01 02 03 04 Spotlight Right: August 2012 05 13 14 17 18

This page has moved to a new address.


21 Spotlight Right 22 25

27 Spotlight Right: August 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Romney, Havel, and the end of the NEA.

Vaclav Havel

Mitt Romney’s recent promise to do away with the National Endowment for the Arts if elected President, was met with predictable outrage from the theater community.  The necessity of government dollars to the production of contemporary American theater is almost unquestioned by practitioners of the art form.  Republican plans to reduce government’s role in theater are seen as unserious efforts to engage in culture wars, pitting G-d fearing real Americans against New York Jewish homosexual pornographers who see a crucifix in a jar of urine and call it art.  For the record, I quite like Andres Serrano’s work, “Piss Christ” included.  The old school Jesse Helms argument against arts funding, basically the “people don’t want to pay for stuff they find offensive” line of attack always struck me as weak.  After all, we all pay taxes that go to programs we may not agree with, or might even find offensive, whether it is Planned Parenthood or the War in Iraq.  As with any government program, the ultimate question must be, is it working?  Are we better off with it than we would be without it.  This begs a question I have seen few attempts to answer:  “What would American theater be like without government funding?”

A little historical perspective can help us examine this question.  In 1968 a young Vaclav Havel was beginning one of the brightest playwriting careers of the 20th century.  In the midst of the Prague Spring, a brief mellowing of Communist hard line rule in Czechoslovakia, his voice, tuned to a pitch of personal freedom, was blossoming.  He was also catching the notice of Moscow, and in 1969, when Soviet tanks rolled in, the message was sent loud and clear that this kind of writing would not be permitted.  A recent article from the Nation puts it this way “A few years later, Havel and other banned Czech writers felt they had little to lose. They took culture into their own hands, publishing books by typing up carbon copies and smuggling manuscripts to West German printers, and staging plays in living rooms and pubs”  Far from being cowed by his government’s clampdown, Havel persisted and created powerful theater which would one day help destroy the authoritarian regime in Eastern Europe, and propel him to his nation’s Presidency.

The lesson from this episode, and many others in the history of the stage, is that government action is not an essential element to the creation of theater.  If we know that brutal government oppression is unable to destroy theater, how can we possibly believe that government support is needed to create it?  And perhaps more importantly, if theater was truly dependent upon Government support, how could we know that it was not simply reinforcing the message and philosophy of an elite ruling class which holds the purse strings and the keys to the space.  After all, there were certainly Soviet approved and funded works of art in 1970s Prague, and the artists who made that work likely did not view themselves as Communist Party stooges.  In our system of government funding we like to think that the dollars come without strings, without censorship, without the requirement that the work conform to a social ideal.  

What emerges from the “arms length” approach to government theater funding in the US is a kind of schizophrenia.  On the one hand, theater insists that its very existence is conditioned by Government funds.  On the other hand, in its attempt to speak with the powerful and relevant voice of a Havel, theater seeks to find oppression in the very systems of government and economy which support it.  American theater winds up like a precocious 20 something who asks his mom and dad to front the money to publish a book about what shitty parents they are.  

In that spirit on September 17th, or should I say #S17, the venerable Public Theater will host a celebration of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  We will no doubt be treated to tales of the evils of Big Business, though the Public itself takes plenty of Big Business money.  We will hear what a farce it is to claim that corporations have constitutional rights, though the Public is a corporation which no doubt believes it is protected by the 1st Amendment.  We will be shocked by the reality of income inequality in the same theater complex that recently ran a show with $160 tickets.  This past winter I attended some of Occupy Broadway and saw the rebel troops on 50th street entertained by the Civilians, who will be hosting the Public’s #S17 bash.  I got a kick out of watching Michael Friedman, who I went to prep school with, lead the crowd in old union songs, demanding workers rights.  Later that night a pre scandal Mike Daisey would whip the would be revolutionaries into a fever with a rousing speech about corporate malfeasance, seasoned of course with the made up bits that rounded the story out.    Though I could hardly disagree more with the childish philosophy of Occupy Wall Street, one positive did emerge for me on that chilly, somewhat hectic night.  Excepting maybe the police overtime, not one government dime was spent on the event.  Occupy Broadway had proven that the government is not needed to created art.

