Wonder why Boston theater is so bland, why there is so little political resistance?
By Bill Marx
Praxis Stage’s press release for its production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, inspired by the news that a pair of corporate sponsors had withdrawn their support from the Public Theater’s politicalized presentation of the play this summer, kicked up plenty of dust. Praxis’ Artistic Director Daniel Boudreau wrote (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that the fledgling company would refuse to take corporate funds in the future, partly because it was obvious how big money influenced what American theaters produced. Wonder why Boston theater is so bland, why there is so little political resistance – to just about everything, from Trump to the denial of climate change and the pernicious growth of income disparity? Follow the money and the fat cats.
I wish the city’s theater critics would tackle how economic pressures are turning our theaters into purveyors of boffo entertainment. In the ’60s, political crisis swept critics and artists into a whirlwind of radical dissent, pro and con. Today, there is little agitation, just liberal bromides and a grim determination to keep up business as usual (theater mustn’t depress audiences or make them think — they might consume less). No matter how dangerously abnormal the administration or global weather becomes, musicals, sit-coms, and nostalgia pervade the boards. To paraphrase the late Neil Postman, we are feel-gooding ourselves to death.
Case in Point regarding Boston’s critical jellyfish: in a recent piece for the Edge Media Network, Kilian Melloy noted, gushingly, that theater critic Joyce Kulhawik had posted Boudreau’s release on her website. All well and good, but why have none of our critics, to my knowledge, dared to stake out this position on their own? Either before or after Boudreau’s press release. Maybe I missed something: send me a link to an article by any major Boston theater critic — for the Boston Globe, NPR, etc — that critiques the pernicious clout of giant corporations and banks on the arts, that doesn’t accept the notion of taking the money and running like hell as a Primal Directive. I will post it on The Arts Fuse and offer a hearty huzzah!
The truth is that a hefty number of major corporate funders of the arts use their moolah for the purpose of bourgeois air-brushing — look at our community service, not our outlaw behavior! For example, Wells Fargo is among the country’s leading supporters of the performing arts. Note that the mega-bank has committed a number of multi-million dollar crimes, the latest a car insurance scam in which hundreds of thousands of customers were charged for duplicate car insurance they neither needed nor wanted. In some cases people lost their vehicles because of the excess cost. Wells Fargo is still reeling from a scandal in which it created as much as 2.1 million unauthorized customer accounts to hit inflated sales targets. The result: $185 million in fines. Is it possible to change the attitudes and behaviors of big banks without artists taking a stand? Or is that heavy lifting the responsibility of others?
Theater’s tradition of protest is not of interest to the high rollers, so sustaining rebellion comes with a cost. But it may be a price worth paying if theater, now falling behind in the ever accelerating competition for the public’s entertainment dollars, wants to dodge a slide into moribund marginality. I would argue, along the lines of Boudreau, that the fantasy of hitting the apolitical jackpot via the upper crust is a mug’s game. But too many of our theaters are playing it — with the complicity of the city’s oh-so-complacent critics.
This does not mean I am letting Praxis Stage off the hook. My question: at this time, why stage a wheezing warhorse of an attack on American capitalism — David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross? (Wellfleet’s Harbor Theatre just mounted a production of the 1984 script.) Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company is reaching even further back in time for its token gesture of ’protest’ — Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman! Besides the fact that Mamet (after extended sucking on the milk-less teats of Ayn Rand?) has become a parody reactionary, there’s the issue of reflecting today’s economic reality. Willy Loman didn’t have to worry about bitcoin; it’s no longer about being well liked — it is about being well branded. Big news: nowadays, women are in the money-making game. Hasn’t any dramatist written a satire — in the spirit of The Big Short — about corporate/banking malfeasance in the new millennium? How about a tragedy on how profit is generated, by the Left and the Right, in our Age of Distraction? If there are substantial scripts out there, why aren’t they being produced? What are theater companies afraid of? Pissing off the banksters and mega-rich honchos in the audience?
I spoke to Boudreau about the company’s anti-corporate money pledge, its outdoor production of Julius Caesar (through August 27), and plans for the future. For more info about Praxis Stage, go to its page on Facebook.
