The Republican Theater Festival, and Why I am Working on It
Yeah, I know. This is a real thing, anyway, and the number one reason that I’m working on it is that hardly anyone every invites me to direct (and by “hardly anyone” I mean “no one”), so I am going to take the opportunities that come my way. But despite my base craving for acclaim and attention, I was still hesitant to touch this one with anything short of a very long pole, and so sat down and did some soul-searching, trying to reason my way through it. This is what I came up with.
There Really Aren’t That Many Republicans in the Theater
It’s true, though I think that in large part, the Republicans have no one to blame for this but themselves. For the last thirty years (maybe longer, but thirty years especially), the twin Republican programs of “balance the budget” and “cut taxes always” have resulted in a need to justify steeper and steeper cuts to every imaginable public institution. In fact, it’s gone so far that now Republican ideology literally espouses the notion that if people aren’t willing to pay for it themselves, then it can’t be worth having around — an argument to the power of the popular purse-string that necessarily looks at Transformers 2 as the pinnacle of art.
Now, whatever your philosophy on the subject is, I don’t really care. I believe that there are some things that matter more than they’re worth, that there are some things best served by public institution, and I believe that the arts are one of those things. Art in its transformative sense (not “art” in the sense of “craft”, which is how we mean it when we talk about art as a product) is meant to be universally accessible, and that puts it in direct confrontation with the economics of scarcity that the “free market” is designed to govern.
So but anyway, the Arts in general, and often the theater in particular, has been especially derided as being superfluous, certainly; wasteful, often; effeminate (or gay or queer) when its opponents get riled up; generally, this is just to divert public funds away from it, and back to the important, manly things that compose a civilization, things like wars and commerce. It has the dual effect of souring people on the notion of public arts funding, and ALSO the effect of an anti-marketing campaign against the arts in general, making it even more difficult for the theater to flourish in the “free market.”
And because our politics are polarizing, the second that the Republicans take an “anti-art” stand, as a result of their “anti spending money on things” plan, they end up both becoming the anti-art party, and creating an opposition faction that is an “art” party. There’s no reason, after all, that theater can’t express Republican values, or Republican ideals, or any of that — indeed, there are a lot of plays that do. There’d be even more plays that do that if more Republicans went to the theater, but importantly, Republicans don’t go to the theater because they’ve convinced themselves that it’s all for chicks and gays and Communist parasites, trying to siphon money off the hard-working NASCAR fans who don’t have time for that frou-frou ballet shit and their Shakespeares and such.
Now someone wants to start a Republican Theater Festival and there’s a million people ready to send plays in, because they want an avenue for their ideas and they feel like the regular theater rejects them, but whose fault is that? And more importantly, who’s going to give a shit about it? If you only look at the arts as a tool for spreading your message, instead of a thing that is valuable in and of itself, then you can’t expect to get a very receptive audience — an audience who’s going to be a little resentful of the fact that you didn’t even give a shit about the theater until you saw it as an opportunity to try to convince people about the evils of public arts funding.
Wait, So Why Am I Doing This Again?
Theater has its own historical, Conservative period (the 18th century in England was a great time for these sorts of plays, which were actually uniformly terrible), but in the modern era it’s much worse than Conservative: it’s conservative. Everybody is so desperate for money and for attention and for validation that even our most transgressive plays are hardly that; even those lauded as the most daring, the most extraordinary all fall pretty neatly into the same, pre-establish categories of “Families Are Weird,” “Bumbling Questions About Faith,” “Musicals About Things You Wouldn’t Normally Make a Musical About,” “The Irish Are A Miserable People,” and ” “The Experience of the Other.” That last one I think is the most meritorious, and I’m by no means arguing that these kinds of plays shouldn’t exist, but I am saying that I’m kind of tired of talking about them. The theatrical environment these days isn’t one that’s conducive to really in-depth discussion, anyway — (notwithstanding the occasional half-hearted jab at a “talkback session”) what with its reviews that are little more than book-reports, the shrinking space for discussion, the rapid erosion of intellectual grappling with the arts — and so often the attempt to discuss notions of, for instance, gender and sexuality in the modern world ends up (often by economic necessity) as “What if We Did Othello, but Iago was gay?”
