Imports and exports

In the last couple of weeks of News and Notes, I have been delighted to tout Minnesota's burgeoning theater export economy. This trend continues apace with the discovery that our own Theatre Latte Da will be sending its acclaimed, stripped-down version of Ragtime to opposite ends of the nation, first in October at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle and then again in May of 2018 at Asolo Rep in Sarasota. The Minnesota cast won't be on this swing across the nation, but Latte Da's Peter Rothstein will be flown in to direct both productions. Ragtime is a pretty relevant musical for our current times, but the classic production of it calls for dozens of actors on a large set, making it a bit too pricy for most companies to want to tackle. Since Rothstein has found a way to bend that cost curve, you may see more life out of this version in the years to come.

However, we do have a bit of news that balances out this seeming theater trade surplus with the rest of the country. The Hennepin Theatre Trust just announced Mark Nerenhausen as its new President and CEO. Nerenhausen comes to the Cities after a career of leading all types of arts centers across the country, but he originally hails from right over the border in the land of cheese-eating brandy-swillers: Wisconsin.

Finally, in this week's import/export tally, we have the opening of the new Woody Harrelson/Lorna Dern movie, Wilson, which was filmed here in Minnesota, back in 2015. If you don't remember that, just think back to that summer when everyone was competing in the sport of Woody spotting (by the way, the hands-down winner of that game was the the picture of Harrelson talking to MPD officers while wearing pot leaf socks. This entry is kind of importing and exporting at the same time, since we imported $4 million of spending from the production company that made the film, and exported $1 million back to them through the state's Snowbate program. We were also able to finally show the world a slice of Minnesota that's not a frozen wasteland, and in return, we get an up-to-date film where Minnesotans can play "I Know Where That Place Is!" It's about time, too: Fargo and Grumpy Old Men are moving into the age where that game becomes "Remember When That Place Used to Be There?"

Begone, Foreigner

I know that in Trump's America, we're supposed to be rejecting foreigners, but I think the message got a little garbled on its way to New Prague, Minnesota. No, they're not rejecting the British rock band, Foreigner. Never you worry, real rock fans; "Juke Box Hero" will be playing on the local classic rock station until the heat death of the universe. Instead, they're rejecting The Foreigner, the 1983 comedic play by Larry Shue. New Prague High School was set to open their production of the play this weekend, but when a student posted a picture online of cast members in KKK robes, the school swooped in and yanked the play, citing the fact that there are “students and adults who are uncomfortable with that part of history.”

If you're not familiar with the play, it's the story of an Englishman pretending to be a foreigner from an "exotic" land who speaks no English while staying in a small town in Georgia. His ruse exposes all sorts of ignorance of and belligerence toward foreigners in America, and he eventually uncovers a nefarious plot by the local KKK chapter in a series of increasingly improbable encounters that you only find in these kinds of wacky farces. It's an old theatrical staple at this point, possibly having achieved "chestnut" status after being performed at what seems like 143% of all high schools and community theaters in America. (It even had a successful limited revival Off-Broadway in 2004 with Matthew Broderick.)

I can't help but remember the flap in New York last year at Tappan Zee High School, when the school cancelled their production of The Producers over images of Nazi swastikas in the set. (The stage musical of The Producers, by the way, premiered on Broadway in 2001 with Matthew Broderick in a lead role; geez, what is it with Matthew Broderick and these incredibly offensive shows?!) Then, just as now, it was an out-of-context picture that sparked the controversy.

I had some things to say about that back then, mostly about how people were railroading right over the context of the piece and doing themselves a disservice in the process. I believe it went something like "This is a patently ridiculous concept rife with opportunities for comedy, and in the course of that comedy understand better our own reactions to such symbols and maybe, just maybe confront the latent fear and bigotry in humanity".

Now, I won't defend The Foreigner with as much passion as I might The Producers, since Larry Shue's play hasn't really aged well, and the central premise of a white European adopting a fake foreign "hoodoo" culture (the play's words, not mine) is a tad problematic today; but I think the idea that context is really important still stands. Like so many other cancelled high school productions before it, this controversy does not arise from the substance of the piece. The Foreigner does not promote the KKK anymore than The Producers promotes Nazism. The Klansmen in the show are the villains, ignorant thugs and buffoons who get their comeuppance in the end; but all of that context will now be lost on the parents at New Prague High School. All they will know is that "the KKK play" got cancelled just in the nick of time.

