Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Public Enemy

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, James Carter.

Recently Athol Fugard “berated dramatists” (will the overhyped online headlines never cease?) for failing to confront injustice. He, like those before him, scolds writers who take on more lucrative projects in film and television, and he suggests that these sister mediums are “passive experience.” There is a paragraph where Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, disagrees with Fugard, but there aren’t many details. Fugard does praise David Hare for his fight against injustice, and he suggests several global topics that are intriguing and valid. However, as I finished the article, I asked the question: Why doesn’t he write these plays?

To be clear – I love Athol Fugard. When I was in high school, I performed a cutting of his Master Harold…and the Boys as part of speech competition, and the first time I read that play I burst out crying. I lived and loved that play all the way to state finals. He is an activist, a director and a phenomenal dramatist. The respect I have for what he does is huge.

That’s why I’m so disappointed. Mr. Fugard obviously hasn’t been to see any theatre OOB in the past nine years. From the start of these despicable wars, I have seen more anti-war plays than anti-war films. The anti-establishment sentiments in theatre are so strong I’ve grown weary of them. Just as people have grown weary of the wars. This isn’t meant to rip apart Mr. Fugard’s opinion. His experience and reputation far outweigh my humble career. It is, however, easy to complain about the lack of political plays, overlooking a more important question:

Do political plays become irrelevant when they continually preach to the choir?

The real reason social change in the theatre is ineffective is because it often plays to an audience who agrees with the themes or messages. This also goes for film and television. Most drama confronting injustices are now passive because audiences have heard it all before. When it comes to film and television, people who want to see politically charged stories will Netflix or TiVo them (Let’s be real here – no one goes to the movies to see an anti-war film. They rent or record them).

A few years back, I went to a festival of “political theater” at the Ohio Theater, and all of the pieces I saw were slightly subversive, quickly & cheaply produced, and very, very leftist. I remember sitting there thinking, “Who is this festival for? Are any of these companies really effecting change in the community?”

Then, stuck onto the end of the evening, like drunken Uncle Harry, who happened to show up at the party and wanted to give a toast, was “The Right Wing.” Not the entire Right Wing, mind you, just a few viewpoints. A couple monologues and vignettes about abortion, the war and the economy. Mostly, social issues. All pushing back hard against an audience that didn’t agree at all.

I was one of those who didn’t agree. I laughed it off. I thought it was a piece of shit theatre (it was poorly done). But then I saw people talking, reacting, and getting riled up. It was the highlight of post show conversation. Taylor Mac had performed at the beginning of the night, and most people were asking “How did this conservative piece end up in a festival about politics?”

It was beautiful.

It was the first time I saw a New York theatre audience think about their politics. It made people discuss issues, rather than heading to the bar after the show and patting each other on the back for a “job well done” for “sticking it to the man”. I have no way to gauge the percentage of political plays produced in New York every year, but my guess is that of those political plays, over 90% of carry a leftist view. I’m not suggesting everyone go out and write plays supporting the Republicans, The Tea Party or fundamental religious groups. I’m suggesting we stop preaching to the choir. These plays are not effective in the echo chamber of liberalism. One of our foremost political playwrights doesn’t even hear the messages anymore. They are caught in the cacophony of leftist messages from people who don’t know how to propagate their message.

Granted, there are theaters across the world that are choosing seasons to placate subscribers, and Mr. Fugard’s argument that theaters are more concerned with the bottom line than facilitating change is spot on. What would happen, though, if political plays really took their message to the people?

About six years ago, The Imagination Liberation Front produced a play at Performance Space 122 titled I’m Gonna Kill the President: A Federal Offense. It was a huge success, and people loved it for the subversive and leftist outlandish antics. At the end of the play, they brought an audience member onstage and made her take out a cell phone and call the “White House.” At which point, the entire audience yelled in unison: “I’m Gonna Kill the President!” Not only was it political, it was funny and pushed peoples’ buttons on many levels. People left the show feeling a little unnerved, more supported in their beliefs that President Bush’s regime were full of assholes, and very entertained. In the end, though, I wonder if anyone was really stirred to action.

