Apparently, the starting point for this discussion is found in my interview at "Theatre Is Territory," where Ian, having no idea what can of worms he was opening, asked the following question:
Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts community?
To which I responded:
No, but the arts community needs to care enough about the conservatives to dialogue with them and not just insult them. We’re digging our own grave! Half of America is conservative! [snip theatre history lesson] There’s got to be a progressive way to speak to conservatives. (Hint: it doesn’t involve dehumanizing them.)
Please note the context: I was asked whether there was a fundamental disconnect between conservative politics and the arts community. My assertion is that the disconnect is a historical condition, not a fundamental one. The theatre has been conservative as much as it has been radical -- perhaps moreso. Aeschylus' The Oresteia is a conservative play in the sense that it celebrates the Grecian development of a court system to replace the revenge system of justice; Shakespeare's plays tend to support the English crown, and the playwrights of the French Neoclassical era bows to Louis XIV and the rules that the French Academy put into place at his behest. I could give other examples, but the point is that there is nothing endemic to theatre that makes it the enemy of conservative politics.
That said, I did suggest that theatre artists might find it beneficial to "find a progressive way to speak to conservatives," rather than insulting and dehumanizing them. That does imply some sort of active contact between liberals and conservatives that doesn't involve spitting or dogmatism. Apparently this idea is abhorent to at least one blogger, who has referred to it as "some shit." Nevertheless, this is just basic humanism -- the belief that most people operate from a sense of wanting to do right, even though they may differ about what that entails. That does not mean that one must agree with or respect all choices equally -- I am not suggesting that theatre artists sit down for a nice cup of tea with a KKK member and try to sensitively sympathize with his virulent racism. But I am suggesting that people who do not share a liberal ideology are human beings nonetheless and should be granted the basic respect that all human beings deserve.
Anyway, somehow this pretty bland idea (all people deserve to be treated like members of the human race and given the benefit of the doubt as far as their motives are concerned) was translated by Mark "Mr Excitement" at the Impending Theatrical Blogging Event as "Red State Hooey" (I love the title). Here's what it came out as (and my apologies to Laura Axelrod, who got unfairly smeared with my tar in this summary):
There is this odd notion in certain corners of the theater blogosphere that theater must speak to, or represent the concerns of, red state conservatives. It correlates with the outdated political notion that candidates must craft a message tailored to one elderly white male who lives in middle America, while the country is actually becoming more urban and more ethnically diverse. Plus, red state conservatives have had the entire government of the most powerful country in the history of the world speaking for them for six years now. The idea that theater should somehow also be responsible for promoting their agenda is bizarre.
Now, gentle reader, can you help me in tracing the devolution of my comment to this? I said nothing about trying to "represent the concerns" of conservatives, nor did I suggest that theatre should promote a conservative agenda. I suggested that theatre artists might find a "progressive way to speak to conservatives," that they might "dialogue" with them.
Nevertheless, it is Mark's revision of my original interview response that was picked up by Slay at Theatre Fortre in a post entitled "Hee Haw Retreads." Slay seemed as baffled as I was about the origin of this interpretation. He wrote:
I found where he says "a progressive way to speak to conservatives" and the part where he says "the arts community needs to care enough about the conservatives to dialogue with them".
I can't find "theatre made [there] in downtown NYC has [an] obligation to speak to those outside of its community" or "theater must speak to, or represent the concerns of, red state conservatives" or "theater should somehow also be responsible for promoting [the conservatives'] agenda " or any place where he says that theatre should be "speaking the concerns" of conservatives.Is it not in this interview?
The ever helpful Joshua James offered this: "I believe Scott made that statement on a comment thread on David Cote's blog, if I recall . . . it may have been Catechism on a Hot Tin Roof, but I'm not sure. Mr Excitement would know, he referenced it originally." Slay checked it out, and said "I couldn't find it there." Joshua then said: "I'm not sure the exact place, myself . . . I know Walters also said something similar on his Praxis interview . . . but Mr. Excitement would know exactly." But alas, Mr Excitement ain't talking. At this point, I stepped in to save Slay from spending the day searching the blogosphere for my quotation, telling him it didn't exist, that it was a bad translation from the original English.
Nevertheless, from bad misunderstandings good conversations sometimes grows. Slay posted "Conservatism in Question," which lays out the basic topic quite nicely. Adam Szymkowicz contributes his thoughts in "Thoughts on Conservative Theatre," and Kyle at "Frank's Wild Lunch" offers "This In Response" to Adam. I suspect by now there are others as well, but rather than provide a Wikipedia article on the whole thing, let me stop here and offer my own thoughts on this subject tangential to my original quotation.
