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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Cultural Ground Game

For at least the last three decades conservatives have been wringing their hands over liberal dominance in American culture.  Every election year the nation’s most beloved artists and celebrities flock around Democratic candidates.  And far worse, when they are not actively campaigning, they are creating movies, TV shows, and plays that present progressive ideals as the natural arc of history, while leaving conservative ideals in its rhetorical dustbin.  This would be fine if conservatives were able to offer a compelling alternative, as they do in the world of news, but this goal has remained illusive.  What keeps the right from establishing a foothold in entertainment?  

The answer to this question does not lie in the luxurious offices of television executive producers, it will not be found by revealing a secret left wing cabal among movie producers.  The source of conservative consternation over culture flows far below these mountaintops.  In small venues, and graduate theater programs and non profit arts organizations all over the country, a progressive hegemony has taken hold.  It is a cultural ground game, a well networked, well funded “get out the culture” campaign that conservatives must find a way to compete with, or cede American culture to the left forever.

It is easy to see why conservatives don’t pay much attention to the cultural ground game.  It is much more intuitively reasonable to focus on network sitcoms or blockbuster movies which reach millions of people, than some show at the Public Theater or the New York Fringe Festival.  Bruce Walker touched on this recently in his article “Creating our Counter Culture” in the American Thinker, he writes:

“What if tens of millions of conservatives formed several corporations, and each purchased a few hundred shares of stock in these corporations?  These companies, owned and controlled by millions of small conservative stockholders, could begin to create entertainment television networks, major films...”

The problem with this macro approach is that the artists who create the progressive mass culture don’t fall out the sky with 7 figure salaries and bungalows in the Hollywood hills.  They are developed by an infrastructure of dramatic arts so untouched by conservative ideas as to make the notion of a modern conservative theater artist almost an anachronism.  To make Mr. Walker’s vision of conservative movies and TV a reality, there have to be content creators, and they must be developed.   The example of self described socialist playwright Tony Kushner gives an instructive example of how the cultural ground game is played.  

In the mid 80s the small non profit Eureka Theater in San Francisco used NEA grants to offer paid residencies to playwrights.  The LA Times recently reported on how Kushner became one of those playwrights:

“Tony Taccone, now the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was the Eureka's artistic director in 1985 when he and Eustis [currently Artistic Director at the Public Theater], then the company's dramaturge, got a tip from one of Kushner's NYU professors that his former student, whom they'd never heard of, would be a worthy collaborator for their left-leaning, politically driven work.”

I’m quite certain that in 1985 nobody in conservative circles batted an eye when Kushner received the residency, and the federal dollars that came with it.  After all, why should they?  Who cares about some lefty show in a little theater in San Francisco?  Of course that show became Angels in America, and 25 years later Kushner would pen the screenplay for what will likely be the definitive film biography of Lincoln for a generation.  But could anybody have known?  Wasn’t it just the lightning bolt of fame that happened to strike Kushner?  It wasn’t.  Because if it had not been Kushner who became the darling of theater’s kingmakers in New York newspapers, it would have been any one of thousands of other playwrights, developed in the same liberal non profit networks.  

I have spent more than a decade working in New York theater, in that time over dozens of shows and hundreds if not thousands of collaborators, I have never worked with another Republican.  Ever.  And the really bad news is that these are incredibly talented and hard working artists, most of whom have the training and skill to jump right into a mass media entertainment environment.  

There is some good news.  Over the past several years conservatives hidden away in the corners of the cultural ground game have been finding each other.  Last year’s Republican Theater Festival organized by Cara Blouin in Philadelphia was a powerful event for those of us so used to laboring under a progressive flag.  We still represent a tiny minority of theater artists, but at least we aren’t alone anymore.  At the same time, the well oiled machine of non profit theater is showing significant wear, and frankly, its progressive echo chamber is getting boring, indeed the only transgression left in theater is to be conservative.  

Developing a new generation of conservative dramatic artists will not be an easy task.  But even small first steps can have a big effect, because they are so different, so new and unexpected that they will demand attention.  The conservative counter culture so long sought after by those on the right can be a reality.  Over the next several months the pages of this blog will be dedicated to exploring how to create our own cultural ground game.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Social Change and the Purpose of Theater

Playwright Bruce Norris

Bruce Norris ruffled a few feather in the Twitter-verse this week with his interview in the Guardian.  Basically, he said that it was optimistic to believe that theater can really change anything.  His reason was that people are essentially bad natured.  I think its a pretty silly argument, but as my twitter feed lit up with comments from theater folks I respect a lot, something interesting emerged.  Dramaturge Ilana Brownstein suggested that the work of Vaclav Havel and Athol Fugard plainly shows that theater can help to change things.  It’s a reasonable argument, both writers played huge roles in liberating people in their societies.  But it seems to me that they had a big advantage in doing so because they lived under horribly repressive regimes.  When we ask about the purpose of theater, and the extent to which that purpose involves social change, the current condition of society must inform our answers.  This is not to say that the US is a perfect society, far from it, but in fairness Bruce Norris does not have anything as destructive of human liberty to take aim at as Apartheid or Soviet Communism. 

All activism, including artistic activism is easier when there is a clear target, a simple change that can be demanded.  We recently saw Occupy Wall Street struggle to gain permanent footing because they lacked a clear target.  The right to live in a democracy is a clear target, the demand that all races be treated equally under the law is a clear target.  For the most part the racism and oppression of our society is no longer institutional in these clear targetable ways.  A debate over how many days of early voting will best encourage minority participation is not as black and white as a debate over poll taxes.  One notable exception is the gay marriage movement, which does have a clear institutional demand.  It should not surprise us then that gay rights has been an area where theater has helped to foster great change in the past few decades. 

Theater, in particular among the arts, has a fundamental advantage when operating under a repressive regime or in a repressive society.  Unlike film, books, television or even visual arts, theater can exist with little to no permanent physical footprint.  As the other art forms give way to state or social control, theater is unique in its ability to appear and disappear almost out of thin air.  Havel could not have done what he did as a filmmaker, at least not while on the ground in his own country.  In today’s American art and entertainment there are very few topics that are off limits.  Even issues about gay rights have been adopted into the mainstream.  So theater loses its privileged position as a safe place to talk a little treason. 

The transgressive theater artists of the past who labored under the challenge of strict restriction, did indeed help change the world.  But in doing so they also provided today’s theater artists with an enormous challenge.  They were so effective in opening up taboo subjects, that they have left us with precious few.  That brings us back to the purpose of theater. As wistfully as we may long for windmills of injustice to tilt at, they simply are not as prominent on the landscape as they once were.  As I noted at the top, I think Norris’ comments are silly, but not because he seems disinterested in social change.  What he is missing is that theater has the power to change individuals by offering them a new and unique view of the world, and how they ought to live in it.  This is a subtle purpose, and frankly one for which is difficult to judge success, but make no mistake, it can be a powerful force for change.