The deep darkness

If a play says something in Minneapolis is it really ever heard?!!!

Vision

Someone once said to me that all plays are at the very core about something. The question is whether or not that something actually matters. We’re living in scary times. I’m not going to place my opinion concerning who one should vote for in this upcoming election, but this political race is perhaps the most important one to occur in this lifetime. We’re facing the possibility for transformation, for change in this country, and we as theater artists must do our part. In every corner of the world the theater is expected to be a moral compass pointing us in the direction of truth. Theater is a way of speaking truth to power, often when there is no other. People have been incarcerated, have been tortured, and have been killed because they have spoken truth through this craft and truth is a dangerous weapon. It seems to me that only in this great nation of the United States of America do we as theater artists cast aside our duties as messengers of justice and truth.

We’ve forgotten that theater has a long tradition of addressing the issues of the world. We’ve substituted the message and our duty as artists to address social and political realities with suburbanite ‘Honey Boo Boo’ theater. Only in the United States do living room couches and First World Problems dominate our center stage and get hailed by our greatest theatrical institutions as boundary-pushing works. No longer does it seem that the plays being produced in this country are bold in scope, epic in vision, and raging out against the injustices of the world. We pat each other on the back and feel as if we’ve made a major accomplishment by merely skimming the surface of the issue instead of charging forward deep into the dark ugliness. We as artists have a responsibility, but it seems to me that we are too scared to rattle cages, piss off subscribers, and call out our corporate donors. We’ve sold our souls. Just like MTV used to be about the music and is now tainted with The Real World and Jersey Shore.

Theater used to be about providing a message and impacting our community. Now it seems like we’re simply seeking the next big hit or wallowing in cutesy crossover concept crap dreamed up by drunken pitch meetings at three am (what happens if we mesh Romeo and Juliet with Friday the 13th or CSI), or meaningless “he said, she said” philosophical musings with no heart. It’s meaningless and not lasting.

Here’s some food for thought: historically, theater as we know it today was very political, in both Europe and the US. In the late 19th century, people were tired of seeing the rich bourgeoisie telling their fluff stories, so you had playwrights rising to the forefront like Ibsen and Shaw who were commenting on the changing times, the changing political scope, and helping mold some of the freedoms we have today in both America and the world.

I think it’s important to note that those plays we consider classics today, (Mother Courage, A Doll's House, Death of A Saleman, Press Cuttings), these are the plays we find timeless and study in school because the fight never ended. The same can be said about many other playwrights throughout the 20th century (Samuel Beckett, August Wilson and so on). America in the last 110 years has had so much political change, but for some reason our generation of theater artists hasn't stepped up. Are we lazy? Are we confused? Or do we just not know what to fight for?

Look around you, my fellow artists, the world is on the verge of imploding and you can either close your eyes to it, or set out on the mission that you signed on for when you took the sacred duty to be a theater artist. There is a reason why so many people, after they leave a show, the first thought on their minds is “where did we park the car?” It’s because we aren’t taking our responsibilities serious enough.

What are the real issues? Class and Race are two the United States likes to ignore. We like to believe that those issues have been settled with the Civil Rights movement but it’s not true and it’s our job as artists to speak on them. Who’s at fault that Minneapolis theater doesn't really touch on those issues? I could call out that it’s a trickle down mentality. Because the Guthrie doesn't stand up and speak out against injustices in the world our smaller theater companies often times get tainted with the idea that if they do theater about real issues then their work won't sell. Or maybe the fault falls upon us, perhaps it’s that whole passive aggressive Minnesota thing or a fear of ruffling feathers or offending a possible friend or ticket buyer. I feel as if the Guthrie and smaller theaters not "charging forward into the deep darkness" would say it's not because they're afraid, or intimidated, but because that's just not the kind of work they do. But doesn't that send a political message, intended or not? If you only do plays about the problems of rich white people, aren't you saying those are the only problems that matter?

Theater now, like everything else in this great nation, is more concerned with box-office figures and profit margins than artistic matters. Theater that is deemed "political" has, in fact, become something of a dirty word for audiences and producers. The theater that will do justice to our political reality will never make money because it will never be simple.