Arts Fuse: Your sardonic press release about how corporate sponsors bailed from the Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Caesar made a number of salient points — including a pledge that Praxis Stage would refuse to take corporate money with strings attached. Did any other theaters come to you wanting to take that step? It seems to me that Boston theater companies greeted your suggestion with silence. And that says a lot …
Daniel Boudreau: While we are serious about that pledge, we made it in an entirely flippant fashion. It was part of larger grandiose claims, which were a main aspect of the intended satirical gag of that “press release.” It was worded with a faux urgency, as if Praxis needed to get out in front of the growing controversy of the Public’s Caesar. I wanted it to read partially like another layer of the facile chorus of noise that swirled around the ‘issue,’ while at the same time commenting on what I saw as the deeper issues that controversy cast into relief, which were mainly twofold: The irksome inanity with which commentators were talking about the play itself in response to the pressures from BOA and Verizon, and the troubling specter of what happens when all that corporate “investment” comes to collect in terms of dictating the voice of those it sponsors.
So, yeah, we don’t intend to take any money from entities that disgust us, as those two corporations most certainly do– unless we can figure out how to rob them of it, or if they hand it over in an unmarked bag. Why not? Here is the most important part of my answer to this question: Bank of America over the last handful of years has received federal taxpayer bailout funds to the tune of $45.0 billion, while their profits for last 10 years were $135.0 billion. The median annual salary of a Bank of America teller is $21,850 annually, while their CEO makes in the neighborhood of $35 million. So this is not a corporation I would care to make art with. Should their criminal profits be expropriated to fund the arts, and countless other societal needs? Hell, yes! But when you take them on as corporate funders, when you make these vultures your “angels,” I don’t understand how that does not fundamentally corrupt your endeavor—but that’s an opinion I hold for just the things I want to make; I am not judging others who struggle to make art. And it is an opinion that I accept as fairly ridiculous—It ain’t as though BOA or Verizon are figuring out how to get with us! … But ask me in a few years after we’ve sold out, and when Praxis Global Media is touring the worldwide musical-smash: Gramsci!, our planned adaptation of The Prison Notebooks set to an edgy pop-punk/emo score, sponsored by the corporate funding of The Corrections Corporation of America and Gatorade …
AF: The Public Theater production raised hackles by making the assassinated Julius Caesar look like Donald Trump. What will your approach to Julius Caesar be? How strongly are you going to make contemporary connections? Doesn’t the play undercut bromides from the left as well as the right?
Boudreau: We actually have no tricks up our togas here. We are playing the text without a layered-on conceit. However, I am not in any way against that type of staging; I have seen brilliant productions that place Shakespeare’s plays in all sorts of times and places (among the most satisfying moments I’ve had at the theater were at touring productions of The Donmar Warehouse’s Henry IV and The Tempest both set in a modern day women’s’ prison, which were transcendent), but I have always also been a partisan for uncluttered Shakespeare—the stuff is rich enough, and already a beautiful crazy-cluttered-quilt.
This production is the vision of our show’s great director, Kim Carrell who says “No matter where it’s set or how it’s dressed, Julius Caesar will always be both a historical piece and about a current leader. It’s in the very bones of the play.” So he has chosen to “avoid adding any layers to what’s already in the text and simply let the play deliver the message it was written to deliver.” For this production my main focus is on the role I am playing, and within that it is my job to help deliver the director’s vision, so I am, happy to say I am completely simpatico with how Kim sees this play speaking across time and about multiple then’s, and our now. The only contemporary connection I am consciously baking into my performance is the way I pronounce the word “huge” when speaking of walking under the colossus’s legs.
AF: What are the biggest challenges posed by mounting Julius Caesar? Was casting such an ambitious project for a small company a problem?
Boudreau: Well, we are a small company for certain, but we didn’t let that affect our choices for casting, and as a result we have a company of 20 actors for this show. This town is so filled with talented people that we could have chosen another 20 from those who auditioned and had another wonderful show.
We are hopeful that we will have large turnouts for our performances so our wonderful cast is rewarded for their dedication and artistry, and we are also hopeful that people come to this free event with the intention to drop some small tribute into our donation buckets, as after (and if) we recoup our initial investment, we work on a profit-sharing model wherein all players, already guaranteed a small stipend as part of our budget, get equal shares of all donations over production cost investment. So: come enjoy the show, and give us money, please!
AF: Praxis Stage seems to have a strong interest in political theater. Your first production was Arthur Miller’s Incident in Vichy, now Julius Caesar, and there is a production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist on its way in November. Why has there been so little theatrical resistance to Trump? Is it fear? The need to keep donors happy?
