By Bill Marx
Are our theaters indifferent, craven, or complicit? Take your pick.
The stage can do a lot of things: bore, stimulate, excite, create empathy, make you think and feel. It can also make you damned angry. And there are occasions when, at least for critics who care more about the art, rather than the commerce, of the theater, the only response is to shake your head.
I was left inspired and dispirited after, last Monday, I took in a Zoom reading of Insulted. Belarus(sia) by Andrei Kureichik, presented by Arlekin Players Theatre and its presenting partner Cherry Orchard Festival in New York. Blair Cadden directed John Freedman’s English translation. It was part of a worldwide series of readings (ongoing, check the above link) whose aim is educate the West about the struggle for democracy in Belarus, as well as to raise funds for the groups protesting dictator Alexander Lukashenko who, after 26 years, was (apparently) voted out of office by a generation hungry for change in early August. The opposition charged that the authorities had clumsily falsified the results of the election. Opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, not Lukashenko, was the winner. Huge riots ensued (they have not stopped), with police thugs beating, sexually molesting, and degrading protestors.
Kureichik wrote his play right after the debacle of the election. He is a member of the Coordination Council of Belarus — a group working to lead the transition to a new government and institute free elections. Many in the troupe are now in prison: Kureichik is in hiding. The reading offered Zoom’s usual theatrical drawbacks: a succession of close-ups that invite in-yer-face disconnection and bouts of overacting. I am not sure that the script is successful as political drama — good versus evil is a settled matter — but the dramatist’s depiction of dissent’s endurance in the face of brutal tyranny is an affecting piece of witnessing. It was heartening to see it, and to hear from the courageous playwright during the post-reading discussion. It is not often a writer tells you what it is like fighting the good fight in medias res.
But then the well-intentioned compliments during post-reading talk turned to observations about the play’s relevance to what is going on in America today. And that struck a nerve. I became increasingly frustrated and enraged. Well, if those similarities are true, and I believe they are, where are our theater’s versions of Kureichik’s play? Are local companies looking for scripts — and then presenting readings — that dramatize our fears of encroaching authoritarianism? Where are reactions to the summer’s protests, jailings, deaths, and tear-gassing? Trump’s repeated threats that he will resist the peaceful transfer of power if he loses represents a run-up to fascism. So, why aren’t our companies dramatizing their (and our) resistance to tyranny? Or at least bearing witness to democracy being put under pressure? Kureichik wrote his play as his country was in violent turmoil; he risked being imprisoned or even worse. Even during a pandemic, our stage companies and artists have it cushy compared to that. In the past, theater has often critiqued and satirized the powers-that-be. The Living Newspaper is among the best known American responses to national political/economic emergencies, a subset of the venerable genre of documentary theater. Why is there nothing but crickets now? Don’t we want to believe what is happening? Or could it be that we don’t care? Are our theaters indifferent, craven, or complicit? Take your pick.
The answer is a bit of all three. Some of our stages have, admirably, reacted to the crisis of #BlackLivesMatter with readings and dialogues. And police brutality, income inequality, and environmental injustice are an integral part of the battle against systemic racism. But why has the threat to democracy been ignored, along with the challenges presented by hunger (reaching alarming levels in Massachusetts), poverty, unemployment, and the Climate Crisis? How about plays that look at the growing gap between rich and poor? Where are the texts that cast light on the pandemic and on the failures to react on state, federal, and corporate levels? Is nobody writing anything about what are obviously issues of elemental concern?
What is on offer from our stages, via podcasts, Zoom presentations, and the rare live productions? Mostly escapes to comfy territory rather than confrontations with the difficult present. These approaches often reflect a yearning for the “old normal” via a focus on Boston’s history. For example, The Huntington Theatre Company has been rolling out its Dream Boston podcast series. “Conceived and commissioned by the Huntington artistic department,” the dramas give “local playwrights the opportunity to imagine their favorite locations, landmarks, and friends in a future Boston, when people can once again meet and connect in the city – a vision of a future Boston that is somewhere between dream and reality.” New Rep is partnering to produce the “Watertown Historical Moving Plays, an immersive educational and theatrical experience that leads participants on a stroll through historical sites in Watertown.” SpeakEasy Stage is giving us “The Boston Project, which for the past five years has commissioned three playwrights to each write a new play set in and around Boston that captures what it means to live in our region and which taps into the full breadth of experiences and identities that make up life in the Hub.” From what I have heard and seen, nothing too alarming is allowed.
