of what is emphasized by the theater department. Obviously, if you're in the theater department, theater is the focus, and it should be. However, at my alma mater, that focus effectively de-emphasized the liberal arts classes to such a point that the students freely took the path of least resistance (and least learning). For all intents, we acted as though we were in a conservatory, not a liberal arts college. In conversations with many of my colleagues today, their experience was not all that different at the schools they attended. I’m glad to hear yours was different. Gives me hope.

General question for all, not just Ed - if you were lucky enough to be cast in a production during a semester, how well did you do in your other classes for that time period? Was there an attempt by the faculty to make allowances for your liberal arts school-work, or were you just expected to deal? I was the only person with arts-type degree in theater (meaning: not theater management, design, or similar) in my department to graduate with honors. Being a rather small theater department, our ceremony was combined with music and other fine arts. Their students seemed to have little difficulty graduating with honors - even the musicians who had performance commitments similar to ours. Why the difference?

I don’t mean to hijack the conversation, I just think it’s relatable to why theaters shy away from taking on bigger societal issues. I don’t think we understand them because many of us avoided learning about them. Many Directors, Writers, and Actors, can’t balance their checkbook. How can they be expected to interpret the financial crisis raining down on our heads today?


I also think Bilal is right on the money when he posits that what we consider to be political plays aren't, necessarily. One of the best political plays I know (when done well, that is) is The Crucible- the plot of which doesn't have much to do with contemporary politics, on the face of it.

While they weren't written to address American politics, some of Shaw's plays have pretty acerbic relevance to contemporary American politics and life. I kind of wish Remy Bumppo were doing Shaw this fall.

The other problem with overtly political plays is that they quickly become dated. "The Cradle Will Rock" and "Waiting for Lefty" were extremely political in their day, but aren't they essentially period pieces? Fun for actors to be in, perhaps fun for audiences to watch, but unable to engage on a visceral level because the concerns they raise aren't the concerns of the contemporary theatergoing audience- now the corrupt union is as much of a cliche as the corrupt industrialist, and the cruelty of early industrial society is unmatched (or at least better disguised) by the industry of today.

Kris has hit the nail right on the head- to fully produce a play from conception through development to full production takes a lot of time, money and energy these days. By the time you can shepherd a play all the way through those stages, the play may already be dated. I think improv and sketch comedy do it better- first because they take a page from Shaw's book- make the audience laugh, then get them right in the gut with your political statement while they've dropped their guard.

It's a shame. I think Martin has a point in that many places where artists learn to make theatre, their training doesn't tie their craft as clearly to the world outside the conservatory walls- many of us don't have the grounding in world events, the sense of an artist's social responsibility, etc. anymore. Also, as theatre loses ground to TV and film, the theatre becomes the least effective way of getting a political message across- why write a political play when my political screenplay will reach more people?

Nick Sandys

A good discussion of the possibilities and the problems of producing political theatre may have been all Jason was trying to generate anyway--and this he achieved! Good one! But I do have to take issue with the idea that Remy Bumppo's choice of The Voysey Inheritance is not a political one--in fact, it was the personal and ethical politics of the play that drove us to perform it in the "election" slot, without producing another overtly "political" piece--we did that last time with "The Best Man". After all, "Voysey" is a play that deals with corporate mismanagement of private savings funds, with the culture of entitlement by the younger generation who benefit from the the sins of the father, and the blindness of those making money to the debts that future generations will pay, all of which smacks of the current politico-economic moment. And the main characters' ethical dilemmas echo the current liberal's place in the debate, a debate framed within a capitalist economy which only exists by promoting exactly this type of "risk"(mis)management. "It's the economy, mate!"--and I cannot wait to see who is actually, truthfully going to tackle that political quicksand head on in the upcoming debates. Perhaps the government is just following the example of not-for-profit theatre, and hoping the shrinking pool of philanthropists will somehow magically appear and fund another 4-years of red ink.