Well, I don’t know, what IF you did that? Who cares, seriously.
And this is to say nothing of the endless spates of revivals, of workshops of half-formed ideas, of bake-off one-acts, so often by people with degrees in theater who don’t have anything to say on any subject, we’re just trying to get noticed, or to get our names out there, or to get published in a book or something. I’m guilty of this, too, of course, it’s an attitude that penetrates the entire industry. I wrote a play for a play festival where the whole thing had to take place in a subway car, and you had to write it in about two hours; someone asked me what I was going to do with it afterwards. Seriously, you guys. It’s a junk play that I wrote in two hours on a train, under what POSSIBLE circumstance could I expect anyone to give a fuck about it?
But that’s the other side of the equation, now; a universal, sometimes narcissistic eagerness to just be seen, to just get our ideas “out there”, however dumb those ideas may be. Ultimately, it’s the other half of the division that we’ve created: where on the one hand you’ve got Conservatives who’ve only come to care about theater insofar as it can be used to preach Conservativism, and Liberals who don’t care anything about what theater is or says or does, just so long as we keep doing it.
And, obviously, that it doesn’t express Conservativism, which actually is (or is becoming) a kind of a tabu subject in the theater, and what I think ultimately drew me in to this plan. At least it’s fucking something. Something to argue about, something to fight about, some opportunity to take this ideas and actually pit them against each other, instead of leaving everything comfortable ensconced in its own realm, hermetically sealed off from the desrtuctive forces of the Hegelian dialectic.
I’ve said before that I don’t believe in very many things — I’m probably not a very good Liberal, in that sense, because even though I’m a self-professed atheist, feminist, anarchist, et cetera, et cetera, those ideas don’t really form the core of my personal identity. I’m not even altogether sure that I have a core personal identity. I believe that ideas are tested in the conflict, that’s true, and those beliefs that I align myself with are a consequence of this first belief, the belief in the methodology. I’m not an atheist out of faith, I’m an atheist by accident — it’s presently the only reasonable conclusion that my methodology leaves me. And as I’ve said before, the thing about the scientific methodology is that ideas are only as true as you’re willing to question them; if you’ve got a belief, no matter how cherished, no matter how essential to your sense of self, and you aren’t willing to tear it to shreds in order to prove that it’s true, then it’s garbage. Throw it out, it’s trash.
And when I look around at my Facebook friends, and realize that I’ve literally got no one trying to make a sincere and compelling argument on behalf of anything that turns up in the Republican platform, I start to wonder if I’ve been, consciously or not, shielding myself from those very questions that I believe are at the core of healthy belief. Have I been cultivating an environment that was easy? Have I been slowly and methodically culling the challengers to my intellectual positions from my social sphere? At long last, have I lost the courage of my convictions?
Like Confucius, I believe that the three virtues that all human beings can recognize are courage, compassion, and wisdom; as such, I believe that no matter how these plays break down, as long as I approach them fearlessly, empathetically, and with an open mind, they will reveal that my suspicions about the moral bankruptcy of the Republican party platform are, in fact, correct — it will either be the case that the plays, for all their identification as “Republican” are not any more political than any other plays and simply express the same values that all of us share in common; or else, the play will express a political theory or principle that will find itself in conflict with these virtues, and thus reveal itself to be a fraud; or else lastly, the play will show that whatever I thought I believed, my OWN theories were in conflict with the virtues I try to live by.
I think that I’m probably right, in terms of my own political philosophy, but I can’t believe it if I don’t test it, and so for all my theorizing, it’s vitally important that (however occasionally) I put my money where I’ve let my mouth run.