In the meantime, the only lesson I fear that the students will learn (aside from the age-old teenage lesson of never, ever letting your elders know what you're up to) is that the symbols of hate are the actual problem, and that merely banishing those symbols is enough to deal with the hate. You can see the fallout of that logic in modern hate-mongers claiming that they're not actually hate-mongers because they don't use the symbols of their predecessors. After all, if Richard Spencer doesn't use the symbology of the Third Reich, he can't possibly be a Nazi, right? If they don't wear white hoods, then they're "patriots", not "Klansmen", right?

No! That's not right at all! Context is everything, kids.

Struggling with Why?

Wow, that's a lot of heavy stuff to hang on a play that is, essentially, just another slightly outdated wacky farce in the vast canon of Western literature's slurry of outdated wacky farces. Sorry, everyone. There's just something in the air these days that keeps my mind trying to connect the art that we do to the socio-political scene around us. I wonder what that could be…

In light of our President's bellicose budgetary wishes, Harvey Fierstein recently wrote an impassioned opinion piece in the New York Daily News about the importance of theater and of government funding of the arts:

"Nobody’s life has ever been ruined by art — and it’s so very vital to our experiences as humans, in trying to learn who we are and what’s going on inside us."

If you're a fan of theater, you're probably already on Fierstein's bandwagon, but I found myself even more moved by a recent piece in the LA Times, in which critic Charles McNulty opines on what the point of the arts actually is and how that point has been much devalued in our society:

"It is imperative that those of us fortunate enough to earn a living in the embattled arts and culture sector of the ruthless U.S. economy do more than advocate for our professional survival. Yes, the arts create jobs. But even more important, they support the human infrastructure of our society."

At my old theater company, part of the process of selecting what show we were going to develop was asking the question, "Why this show now?" It wasn't just a matter of figuring out what excited us about the project; it was a matter of figuring out why anyone else should care. What about this subject speaks to the time that we are living in right now? It's a question I've been thinking about a lot lately, because of exactly what Charles McNulty was getting at. It's that "human infrastructure" he referred to, and it can't exist when no one grapples with the ideas embedded in their culture on anything more than a superficial level.

This isn't to say that everything we do in theater needs to be fiercely political art striving for social change. In the show notes of a stage comedy I recently watched, the company told us that, in light of everything that's going on, it was important for people to laugh for a while. For me, that's also a perfectly valid answer to "Why this show now?" They fully understood the socio-political context in which they were performing, and they knew exactly what they needed to accomplish to fit into that.

But, if you're really looking for theater to enlighten you on the current moment, I encourage you all to step back a minute and not resort to your knee-jerk, superficial reactions. There will be plenty of heavy-handed Trump satire in the years to come. There will be plenty of tortured logic applied by artistic directors to justify whatever Shakespeare play they already plopped into their season out of habit. For my money, there's no modern play that speaks to the current American moment more than Lynn Nottage's Sweat, which is now making its Broadway debut. For an explanation of why this play is probably going to end up being the most important piece of American theater in a while, I'll hand you over to David Finkle at The Clyde Fitch Report. Long story short, this is not only a play that meets its times, but it also knows exactly why.

Could something like The Foreigner meet the "Why?" test today? Certainly. But it's the kind of thing that takes careful thought and consideration. You've got to really want to expend the energy to make it work; otherwise, why start doing it at all?

Mere criticism

Two weeks ago on News and Notes, I offhandedly mentioned that the New York Times had unceremoniously sacked one of its top theater critics, creating the mother of all job openings for people who like sitting around nitpicking actors and playwrights. There were a lot of people out there who were asking for the Times to finally get some diversity in its theater criticism, and the NYT answered all those calls by promptly hiring another middle-aged white guy. But don't worry, everyone: he totally recognizes that this is a problem, and he's sure that this problem is something that they'll get around to tackling eventually.