There's part of me that would like to offer the following quotations and let it go at that:
Laura Axelrod: I’m not sure what Red State Theater is, exactly. Personally, I’d like to have the biggest audience possible for my work, without compromising my vision. Shouting that Democrats or Republicans suck is going to defeat my purpose. Unless, that is my purpose. KnowwhatImean?
Slay (quoting from one of his recent shows): "We need to actually be liberal, to view the world as being made up of varying points of view and to court those we would not normally meet for coffee ... We have to give up the Us/Them mentality. You know, the one we find so disgusting when employed by George W. Bush."
James Comtois: To me, theatre doesn’t have to be political, apolitical, educational, right-wing or left-wing. It’s far more important to me that theatre artists and theatre theorists don’t consider their audience “beneath them.” Once you think you’re smarter than your audience, that’s the beginning of the end.
Those are all pretty damn good. But simply quoting would be the easy way out. I should probably supply something of my own that can be twisted in translation.
What I would suggest is as follows (with apologies for repetition). Great theatre artists should:
1. Avoid dogmatism and propaganda. Any part of life worth writing about is worth portraying in complex terms. Melodrama has one-dimensional heroes and villains -- don't stack the deck in your favor.
2. Assume that your audience is as smart as you are. Or better yet, smarter.
3. Believe that your spectators are capable of change.
4. Understand that change comes from persuasion and empathy, not nagging.
5. Allow for the possibility that viewpoints other than your own may be valid. As Neils Bohr famously said, "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." Strive to create plays that contain profound truths rather than correct statements.
6. Include yourself in any accusations. Remember that when you point a finger, three fingers point back at you. If you must point, that is good dramaturgical advice.
7. Even if you disagree with a particular value, try to understand it deeply, and present it fairly. Don't turn values into cartoons. The thing that makes Angels in America great is that all of the characters, even Roy Cohn, is presented with complexity, depth, and (yes) empathy. See number 1 above.
8. There is a place for preaching to the choir -- as Slay wrote, quoting (he thinks) West Wing: "Sometimes you have to preach to the choir, if you want them to sing." So true. Sometimes values need to be strengthened and reinforced. But don't confuse this with creating high quality theatre -- this is propaganda. Sometimes propaganda is necessary.
9. Imagine a better world. As Jill Dolan writes in Utopia in Performance, try to "inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible, rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential." As I tell my dog, Kip, you can point out shit without having to roll in it. He never listens either.
10. Believe in hope. As Barack Obama says, "the audacity of hope." Cynicism and despair is the idealist's wound. Always open up your heart, even though it seems dangerous to do so. (And if someone brings up Beckett as an example of a great artist that writes about despair, I would beg to differ. All of his characters have hope, in my opinion, and in their hope is their tragic heroism.)
Now, are these the characteristics of a "conservative, "red state" theatre? Not really, I suppose. But they are, I think, characteristics of a theatre that might bring people together in a common experience, and that might help bridge the ever-widening gulf in American society that the media has created and reinforced. Please note that I have not suggested "pandering to the audience," which is a violation of #2 above, nor have I said they should not be challenged. I guess, when all is said and done, I am simply repeating what I wrote in the post immediately preceding this one:
I think challenge is absolutely necessary for a community to grow. Theatre shouldn't exist simply to deepen social bonds by reinforcing already-agreed-upon ideas. Although such deepening DOES serve an important purpose, and is part of what a theatre should do. Part, but by no means all. But theatre should also challenge, and the point about challenge I would make is a very fine one. It is about the artist's soul, I guess, his attitude. I think scolding and hectoring is ineffective, and scorn is alienating... And as I noted in my post on risk, if your main purpose is to make the audience uncomfortable, you've set the bar too low. That is just so easy to do. I think discomfort comes as the result of a stretch toward something else, something higher than one has reached before. Like when a yoga instructor asks you to stretch in a way that is uncomfortable -- the goal is to increase flexibility, not simply the discomfort itself. I guess it is a generosity of spirit I'm talking about, and a faith in one's fellow man.
I don't think generosity of spirit and faith in one's fellow man is too much to ask of an artist. To me, that is the definition of a great soul. And I think great art comes from great souls.
Addendum: 1) None of these ideas should be viewed as policies -- no jackbooted arts troopers will come to your door to force you to follow these ideas. 2) If there was some miracle and suddenly every play being written were conforming to these suggestions, I would immediately create another list insisting on the opposite -- balance is the goal. The above, which may seem like truisms to some, are what I feel is in need of increase at the moment.