Predictably, American Repertory Theater Artistic Director Diane Paulus, bless her entrepreneurial heart, is not going to give up on marketing her postponed revival of the 1969 musical 1776 for tourist consumption on The Great White Way. Can anyone blame her? This potentially money-minting Hamilton retread will be perfect for the new “normal,” in which democracy will be on the ropes. Gather together for a glimpse of the boffo to come in 1776: The Audacity to Exist, “a multimedia experience with performances of songs from the A.R.T.’s upcoming production of the Tony Award-winning musical 1776. These songs are interwoven into a dynamic discussion with Harvard University historians Vincent Brown and Timothy Patrick McCarthy and members of the cast and creative team. This event explores representation, writing ourselves into existence, and what the year 1776 and the Declaration of Independence mean for our country today as we reckon with the past in order to understand our present moment and move forward together.” Of course, that suggests there will be a democracy worth having as we move forward. Perhaps, once this 1776 hits post-pandemic Broadway, the run will give audiences an entertaining glimpse of a Constitution that is no more — once it has been shredded.
Arts Emerson promises us a season of experimentation which will “focus its resources specifically on artists from subordinated communities as part of the Jubilee Season, the nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded – including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, and artists with disabilities.” Admirable — but nothing in the press release addresses whether these pieces will deal with our current political emergency. And what about another inconvenient truth — that the arts themselves are in crisis? It is going to take years of hard work, particularly for the performing arts, to recover. Will the systemic injustices in the cultural industrial complex — highlighted by COVID-19 — be addressed? By someone?
Why the apathy? Who are our troupes placating? And why? Perhaps, like Trump, our stage companies figure that it is in their best interest to “play down” today’s dangers in order to reassure jittery audiences that all will be well. (So they won’t panic?) Perhaps that explains why there are no profiles in courage, no Ivan Kureichiks. Safer to rile up as few of the woke as possible. Our critics are only too willing to demand nothing but calm, hopeful that consumerism will return. Their passivity is driven by a powerful shared fantasy — once we get through the pandemic, the shipwreck of the Republic, the hellish wildfires on the West Coast, and accept a blandified culture controlled by a few billionaires — the old normal will be back for those with ample resources and upper crust connections. Once this strange interlude is done it will be business as usual — at least for the stock-owning class. Of course, as Debra Cash argues so powerfully in her commentary about the impoverishment of artists, clinging to this nostalgic wish for the status quo will lead to disaster:
If the cultural sector in the United States returns to the ways things were organized in February 2020, with all the inequity and unsustainability that implies, we will have failed.
The past is going to be hard to shake because there are so many vested interests who profited in the “good old days.” For example, an upcoming webinar presented by The Boston Foundation’s Live Arts Boston is entitled “Creativity, Entrepreneurship & Equity in the Performing Arts.” Well, we know how well entrepreneurship has worked out for the arts over the past decade — falling incomes for most artists, rising income streams for technology companies and the super-rich who own them. We need a strategy that will not massage the well-to-do, but webinars that teach artists how they can most efficiently organize so they can fight to be paid fairly for their work. Don’t hold your breath …
Once again, I must point out that theater companies around the country are doing little to address the Climate Crisis, which is continuing its grim (and deadly) acceleration. Along with nurturing diversity, why can’t environmental issues be part of a future programming mix? You would think the end of nature would make for compelling drama; Climate Change’s impact is greatest on minorities and indigenous peoples. There are first-rate documentaries and feature films, a thriving eco-fiction genre, and even some operas. But pickings are as meager on podcasts and Zoom screens as they have been on our major stages over the past decade. Theater has fallen into the debilitating habit of wanting to assuage rather than challenge. It is a disgraceful abdication of the imagination’s responsibility to the generations to come. When I look at pictures of barrenness from around the globe — fields of roiling ash in California, “exceptional” sandstorms in West Africa — my favorite lines from John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi come to mind:
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.
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.