Theater Commentary: A Modest Proposal — Boston Theaters, Junk Your Seasons!

By Bill Marx

Today’s spirit of protest calls for risk and innovation, dissent and defiance. Our timid stages fall disgracefully short of reflecting that iconoclasm.

A George Floyd protest march. Photo: Wiki Common

Who knows when live theater will be back because of COVID-19 restrictions? No doubt the inevitable fear and uncertainty that will accompany these openings will slow any resumption of “normal” operations. Many theaters will never return, despite sympathetic bleats of public/political support. Of course, that doesn’t mean our stages can’t be open for those in need right now: witness the #openyourlobby movement, which asks institutions to welcome protesters in need of shelter. At the moment, Boston theaters are happy to send out email proclamations of solidarity with protest movements around the country as well as Black Lives Matter. And there are many, many, many well-meaning virtual discussion sessions.

 In a recent column — headlined “Injustice reminds us that theatre must be about more than selling tickets” — Howard Sherman in The Stage articulates the challenge:

while theatres will be facing enormous economic obstacles when and if they reopen, they must seize the moment, now more fraught, to both absorb what is being communicated and embody it in their work and in their staffing. While US theatres are, due to grant restrictions, often limited from partisan political action, that doesn’t hold for commitments to human rights and equality.

I want to talk about the work rather than the staffing, even though that is another pressing issue. A number of Boston theaters posit that they will return, in some way or another, to mounting live shows (virtual or otherwise) this fall. They have posted their seasons on their websites, and they are lamentable. Not only are our stages not seizing the moment, they are running from it. These are the same old-same old depressing lineups: pre- or post-Broadway fodder chosen to sell tickets to the well-off, the comfortably enlightened. Examples of shows that forcefully crusade for human rights and income equality? Forget about it. (Note: When have our major theaters publicly fought for anything? Other than subscribers.)

A few examples. The Huntington Theater Company is bringing in Calista Flockhart to star in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband as well as mounting musicals Teenage Dick and Songbird, among others. We have the Lyric Stage presenting A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. At New Rep we have Doubt: A Parable and Stupid F**king Bird. American Repertory Theater artistic director and accused racist (by Witness Uganda creator Griffin Matthews) Diane Paulus will be chatting (online) with big name Harvard University professors about the roots of American democracy, conversations inspired by her aborted Broadway production of 1776. Paulus’s commercial genius — imitated by all too many others — was to figure out how you could brand the tired and untrue as the new and boundary-stretching. Yes, there are the customary public service slots: the HTC has planned Common Ground Revisited and What the Constitution Means to Me. There will be decades-old confrontations with racism: 1992’s Jelly’s Last Jam (This toe-tapping show will send you home swinging) at New Rep and 1992’s Fires in the Mirror at the Lyric Stage.

I won’t go through the seasons at all of Boston’s theaters. Look for yourself: I am confident that those excited by what is happening in the streets will see little to no connection with what is happening now in the hearts and minds of concerned Americans. (I invite theaters to contradict me. Slave Play at SpeakEasy Stage? The script comes with a Broadway stamp of approval, and Matthews makes a strong case for the racism of The Great White Way.) Marketing campaigns from the HTC and other stages will no doubt focus on self-congratulation when the theaters are back up and running; stages will be slapping themselves on the back for taking the courageous steps of reviving themselves. Theaters and the media will hail the return to “normal,” even if that means serving up yet another musical comedy or the story of Simon & Garfunkel. Churning out escapist entertainment will be treated as an act of courage. Some theatergoers may fall for it, particularly those who are, deep down, uncomfortable with significant change beyond Facebook or Instagram posts. Let the good times roll again.

I am not saying that the productions to come will not be of high quality — many would be, I am sure. But they are not necessary, they do not speak directly to what’s roiling America, they do not address the concerns of a generation that demands systemic change, that desires, according to , “an end to racism, police abuse, and violence; and the right to be free of the economic coercion of poverty and inequality.” I have been reviewing theater around Boston since the ’80s. I know all too well what rich, privileged, “liberal” white people will shell out to see on stage. It is mired in the domestic, the safe, and the antique: time for something different. If they want to thrive rather than languish, Boston’s theaters should be inspired by the social/political turmoil around them: they should draw on activist neighborhood voices, take a chance on the unconventional, break free of the domination of New York profitability. Where are the productions that explore the viability of democratic socialism and the country’s collective acceptance of police brutality? Shows that critique America’s worship of profit, violence, and death? Dramas that probe why we are denying the growing climate emergency — and its connections with institutionalized racism? I am suggesting a theater revolution. Will it sell tickets? Who knows? Who cares? Demands are being made that the arts do more than issue toothless statements. The arts ignore those calls at its peril.