Boudreau: So, we move fast. Praxis Stage was born on November 9th in reaction to the election that was causing that day’s mind-melting hangover. Miller’s Incident at Vichy (a play that depicts a waiting room in which “suspected Jews” await interrogation by Nazis and Vichy French collaborators) had been on my mind throughout the campaign with Trump’s disgusting, racist and proto fascist rhetoric, and the national spike in hate crimes that was engendered. That post-election day really felt like a day on which action needed to be taken, and for me art is action, so I started planning, attracted a co-director to the project, and started talking about the project. Those talks became a shape for a production, to which we were able to attract a wonderful cast, and we were in rehearsal by the end of the month. We targeted Inauguration Weekend as our opening, as I wanted to promote the show as an “anti-Inaugural event” and we opened the night before Inauguration Day, and played that entire week. The spirit of its reactive nature, and the DiY-make-it-happen-ethos of the production really felt like the most classically punk-rock thing I had done in ages. And it felt great! It felt like a success for what it wanted to be, and the company built out of the ambition to do more projects like it.
In terms of what others are up to in regards to political theater and art, I think it is an evolving situation. I think we are beginning to see politically motivated theater and artistic expression. I know of at least one company (Flat Earth) who are presenting their entire season as a reaction to the contemporary political climate. And I have noted various motions in similar directions, which I find heartening. I do think there is a self-policing fear to some regard related to speaking out too loudly among some quarters, but I also know some operate more pragmatically and want to protect what they are building. I seem like a guy, perhaps, who stands on judgement of how others operate, but I really try not to. Though I take a page from Billy Bragg when he sings, “If you got a blacklist, I want to be on it,” I know that many folks operate in different ways. There is not a single way to slay dragons. In fact in that analogy, dragon slaying styles akin to mine are probably thrilling and intoxicating to watch for their all-out brashness, but ultimately pitiable in terms of who winds up crispy ashes.
AF: Your productions so far have been of scripts by older playwrights — any plans to do contemporary work that focuses on such cutting problems as Climate Change and income inequality? Isn’t it a mistake to see Trump as the only problem?
Boudreau: We certainly don’t see Trump as “the only problem.” We have a much wider vision of the crisis this nation is. We simply seek to, “Present plays that incite dialog to foment change,” as our tagline has it.
The evils of our age are rampant: a predatory ruthless capitalistic economy feeding a growing chasm, a culture of violence structured around identities of European descended white cis masculinity that routinely attacks all others, a white supremacist culture, and racist police state society for people of color, patriarchy, misogamy, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, xenophobia — as just the top layer of sludge. I kind of see it as: How in the name of holly-hell could one presume to put on plays that seek to change any of that? Yet, at the same time, how in the name of holly hell can an artist not try?
For instance, our production following Vichy, in May, was Stephen Adly Guigris’s Jesus Hopped the A Train, which we all understood as a play that had as its central concern the prison-industrial-complex, and how as a society we have become comfortable with disposing of people, yet which we presented as a story about the intersection of 5 lives, and we anchored it with close focus on truth on performances. That play ran for a longer period than Vichy, 3 weeks, and got great attention, and seemed to be fairly uniformly well-loved by those who saw it, though they found the experience difficult.
I am looking to do plays that come at these issues in a way that only art can. I am not looking to start a lecture series. The plays present themselves to me, or other Praxis artists and we think about how they intersect with our contemporary crisis points. We don’t really work to figure out “Political Plays” to do. Truth be told, though there is a lot of blatant and direct political art I am deeply informed by (music by The Clash or Public Enemy, American “proletarian literature” of the 1930s, the more didactic films of Spike Lee, as instances), as an artist my wiring is more connected to telling stories about human truths and vulnerabilities. I just see those stories as being fundamentally political. Yes, we want our productions to be “political,” and we, want the events of our productions to be political, which is why we invite activist groups working on issues that intersect with the plays we produce to set up literature/information tables or give talk backs at our shows. But, really, I’m just not a bright enough guy to figure out a lot of Political Theater. I am happiest when I feel like a worker among workers telling stories that offer-up catharsis.
To that end, Praxis Stage’s second season presents: Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo (11/30-12/17 at First Church in the Back Bay), For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange (directed by Dayenne CB Walters, 2/15 – 2/25 at Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square), Praxis Stage’s Antigone Project (details about which will be forthcoming) and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (exact dates and venue forthcoming, and about which–you best believe–we are watching what we say …). And we will be back under the stars in the parks next summer with our take on the Henry IV‘s. For more info about all this, you ought to go check out Praxis Stage on Facebook!
AF: Talk about what you see as the future of Praxis Stage — where would you want the company to be in five or six years?
Boudreau: Five-to-six-years? I don’t think we’ll necessarily be all that bigger in the traditionally defined ways, but I would love for us to have about twice the number of resident artists as we have now, who will represent a truly diverse swath of backgrounds and identities, and be people who have grown and developed in their association with the company. And I hope we have more stability in terms of funding and space, but the list of artists who hope for that in Boston is … everybody. Either all that, or: We will be nursing grudges, talking about our glory days and what might have been, and picking fights…
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.