Cut to two years later: I’m Gonna Kill… goes on tour. The company packs themselves into a van and hit the heartland: Kalamazoo, Michigan. They present the play, and it all goes as planned – until the end. After the phone call to the White House, “FBI agents” (actors) storm the location and “arrest” the entire cast. The cast is handcuffed, the audience requested to exit the theater. That’s supposed to be the end of the play. Everyone goes home. But, one audience member wasn’t about to go quietly. He began to argue with the “FBI agents” and other audience members began arguing with him. Punches were thrown and a fight ensued. The producers had to talk the audience down, insisting what they’d experienced was part of the show. Finally, embarrassed and disheveled, the man backed down, and the play was truly over.

When was the last time you went to the theatre and there was a fist fight? Or, an argument? Or, even a heated discussion?

Danny Hoch’s most recent show Taking Over played The Public Theater a couple seasons back, and the play dealt with gentrification, primarily. The performance I attended was dead quiet. The lack of audience response was palpable. I enjoyed the show, but I felt a disconnect between Danny and the audience. A couple months before his engagement at The Public, Danny performed the play as part of the Hip Hop Theater Festival in The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. I had the opportunity to ask Danny how those shows differed from the performances he gave at The Public. The difference, he said, was huge. In the boroughs, Danny was playing to his audience, his crowd. When a character in the play, a native New Yorker, yelled at those gentrifying, Danny said the hometown crowd cheered the character on. At The Public, he was “public enemy.”

It’s important for us to be public enemy, and we won’t do that by staying in black boxes in downtown NYC where our 10 friends, 4 family members and a couple strangers cheer us on. We need to take it to the unconverted. If you have a play about the economy, figure a way to do it on the steps of The Federal Reserve or in front of the bull statue on Wall Street. A play about war? Find a way to do it next to an Army recruiting center. Have a great idea about a satire on Barak Obama being a Muslim? Do it in Alabama. Just don’t get shot.

OOB doesn’t just mean small, it doesn’t just mean scrappy, it doesn’t just mean New York City. It means doing theatre the big boys won’t touch. When New York Theatre Workshop wouldn’t put up My Name is Rachel Corrie, members of LAByrinth Theatre company met at a bar across the street from the theater and read excerpts of the play in protest. It wasn’t a production, but it took the controversy directly to the doorstep of injustice.

The only way to bring change is to raise awareness, and when we produce plays and share them for people who are already aware, it might as well be falling on deaf ears. We don’t need more plays confronting injustice. We need to take the plays fighting injustice to those causing injustice.

It's a start, a work of art
To revolutionize make a change nothin's strange
People, people we are the same
No we're not the same
Cause we don't know the game
What we need is awareness, we can't get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness (Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say... Fight the Power

“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy, 1989


  1. THIS. This is what I'm talkin about!

    To be fair, I think preaching to the choir has its place; the choir can get complacent, and a good political play CAN snap you out of it and get you to go home and google the issues and maybe sign up for a mailing list that will keep you a bit more involved. This doesn't happen all the time or even most of the time, but it does happen.

    And it's also delicious to be public enemy on OOB or OB soil. That's a reason I love Young Jean Lee's CHURCH: much like Danny Hoch's play, CHURCH attacks the crimes of which people in the audience are probably guilty (spending too much on food, complaining, smoking, etc). And we don't like to be told that we've done something wrong. We feel most comfortable and self-congratulatory with theater that we think will change the world without changing us. I also enjoyed Susan Bernfield's STRETCH for this reason, because it didn't tread the very tired ground of skewering Nixon; it was basically an homage, which is also delightfully uncomfortable (to me).

    But, when you've written a political play that will leave most of your lefty audience perfectly comfortable and content, by all means, take it somewhere that will get shaken up about it. I'm just not convinced that our comfortable, content lefty audience doesn't need shaking up too.

  2. Thanks, Mariah. All too often I feel playwrights aren't confronting their audiences.

    As Eduardo Machado said, "I beg you let us stop being afraid of the audience. They are supposed to be afraid of us."

