By Bill Marx
Why are Boston stages reacting so serenely to our current miasmas — pandemical, political, economic, and spiritual.
A recent editorial aimed at London theater by Natasha Tripney, an editor at The Stage magazine, fired a shock of recognition up my spine. She expressed my fury at what is happening — or what is not happening — in Boston theater. Why is there no rage on stage? No howls of anger. Cries of despair. Yowls of pain. Why no disgust at our tragically inept response to the crises besetting us? Where is the aggrieved reaction to: the astronomical death rate of the COVID-19 pandemic; the alarming rise of autocracy, led by Trump and his antidemocratic enablers; the tidal waves of hunger and unemployment now and those sure to come; our government’s indifference to the survival of the arts. Aside from a peep or two, our theater has been hush-hush about all the incompetence and ugliness. Critics — and those who care about the theater — should be screaming. Instead, a frightened silence reigns.
It looks as if years of trying to convince pols of the economic benefits of the arts are amounting to naught — the status quo at best. Already a number of small performing venues are closing because of our sputtering economy, including Once Somerville, Central Square’s Studio @550, the Cantab Lounge, and the Middle East. Many more checkmates are still to come in what I fear will be a depopulated cultural landscape dominated by complacent stage companies dependably funded by the well-heeled (foundations, banks, corporations, etc.) to produce the large and the safe, the homogenized and the neoliberal-minded. Unlike many other troupes, The Huntington Theatre Company, Emerson College’s ArtsEmerson, and the American Repertory Theater (the latter receives millions from Harvard University) will weather this catastrophe. Our greater media — NPR echo chambers WGBH and WBUR and the Boston Globe — will follow the big money, as they always do. There will be few demands that these troupes go further than the calming tried-and-true.
(Note: the concentration of power in the hands of a few is reducing diversity in the arts elsewhere. In publishing, for example, the pending mega-merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster led indie publisher Chad W. Post to argue recently in the Los Angeles Times that the current ecosystem is one where “the most moneyed companies determine what is read.” )
It is the economic benefits of the pandemic for the powerful that leads me, like Tripney, to feel “some greater unease. Why are we making theatre at this time: is it just to prove viability or to offer proof of life? To ensure the show goes on? To provide comfort? In times of turmoil, we seek consolation and theatre can offer us that. It can be a balm. But arguably it should also offer us catharsis, a place to rail against injustice and process pain, neither of which has been in short supply this year.” “Rail against injustice and process pain”? Not on Boston’s stages. Our established companies are into an American can-do attitude, choosing to hunker down, pretty much ignore the horror around us, pray for the effectiveness of the vaccine, and plan for a return to theater as a dependable fount of pleasure and inspiration. It is a familiar playbook. I critiqued a similar strategy in a 2007 commentary on how our theaters faced economic challenges: “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Marketing.” That is the survival mode today — reassurances rather than reality. Solace rather than rage. Christmas Carols galore. Some troupes, as SpeakEasy Stage Company recently did in an email, are thanking us for being part of the “family.”
“Art can help you process pain,” observes Tripney, “and there’s a lot to process, but theatre should also hold those in power to account.” She mentions a few recent productions that have registered anger at crushing social inequality, such as Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott. And David Hare’s Beat the Devil attacks the government’s deadly incompetence in handling the pandemic. Boston theater has not mounted productions that truly “hold those in power to account” because it is those very entities — banks, foundations, corporations, universities, and government officials — that are leaned on for support. I get it: it is hard enough to create theater without taking on the risk of biting the hand of those helping to foot the bill. But that is what is called for in these days of existential emergencies — a theater dedicated to spotlighting agonizing truth as well as soothing beauty.
Instead, circumscribed by commercial parameters, our theaters will spoon-feed us, to quote T.S. Eliot, only “so much reality.” The usual product appears to be in the pipeline: mildly leftist and end-stopped at the empathetic. Perish the thought that shows come along that upset rich white funders, oh-so eager to assuage their guilt as well as have an inspiring night out with fellow fat cats. ArtsEmerson proclaims that its coming season is committed to “experimentation.” What does that mean? “Focusing on the development and programming of its new digital venue, and providing support to international artists through reimagined residency programs that support new works, new platforms, and new approaches to process.” No mention of engaging with the fallout generated by multiple international, national, and local failures. Among the musicals recently announced by the A.R.T., one has been systematically concocted for success on The Great White Way: “Tony and Obie Award-winning playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler, O.P.C., In the Body of the World), Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated songwriter Justin Tranter (Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Imagine Dragons), and Tony Award-winning actor, performer, and songwriter Idina Menzel (Rent, Wicked, Frozen) share music and stories about the development of The Circle of Becoming, a wild new musical fairy tale about a teenage girl and her posse whose determination to save the planet endows them with powers they never knew they had, directed by Diane Paulus.” As the Walt Disney Company learned to its considerable profit — let them eat fairy tales.
Our theaters inevitably turn away from pain and accountability because their brands (and Broadway success) depend on emitting “good vibrations.” The powerless and less fortunate members of Boston’s theatrical “family” are not part of the target audience. The pandemic and its devastating death toll serve as final, conclusive proof that our theaters have given themselves no choice but to be numb to the world’s torment.
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.