My modest proposal is that Boston’s theater companies sharpen their teeth and junk their seasons. Start from scratch. Be revolutionary by nurturing revolutionary writing: invite what has been left carefully offstage onstage. Let’s face reality: Broadway will be moribund for awhile. So why revive New York hits or prepare boffo product for a Great White Way that is going to be on life support? The end of Broadway paralyzes the business-minded, like Paulus, for whom theater is about generating big bucks for herself and her friends in the upper crust. But for those with creative strength and nerve to help shape the future, the end of  n era means kicking rich white liberal hypocrisy to the curb. Can’t we do better than revive decades old plays by Anna Deavere Smith, George C. Wolfe or, God help us, Arthur Miller? Theaters should reinvent themselves to speak to a generation that is bent on fighting injustice and inequality — be radical rather than recycle.

What should Boston’s stages do? Don’t worry about being slick and commercial. Or clinging to white-bread professionalism. Why not a season filled with productions of scripts written by black dramatists under the age of 40? Let’s hear from New England’s black and brown voices — as well as from writers/dramatists/performers who can speak to and from a variety of local communities: Cambodian, Salvadoran, Vietnamese, etc. Place playwrights and performers in local communities: they will be charged with developing dramas/musicals that revolve around cultural, economic, and spiritual flash points. Take theater on the road — mount productions (with social distancing, etc.) around town and beyond, in our struggling restaurants, bars, shops. Bring stage work to where people live. Look seriously at British and American traditions of working-class theater for ideas on how to create entertainments for those in unions, for those in the underclass, for the unemployed. Poll neighborhoods and ask what the people there would like to see — and produce some of their suggestions. If you are going to do the work of older playwrights, then find ways to see how their work might address us at this time. For instance, instead of producing An Ideal Husband, the HTC could come up with a dramatic evening generated out of what Wilde wrote during his years in incarceration. His prison writings are a savage indictment of the society that jailed him and a moving testimony to private sufferings.

These are a few suggestions for how Boston theaters might “seize the moment.” Some refreshing work may come out of these efforts to move in a different direction. I invite others to join me and raise their voices for change in our theaters; at this point in time the status quo simply won’t do. As I have aged as a critic, Kenneth Burke’s definition of literature has become increasingly important to me: “equipment for living.” An important role for theater is to diagnose and dissolve pernicious social categories and orientations. During a time of revolution, can the theater be of use? It has been in the past — in Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. If stage companies refuse to rethink, we will no doubt see young theater artists on the march, protesting stages that are frustratingly out of touch with the demands of the reality around them. Sign me up.

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.

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  1. Robert Israel on June 11, 2020 at 11:37 am

    Kenny Leon, a director who has worked with Huntington Theatre Company and other local troupes, told the New York Times on June 10th:

    “What do I think our world should look like? We’re storytellers, so I think this is a great opportunity for artists to build that vision. All I can do is go by the plays that a lot of artists have been doing over the years — the Katori Halls of the world, the Jocelyn Biohs of the world, the Tarell McCraneys of the world, the Jeremy O. Harrises of the world. My world is shaped by the hopes and dreams of those plays. I definitely see a world where we don’t have the knees of the people that are supposed to protect us on our necks, suffocating the life out of us.”

    The playwrights Kenny mentions have not had their works produced here.

    Our times demand we tell stories with a fresh approach.

    Can we muster the courage?

    • Bill Marx on June 11, 2020 at 12:24 pm

      Excellent comment, Bob. There are so many alternatives to the same old/ same old. What will the world look like? Let’s see the speculations of young dramatists.

      Why are we getting plays by Anna Deavere Smith, George C Wolfe, and Arthur Miller? Because of the expediency of marketing (they are known New York quantities) and because they will soothe aging audiences. What in the world do escapist musicals like “Teenage Dick” have to say to us at this crucial moment? Will our theaters find the courage to meet the times with art that speaks to now rather than then? My column is an attempt to make them do the right thing: take chances — don’t recycle. Or face becoming anachronisms.

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