    When audiences question themselves - whether it is political, emotional or moral - theatre truly works.

  3. I think politics and art go hand in hand. There is a great site ( that talks about how politics influences art and how art influences politics and it interviews some of the artists that you have mentioned, Taylor Mac especially. Artists use their creativity to define their places in the world, while building and sometimes healing a community. They are bold risk-takers who deliver political messages and sometimes break the rules, but often with a healthy dose of humor.

  4. Wow, this was a really good post. I just bookmarked this blog, purely on the strength of this post.

    I am a conservative person in theatre, and I have always felt my political & social views to be completely unwelcome. I am forbidden by the culture of theatre to bring up my thoughts, or to chime in on a conversation.

    The question that I always want to ask is this: if we woke up one day, and there was not a single play written by a female playwright? Not under-represented, but zero? Wouldn't that be a problem? Of course it would, and we (as a theatre community) would be falling all over ourselves to make sure that a female voice was heard--and with good reason, too. What if we suddenly realized that there were no female directors, no female actors, no female producers? It would be awful. We would instantly recognize that excluding half of the population of the country from participating in the artistic discussion would be a travesty.

    The same thing applies to any ethnic, racial, religious, or any other kind of group. If there were no Jewish plays, or gay playwrights, or African-American actors, we would rightly recognize it as a problem that would need to be corrected.

    So my question is this: with nearly half of our country self-identifying as politically conservative, where are the conservative playwrights? The conservative plays? The conservative actors, directors, or producers? Can you name even one?

    Why isn't this considered a problem?

  5. Daniel:

    Thanks for your thoughts. The point of the piece was that we need to take our political plays to the people who are causing injustice instead of sitting around patting ourselves on the back, being self righteous. If left wing theatre needs to head to the heartland, where right wingers reside, conservative theatre-makers, likewise, need to stand up in the heartland of those leaning left: New York City.

    It's about courage. Stand up for what you believe in. And, do it in the lion's den. You're not "forbidden by the culture of theatre to bring up my thoughts, or to chime in on a conversation." You are scared. I hope that doesn't come off as too aggressive, but the same goes for liberal artists who work in a political echo chamber.

    The only way for us to even attempt to understand each other is to listen to each other, but if you won't speak up, who will? If you believe passionately about something, let it be known.

    You mentioned women in theatre. Interestingly, (and you may already know this) there is a movement called “50/50 in 2020” Their aim is to insure 50% of the plays produced professionally are written by women playwrights by the year 2020. There is outrage about this issue, and people are doing something about it. Likewise, if you feel you are being underrepresented in your community, seek out like minds. Start a theatre company with them - or at least put up a show reflecting your ideals. It may be difficult, but if you truly want to see a change in the landscape of theatre, it's the only way it will happen.

    Change starts with you.

    And, maybe Google. I just typed in "conservative theatre" into the search engine, and there were 1480 hits. It may not be a lot, but it's a start. Here's a few more articles tackling the debate.

    You take it from here.

  6. Does context matter, in terms of this discussion of political theater? Seems like most of the examples are in USA and the UK, in English-language productions.

    I wanted to bring attention a different kind of political theater: Belarus Free Theater, based in Minsk. I have worked with them in Belarus, and I helped co-produce the Norwegian premiere of their play "Discover Love" at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo.

    This play is written by the company's director, Nikolai Khalezin, and is performed in Russian. For the Norwegian audience, English subtitles were projected for the piece.

    The story is based on real events from the life of Irina Krasovskaya, whose husband (Anatoly) disappeared and later was murdered for supporting democracy in Belarus.
    Belarus Free Theater, since its inception in 2004, has literally been threatened and imprisoned on multiple occasions. Belarus still has a KGB. Working undercover, KGB members may attend a performance of a Free Theater show, and then arrest the entire audience. Or take pictures of everyone there, telling them that they and their families are in danger.
    Most recently, one of the colleagues of Belarus Free Theater was murdered 4 days before they came to Oslo for the performance.
    Days after performing "Discover Love" in Norway, Mr. Khalezin was threatened with murder by an anonymous source (by email), for supporting human rights and for investigating the murder of their friend a week earlier.