I could point out the flaws in our collective Minnesota nice philosophy towards art, but instead, allow me to offer some examples of theater companies and works that are pushing beyond the small first world problems. These theaters are truly taking their responsibilities and duties as theater artists seriously...and why we should all hope to be artists like these. Pangea World Theater, Ten Thousand Things, Mixed Blood and Red Eye Theater stick their necks out and do potentially unmarketable work. I believe that these companies actually realize that, contrary to what so many people suspect, audiences like to be challenged. However, American theater cannot simply be healed by the work of a few companies. For theater to rise to its greatest potential, it will take commitment from companies across the country to be brave, keep the profits to the minimum and the discussions moving forward. I wonder if companies in this city will ever have the backbone to join that fight.

Comments

On "Political Plays"

Mr. Edmund,
I want to preface my comments by saying that I love theater. I love that this is a conversation we can have, because it invites so many questions about life. I’m sometimes an actor, sometimes a writer & a theater-goer here in the Twin Cities. I would like to, in the humble spirit of civility, fundamentally disagree with your thesis here. I do not believe the Twin Cities theater companies ‘lack backbone’ in the politically charged theatrical arena. There are a myriad of perspectives of what Theater is and should do, so I welcome any and all disagreement here. If I totally missed the point of your article, let me know, as antagonism is not my priority here. All Art (Theater included) is a very hard thing to pin down because it’s often for deeply intimate personal reasons that we connect with certain types of stories; it’s almost beyond our conscious and rational grasp. This is not a disclaimer so much as a fact I’ve come to realize that needs to be stated when discussing anything regarding the Arts because conversations can turn sour and salacious quickly.
In my humble opinion, there should be no such thing as a political play.
Politics today have become brazenly theatrical. You can’t tell me that those ‘debates’ aren't just performances that have been rehearsed rigorously & to a fault. They've been so rehearsed that rarely does a candidate convincingly and directly answer another’s question. I think both parties are to blame in that respect. If there’s a negative to point out, it’s that some of the rehearsed ‘debates’ have been more wildly entertaining/engaging than a few of the plays I saw in the Twin Cities last year. If plays are 'political' in any sense, it is because they are dealing directly with, as David Foster Wallace quipped; “what it means to be a fucking human being.” Politics are a big part of what it means to be human in these contemporary times. We can’t ignore context in our Theater. Political issues will appear in our work at times, but if they don’t explicitly, it doesn't mean we’re unconscious and unfaithful to the ‘sacred duty of the theater artist’. Perhaps the most obvious, glaring political issue is the Marriage Amendment that will be voted on next week. There have been several plays centered on this issue recently produced in the Twin Cities; plays that have provided thoughtful reflection and passionate reaction. An example is Matthew Everett’s play “But Not for Love”. “But Not for Love” transcends the political play genre because it treats its’ characters with genuine dignity and respect, even the ones you might want to punch in the face. The play transcends “Angry-Opinion-Rant-Play!” because of its understanding of human value/equality. That’s what the play and Marriage Amendment are ultimately about. The play is full of justice and truth and empathy and all those things that cynical people like me generally gag at. It makes cynical people a little less cynical.
Based on this one example (and there are many others), it seems highly speculative & short-sighted to say that “only in America do theater artists cast aside (their) duties as messengers of justice and truth.” There is truth being spoken. There is light being shined onto the political issues of our day. For the few examples of 'trite' concept theater that I've seen in the TC, there are twice as many valiant attempts to interact with challenging topics and aspects of reality. And by saying, "The Theater that will do justice to our political reality will never make money because it will never be simple" you've essentially implied that our audience, our fellow Twin Cities friends and neighbors are too dense to understand the complexity of today’s political realities presented through our Theater. The collective audience in the TC is a smart bunch. We need to show them the utmost respect, especially if we’re dealing with divisive material like politics. You did talk about the complexity of these issues and I think because of this complexity we need Theater more than ever. We need diverse perspectives from all sorts of ethnicities and genders throwing their names in the ring. We need as much of the breadth of human experience contributing to the Arts as possible. This