Mitt Romney is probably not promising to defund the NEA because he thinks its the best thing for art, he is likely playing to conservative voters who fear such institutions foster liberal bias in our culture.  But in many ways these two impulses are not exclusive to each other. Even at “arms length” government’s enormous role in funding theater does impose social ideals that drastically limit the appeal and relevance of theater in our society.  It is my belief that this appeal and relevance would be greatly enhanced by a movement away from government funding.  But here’s the thing.  Just as the Soviets could not control theater by oppressing it, our government and higher institutions of culture cannot control theater by co opting it.  We are theater artists, and we make theater, we need neither be encouraged or allowed.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Interview with Gary Morgenstein

Gary Morgenstein, author of RIGHT ON TARGET

Conservative playwright Gary Morgenstein joins us for an interview about his new play RIGHT ON TARGET and his experiences as a conservative in the New York theater scene.  In addition to being a novelist, Morgenstein's plays include A Tomato Can't Grow in the Bronx, Ponzi Man and Mad Mel and the Marradians.  His online relationship series ACTS of LOVE can be seen at mediablvd.com

Tell us a little bit about Right on Target.

Opening at the Cherry Lane Theatre Saturday, August 11 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival for the first of five performances (August 15, 18, 22 and 24), RIGHT ON TARGET is a bipartisan romantic comedy about an African American conservative, who claims he was fired by PBS for his politics, and his liberal Jewish wife.

Your play draws parallels to the recent controversy of Juan Williams being fired by NPR for his comments on Fox News.  What was it about that situation that you found compelling? 

The firing of Juan Williams by NPR certainly inspired me to write about the intolerance of political views by the left. That was the catalyst, but RIGHT ON TARGET is foremost about a married couple having problems in their relationship, who are attracted and tempted by others, by sex and ambition. 

As a Conservative playwright, how are your views dealt with by other theater artists? And how comfortable do you feel in expressing them?

Why should I hide my beliefs? I wouldn't ask a liberal to conceal theirs. This is a democracy, after all. Now big surprise, but my wonderfully talented cast -- Simcha Borenstein, Jane Dashow, Janet S. Kim, Thomas Lacey and Robert McKay -- with the marvelous director Noemi de la Puente who also acts -- are all liberals. But I think they kinda don't quite believe I'm really conservative. When we had our photo shoot, I was wearing my Reagan for President t-shirt. Janet asked, "Is that supposed to be ironic?" I said, "Uh, no, it's my Reagan t-shirt." Now they call me Ronnie R!

Many conservatives in the arts are former liberals who became disenchanted with the left, was this true for you or have you always held conservative views?

My freshman year in college, I was a radical lefty. I know, I know. Then I started reading and thinking and slowly, I saw the world differently. It's not easy being a Brooklyn Jewish conservative writer. You should see some of the looks I get when I wear my "Miss Me Yet?" George Bush t-shirt. 

What frustrates you most about the contemporary portrayal of conservatives on today’s stages and television shows?

Whether it's theatre, movies or TV, conservatives are invariably portrayed as either religious zealots, redneck bigots or evil capitalists. Even in Aaron Sorkin's series THE NEWSROOM, the Republican is a liberal. In RIGHT ON TARGET, I portray conservatives as thoughtful and intelligent, as I do all points of view. With humor. 

A little off topic, in looking through your bio, I noticed some sports themes in your work, what connections do you see between sports and theater?

They're both live and demand a great deal of the performers. I'm always a little in awe of actors and their dedication. The cast of RIGHT ON TARGET are so hard-working, so gifted, it is a joy to work with them. I think audiences are in for a real treat when they see this gang on stage. And who knows, maybe amid the laughter, the play will make the audience think. For a writer, that's always a grand slam.