    How many actors in New York or London have been arrested on a regular basis for doing experimental theater?

    Belarus Free Theater is seeking to inspire democracy in their country through theater, acts of freedom of expression, acts of freedom of assembly, and through raising awareness of how other people in the world are living, right now, through their theater art.

    Natalia Koliad, the company's co-founder, put it this way: "We are trying to bring attention to people who are in jail, right now. Who are not being given justice or the rule of law. That is what our plays are about. That is why we exist."

    Further, the work of Belarus Free Theater is of the highest performance and dramaturgical quality. This is not agitprop, this is not something that audiences "appreciate" but do not respect. This is theater that is bold, gutsy, strong, and with a kind of valor that I wish more companies would emulate. After the performance of "Discover Love" that I co-produced in Oslo, the audience was balling with tears. Many registered with our co-producer, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee for human rights, wanting to get more involved in helping instill democracy and universal human rights in places like Belarus and beyond.

    It's like the point you brought up in your blog post, about asking, 'When was the last time you got into an argument or a heated discussion after a play?" I would add to that another question: when was the last time a play motivated you into direct political action that went beyond intellectual concern? It's one thing to be moved by a play that deals with political issues; its quite another to risk your life, and your family's life (literally), like Belarus Free Theater, for a cause that is political and humanitarian.

    I don't know of companies or theater artists that are taking the kinds of risks in their lives or in their art, like these Belarussians are, for example. Do we have causes that ignite us to the same degree, as Americans? What are American theater artists willing to sacrifice, willing to risk?

    Thank for the blog post, and the comments. Really stimulating food for thought.


    Brendan McCall

    Director, Ensemble Free Theater Norway

  7. Brendan,

    Thanks for your response to the post, and congratulations for working under such a threatening and oppressive regime. I haven't ever done this, and it's extremely admirable.

    Theatre that truly fights against injustices as you describe is extreme and noble. It's the kind of theatre on which Mr. Fugard, who started this whole dialogue, cut his teeth as a younger playwright. I believe that is part of his disenchantment with theatre that fights against injustices. The stakes aren't as high as they use to be.

    In the United States, we have freedom of speech. It's a right afforded to us by the Constitution. The UK also has a strong recent tradition of allowing its citizens to speak their minds without much repercussion. This is fortunate, but it also gives the illusion that the fight isn't as important or impacting as it could be. Artists become complacent, presenting work in the echo chamber and not pushing change. As I mentioned to my response to Daniel, theatre fighting injustice needs to exit the echo chamber and enter the lion's den. You are doing that. Ensemble Free Theater is risking life and imprisonment to fight against huge injustices. In the US and UK, the lions' teeth may not be as sharp or ruthless as they are in Belarusm, but they still have teeth.

    To answer your questions:

    I don't think we have causes that ignite us to the same degree, as Americans. And that is a good thing. It means people who sacrificed their lives, freedom, and status did a good job. They set the stage for us to take it and have freedom to speak our minds without fear of death or imprisonment. Still, there are many people out there ready to swipe those rights out from underneath us, and I fear someday we may flip to a fascist regime that suppresses the will of the people. Artist must continue creating theatre that questions and challenges these lions, or the freedoms we hold dear (take for granted?) can be robbed from us.

    What are American theater artists willing to sacrifice, willing to risk? Until one’s personal rights are threatened, probably not much. Americans are a very selfish bunch, and usually an issue must affect one's personal existence, before we sacrifice. It's a rare person, like yourself, who is passionate about and willing to travel to another country and fight for rights other than her/his own. We need more of you. Keep up the good work.

    However, the work that theatre artists do in the US or UK shouldn’t be minimized. They are sustaining the freedoms of past sacrifices, and unless we have those artists speaking their minds, we may all very well find ourselves fighting for our very lives. And, I don’t think anyone wants that.

    Godspeed to you in your mission, Brendan. You’re setting the stage for future generations to receive freedoms we already enjoy.