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.