Tickets for RIGHT ON TARGET are available here.  Get yours now.

Robert McKay as Benjy Harrison in RIGHT ON TARGET

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fringe as Form

Fringe season is upon us.  Once again this year thousands of artists and companies around the country and the world will be producing unique theater and performance in what has become a mainstay of the theater world.  As the Facebook invites and Village Voice show guides pour in, it is useful think about what Fringe Festivals really are and what we want them to be.  In a literal sense, Fringe, is exactly what it sounds like, the performances that exist around the edge of the large body of mainstream theater.  We like to think of them as experimental and challenging works that simply can’t find a place in the cookie cutter world of “big theater.”  Perhaps at some point in time this was true, perhaps the Fringe was once the only place where non traditional theater forms could be played with, but it is clear that that time has passed, at least in terms of content.  It is difficult to imagine a Fringe show that would shock the Williamstown Festival, or even the stages of New York’s venerable Public Theater.  So is there still a place for Fringe, or lessons to be learned from it?  I think there are.

While there is very little in terms of content that separates Fringe performances from more mainstream theater, the same cannot be said for the production models.  Indeed, production models are where Fringe Festivals have the most to teach producers and artists about the potential future of the art form.  Fringe shows are typically cheap to produce, cheap to attend and contain a social element that is so often lacking in the bigger houses.  While puppetry and video elements have become mainstream, the scaled down, low overhead, methods of creating work featured in Fringe have not.  To a great extent the broader acceptance of Fringe content on major stages has turned Fringe Festivals into giant backers auditions.  Often, we describe the most successful Fringe shows as those most likely to transfer, “such and such is a great show, I really think it could move.”  While this may be a useful role for such festivals, perhaps a replacement for old time out of town tryouts, there are broader horizons to be reached from the Fringe model.

The transfer of a Fringe show to a larger more traditional venue brings with it many changes to the show that is transferring.  Typically technical elements become more complex, often “name” actors are brought in, and almost always the overall cost of production rises dramatically.  But the most important changes involve audience experience and expectation.  Seeing a Fringe show feels like getting in at the ground floor.  It reminds me of my dad, who grew up in Asbury Park, and talks about seeing Springsteen at the Stone Pony, there is something special about that memory, that is very different from my wife’s memory of seeing the “Born in the USA” tour at the Meadowlands.  Theater as a quirky and fun night out, rather than theater as cultural treasure.  These lessons are being learned to some extent and even co-opted by big corporate theaters, as in the case of the Public’s “Under the Radar Festival”.  What is most exciting about these developments, is not the door it potentially opens to bigger, better productions, but the opportunity it creates to make theater a broader and more intimate part of people’s lives.  

At a time when the top down appointment viewing of major TV networks is being replaced by on demand options from thousands of content creators, theater needs to mirror these democratic changes in form.  We need to let people know that theater is no longer what they think it is.  While lumbering dinosaurs like TCG and the NEA continue to focus on giving more money to less artists, those of us who eschew their hoops must take advantage of the open source revolution sweeping almost every other aspect of American’s lives.  Fringe can help us find the way.  This year, as you check out your friend’s shows try not to jump immediately to the question “what has a chance to move”.  Instead focus in on the experience you have, and think about the possibilities of small scale shows opening the world of theater to audiences that are too often ignored.

The first Fringe Festival was started in Edinburgh in the 1940s.  According to the US Association of Fringe Festivals, the name Fringe was coined by playwright and journalist Robert Kemp  in the following quote “Round the fringe of official festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before...”  Followers of this blog will understand how happy this statement makes me.  60 years ago Kemp was tapping into the same sentiment that drives my thoughts about theater, that the corporate and government powers that be are not the keepers of our flame, private enterprise is.  It is a legacy worth embracing.