is because the political issues are truly human issues at their core, though often diluted and buried in advertising and alienating propaganda. Theater should seek to overthrow propaganda and not indulge the divisive “I’m right because I’m talking louder than you now!” attitude which seems pervasive in today’s political discourse. When putting on our plays, it’s far too easy to invite like-minded people to come cheer on our opinions. It’s easy to get your friends riled up on your behalf. I don’t think anything should be unanimous. A world where everyone believes the same things strikes me as a terrifying Orwellian nightmare. Likewise, Theater that only affirms its’ own opinions is solipsistic and in many ways fascistic. The notion that plays have to be ‘simple’ to make money is a misunderstanding of the theatrical exchange. Yes, people need to be challenged, confronted, and have the safety nets yanked out from under them sometimes, but people also need to be entertained. They also need to be told a story. Theater isn’t solely a vehicle for social change. It can be & sometimes it should be; but never should its sole purpose be to get people to change their minds. We need more theater that focuses on changing hearts. Theater that grapples with the complexity of living as human animals in the year 2012, while weaving our stories through the ancient, trusted loom of “drama” as Aristotle defined it. We need better stories here in Minnesota. We need more writers here. And we need more diversity in our perspectives and storytelling.
However, we simply can’t be unbiased when creating Theater, because everyone involved is always lugging the baggage of their lives with them into the room. The same goes for the audience. Your idea that contemporary theater isn’t bold in scope or epic is a really relative, general statement. Our current Theater isn’t epic compared to what? Does it mean a play’s “Setting” is the criterion that makes it epic? Does it mean a character’s Class and Occupation alone make its scope broad? I would argue it’s a mysterious synthesis of character, plot & theme. We can’t forget context (historical, social, economical) either. Is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” ‘Honey Boo Boo’ because the characters are white and rich and walk around a couch? Nope. They walk around the couch because the couch is the battleground for those characters and the lies they tell themselves and each other. It’s political because it’s human, but not for the sake of an agenda. Neither are the other plays you mentioned are strictly ‘political’ by any literal sense of the definition. (Godot, A Doll’s House, Death of a Salesman). Those works are enduring because they have value for the human experience. Those works are political in that they have value for the human experience. The same goes for Shakespeare. Political ideologies will change but people will be the same. Sometimes good. Sometimes evil. Usually both.
Maybe we could get better at asking the tough questions and not being afraid to expose ourselves as monsters if that’s what we discover to be true. Remember in “Doubt” when Mrs. Muller (mother of the young boy who is suspected to be the victim of Father Flynn’s sexual advances) comes to Sister Aloysius and basically says her son should keep an assumed sexual relationship with Father Flynn? There’s too much going on in that scene to explain here but that’s a ‘Holy Shit-so-this-is-what-Theater-is’ moment, at least it was for me. Transcendent. Just one example of illuminating the darkness by diving into the darkness. That’s asking the hard questions. The same questions the ancient Playwrights asked in Greece. These questions aren’t about perpetuating a certain agenda, they are about the confrontation with belief and doubt in human societal constructs. This scene is so powerful, so painful, so challenging. It's political theater if there ever has been, because it challenges the core of my beliefs about good/evil in the world. And it takes place with 2 people sitting at a desk in a Catholic Church in the 1960’s.

Who can we trust? Who can we believe? And at what cost to ourselves? Or, as Sister Aloysius comes to ask; can I even trust myself?
If we prioritize those types of questions, shouldn’t we get ‘politics’ thrown in? Shining a light in the dark doesn’t mean shining “my light on your darkness” or vice versa. It may mean exposing a weak opinion or destructive life-choice, but it should hold its’ own opinion up to the same scrutiny. I totally agree that we must delve into the dark, but we must do this willing to ask the potentially offensive & horrifying questions; questions that transcend political ideologies, questions that probe the soul, questions that stir people up enough to form legitimate & empathetic opinions about the political issues in their cultures.

I think the people know what to fight for here in the TC, but Theater isn’t a battle for who wins and who’s right or who converts the most people to their side. It's about digging up the unseen. And it's messy and complicated. I'd love to discuss more.
Cheers to everyone who is engaged in such a conversation, especially you Mr. Edmund. It takes balls to make any kind of Theater. Kudos.