bj jones

Great topic. Though I rarely weigh in on these issues in blogs, I want to congratulate you for recognizing the gestation period necessary to produce work in the institutional theatre. Indeed I am relieved that the fifth estate acknowledges the challenge of both recognizing an event or trend and the implementation of an artistic response to it. Shrewdly you recognized that Second City is better equipped to respond in hair trigger fashion to the swings of political and social upheaval than the sometimes lumbering schedules that institutions of size are committed to.
At Northlight, for instance, we commissioned David Bell and Craig Carnelia to adapt Studs Terkel’s Good War in 2002 as the talk of a war began to foment in Washington. I came back from an anti war march on the UN on February 15th, 2003 and immediately got the project rolling with David. The workshop for The Good War took place in January of 2004 and we produced it in the spring of that season. That commission and subsequent World Premier took 14 months and that is a fairly swift gestation period for a theatre of our size.
One can always be early to the party as well. During the production of his play Grace, I commissioned Craig Wright to write Lady, a play about 3 high school friends who in their middle age discover their political and social differences on a charged hunting trip in Southern Illinois. Lady was World Premiered here at Northlight in our 2006-07 season, has had 2 subsequent productions, and opened last week in New York‘s Rattlestick Theatre. Bang on timing I would say, for Rattlestick, if, perhaps a bit early for us. But to be this “of the moment,” the play had to be written 2 ½ years ago.
I suspect with the heat of Ms. Palin on the national stage, small theatres with nimble programming capabilities will be scrambling to produce Craig’s religious fundamentalist exploration Grace which we produced in the 2005-06 season. We are very proud that Lady found its way to New York and congratulate Craig Wright, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, and Dexter Bullard for their success and our small part in it.
Though we try to be prescient on events effecting our lives and communities, and indeed enact work to reflect our times, sometimes programmatic synchronicity eludes all of us. I trust that all artistic directors have and will continue to make contributions to the artistic canon and hope that timing is not the chief consideration in assessing artistic merit or relevance.
Again thanks for a thoughtful topic.

BJ Jones
Artistic Director
Northlight Theatre

David Darlow

As a member of Remy Bumppo I can only speak on behalf of our company. We choose our plays after a long and rigorous debate about the efficacy, relevance and entertainment value of each of our plays. Just as we picked The Best Man two seasons ago as a response to the mid-term elections, we considered the beginning of the demise of our financial institutions when we chose The Voysey Inheritance. Alan Greenspan called the collapse of the financial market "a once in a century event." It is a global debacle that has sent billions of dollars into the trash heap, created governmental bailouts and thousand of home foreclosures. Only two of the five largest investment banks still stand in NY. The Presidential campaign now hinges on "the economy, stupid." What could be more relevant this week, when Remy Bumppo is opening The Voysey Inheritance, than to talk about the ethical and moral dilemmas facing anyone that is in the business of finance. Yes, the play deals with a "small family business." But the issues at hand are far-reaching and are now being dealt with in every corner of the global financial market. It is a microscopic look at a universal problem. Greed is greed. Greed is not good as Michael Douglas reveled in "Wall Street." Financial mismanagement and inefficiency are still to be avoided. I invite Jason to come and see our production, spend some time thinking about the issues and themes explored therein, and then respond.

nic dimond

I'm rather shocked that Jason would "call out" other theatres around town, and not just for employment reasons. It's a mission thing, no? And while I spend a lot (too much?) of my personal time obsessing over the electoral map, the organization that I work for is certainly not required to behave the same way.
There's an interesting conversation happening about here about political qualifications and liberal arts schools and B.S. degrees and whatnot, and my feeling about artists and politics is similar to my feelings about pundits and politics - until I have confidence in the messenger, I'm not interested in more "junk mail" messages simply for the sake of "being in the conversation". No disrespect intended, but what have any of us done politically to make me think "I just gotta know what _____ theatre thinks about the election!"?
In my opinion theatre is about sharing stories of all kinds, and suggesting that we are shirking out duties if we don't all fall into election cycle programming every 4 years feels quite short sighted. I will close how I opened, by mentioning how shocked I am to see anyone calling anyone out over programming. Now, more coffee...

Nic Dimond
Artistic Director
Strawdog Theatre Company

Mark Jeffries

Well, considering the reviews "UN Inspector" got from the dailies, perhaps Jason was trying to divert people from the fact that he had a lousy show on his hands.

Hank Browne

To suggest that Remy Bumppo's Voysey Inheritance is not politically relevant is, on the one hand, at variance with all the others who have reviewed it, and on the other, rather myopic.

What do you want? A play about a bunch of Wall Street money grubbers who pay off Congress and the administration for their own personal aggrandizement at the expense of the tax payers and who cause a world wide financial crisis? Would there be any need to THINK?

Voysey is about putting self before all else. That should be close enough for you. In any event, not every play produced needs to be in your relevancy wheelhouse or that of anyone else.

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  • Kris Vire
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