Forgive me for a moment, my Minnesota audience, but I must take a moment to lament something happening in my home state of Illinois. Last week, the founder of the Neo-Futurists, Greg Allen, announced that his creation, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind will end its run in Chicago. This is surprising on a number of levels. TMLMTBGB is the longest-running show in Chicago's history, and Allen hasn't even been a member of the company he founded for almost five years. This decision was especially surprising to the Neo-Futurists, since Allen didn't bother to inform them of his decision before announcing it.
If you're not familiar with this weekly show, it's hard to explain. The company performs 30 short plays in 60 minutes. The plays are written by the performers, and the lineup of shows shifts every week (not to mention the cast cycling over the decades-long run). Ticket prices are determined by a random roll of a die. If the show sells out, or if the players fail to perform the show in 60 minutes, the audience gets pizza. The plays, in fitting with the neo-futurist philosophy, were all true, personal from the cast and were performed in a random order selected by the audience. It's a blast.
True Personal Story #1: When I was attending Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, I was a member of a performance group that copied the TMLMTBGB format. It was fun, and I learned a lot about being a writer, a performer and a generally empathetic human being.
True Personal Story #2: Several years ago, I had lunch sitting across a cafeteria table with Greg Allen at a national theater conference. Before I could tell him True Story #1 and let him know what a positive impact his original idea had on me, he launched into a diatribe about how he was actively trying to kill any show that vaguely resembled the TMLMTBGB format. What particularly stuck in his craw was "this college group down in Decatur" that he had tried to shut down. He was not able to sue us into oblivion because the group had not performed any of the original material created by the Neo-Futurists, and this absolutely enraged him. Over the course of this conference, I would run into Greg Allen several more times, and the most important thing I learned about Greg Allen in those run-ins is that Greg Allen is primarily concerned with one thing: Greg Allen. This explains a lot about his vision of neo-futurism.
(Also, a big shout-out to my alma mater for apparently batting away this threat and letting us go on with our merry learning without knowing that Allen would have snuffed us out of existence if he had the chance. What can I say, Millikin? You're constantly badgering me for money, but you did let me get away with an awful lot. If there's anyone out there who misunderstands what the term "safe space" actually means, well, there you go.)
Of course, Allen can't force the Neo-Futurists to change anything about the production other than the name. As he learned from trying to shut down my college production and others, you can copyright content, but not a form; otherwise, there would be an awful lot of sitcom producers paying royalties to Jackie Gleason.
I could sit here and talk for quite a while about Greg Allen's history of unrelenting narcissism and controlling behavior (it's all the rage these days, you know), but the real reason I bring this up has to do with Allen's stated reason for pulling the show from Chicago: "I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism. I was searching for an artistic response to the firestorm to come and realized I had to put my strongest artistic foot forward to combat the Trump administration and all of its cohorts.”
So, let's ignore for a second the fact that Allen didn't pull his licensing for TMLMTBGB from the other Neo-Futurist chapters in New York and San Francisco (an omission that sure makes it seem like he really just wanted to stick it to the Chicago company that ousted him as a member in 2011) and take him at his word. Is theater able to fight back against Trump?
Oh, you mean Hamilton, right?
No, Header Title, I don't just mean Hamilton. Can we talk about anything at the intersection of theater and politics today that doesn't revolve around Hamilton?
OK, you're right. We can't. Even with all the hype, the hip-hop musical that took over Broadway actually is a once-in-a-generation revolution of American theater, but we can't just myopically focus on it, no matter how many tweets Donald Trump farts out at three in the morning. The sudden shift in the political climate necessitates a new way of looking at the theater we produce, and maybe even a reason why we produce anything. Like it or not, we're staring down the barrel of a crap-ton of political theater in the next four years. We should probably get our motivations sorted out.
What's my motivation?
American Theatre Magazine has been delving into this question by asking theater makers across the country about what they think we should be doing, and, boy, did they respond. So much so that ATM had to split up the deluge of responses into two separate long articles. (Here's Part 1, and here's Part 2.) I've read through all of them, and, to be honest, they're all the same things that visionary theater people have been proposing and envisioning since I first started learning in my college theater history classes that "visionary theater people" exist.
Folks like playwright Mike Wiley raise rousing cries like "We must speak unabashed truth to power. Because help is not on the way. Because we are the light. We are the connective tissue holding it all together as the body politic, the beloved community, is under siege," only to be followed by someone like Artistic Director Chay Yew with sobering comments like "I fear that we, the American theatre, may have been preaching to the converted for too long. We’ve become as polarized as our nation. Our audiences also tend to belong to a homogeneous class, education, philosophy, and often politics; we as a field can be elitist and too removed from the rest of the country." All at once we're supposed to be fierce, fighting partizans and empathetic bridge builders, simultaneously breaking out the ammunition and throwing out olive branches.
And then you find things like this: Playwright Dominique Morisseau quoted a friend as saying, “I don’t understand why you’re so outraged NOW. My people have been under attack for numerous administrations in this country and no one seems outraged by that.”
And there's the rub. In truth, the world didn't change on November 8. It's just that a lot of us didn't want to notice how bad a lot of things still were, especially if those bad things weren't happening directly to us. (The Guardian is right: everything we're experiencing as a culture at large was already played out in microcosm during the Gamergate clusterfuck and most people didn't care then, because it wasn't happening to them.) For god's sake, Andrew Lloyd Webber owns half the theaters in London, and he just now noticed that there is a lack of diversity in theater.
But, if there's one thing I learned from this election, it's that I don't have the luxury of criticizing Sir Andrew for his late state of wakefulness. Many a struggle has been lost by a party fighting over who agrees with their principles harder. So, while it's fair to say that this lack of diversity is in part Webber's own fault, at least now someone who has some power to make changes is coming around to the truth, and we're going to need every bit of that we can get if we're going to make it to a new golden age of musicals (hopefully without Webber trying to make another sequel to Phantom of the Opera).
So, what do we do exactly?
Listen, Header Title, I don't know. I don't think anyone does. The only thing I know for sure is that theater does have the power to convey the otherwise unseen stories in our society; and, at it's best, make us want to be better people. So, keep doing that, I guess.
Oh, and if you do manage to bridge that gap to another person with your powerful piece of theater, don't turn around and be a dick to them for not getting the message sooner. If someone wants to be on your side, let them be on your side.
Make sure to celebrate the victories that you do get. For example, the Guthrie, under it's new leadership and with a new mandate to expand its audience base and provide new, responsive programming, didn't lose any money doing it. That's something to build on. Hopefully, they'll keep pushing in that direction.
And don't forget your sense of humor. It's the one thing that narcissistic bullies on power trips can't stand. I'll get you started: here's a New York City street performer who impersonates Mike Pence while wearing tiny, tiny shorts. Yes, he calls himself "Mike Hot-Pence." You're welcome.