The Republican Theater Festival, and Why I am Working on It

Posted: October 22, 2012 in Braak, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

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.

The Methodology

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.

  1. Josh says:

    Yeah, that all makes sense. So, is the deal that you’d be directing one of the ten already written plays? Have you gotten to see any of the scripts or anything yet?

  2. braak says:

    Yeah, I’m directing one of them. I’ve seen two of the scripts so far — the rest will be a surprise — but, frankly, I don’t think there’s anything especially “Republican” about them. The one that I’m actually working on I guess makes an argument against “white liberal condescension” that you see on the Right Wing of the spectrum, but I think the people who originally rejected it from a different festival for not being “liberal” enough were really just dummies.

  3. David Marcus says:

    The most compelling argument against the not for profit model in theater is not that it costs too much, it’s that it hampers the growth of the art form. Government funding of theater productions has increased over the past few decades but attendance at plays and their relevance have decreased. Just recently the Inquirer announced plans to decrease its coverage. Instead of focusing energy on developing audience, new companies focus energy on getting cash from rich people or granting institutions. This is not a recipe for a dynamic theater that appeals to new and diverse audiences.

  4. braak says:

    Certainly, that would be a compelling argument, if there was any evidence to suggest that 1) theater’s many historical not-for-profit models have hindered its artistic development, and 2) the corresponding for-profit model stimulated artistic development. I mean, I’m not sure what you’d even be talking about if you wanted to talk about for-profit theater — not the Greeks, all of whose theater was publicly-funded. Not the Romans, those plays were all paid for by patrons from the political caste. Most medieval plays were likewise paid for by political or clerical patrons; Shakespeare and his contemporaries certainly sold tickets, but it’s important to remember that Shakespeare’s acting company was one of only two that controlled a duopoly on productions in the city of London (does it count as patronage if your patron doesn’t give you money, they just make it a crime to compete against you? I guess it doesn’t matter; the Lords Admiral and Chamberlain both gave their companies money, anyway). (Even Goethe, despite his insistence that the art be able to stand on its own, ultimately enjoyed a captive audience, since his theater was owned by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, and he could literally just order people to go to the theater.)

    Really, the only period of history in which all theaters were uniformly for-profit was the very late eighteenth to the very early twentieth centuries — an era remarkable precisely for its lack of growth as an artform, replete with bourgeois melodrama, mostly, that doesn’t get reinvigorated until the rise of Expressionism in the early part of the 20th century (stimulated, of course, by the influx of Germans riding high on their public education dole and the ill-fated Weimar Republic’s massive government expenditures on the arts).

    And I don’t know what for-profit development you’d want to look for — not among the late 19th century producers like Steele MacKaye, who secured dozens of patents, certainly, but a giant elevator on which you could build your sets (and the building of which ultimately bankrupted him) hardly counts as an artistic innovation. Surely not the Shubins, who’d be happy to run revivals of Neil Simon and Wicked into eternity if they thought people would keep buying tickets to it.

    Every innovative new modern play has found its development in the not-for-profit world (and isn’t that just like the for-profit system? Let the government-subsidized theaters do the hard work of development, then bring the sucker to Broadway and make a mint on it), either from small theaters or from academia. In fact, the history of artistic development has been almost uniformly NOT one of entrepreneurs trying to sell more tickets (scrabbling for cash just as badly as not-for-profits do with their rich donors), but monomaniacs who seem largely unconcerned about getting rich, which is why they ONLY seem to be able to thrive in academia.

    I guess, with the exception of burlesque, what would you say is an example of an artistic movement that succeeded by enjoying a competitive advantage first, rather than being weird and unsuccessful and then later coming into its own after people spent years pouring money in it to no conceivable return?

    (Incidentally: 1) no, government money for the theater has decreased in the last several years, trust me, I and my grant applications know; and 2) I think the consensus is that the Inquirer — a newspaper that’s been grossly-mismanaged for years, by the way — bumped Shapiro out to New Jersey in the hopes that he’d quit and they could hire someone cheaper.)

  5. Concerning the lack of pro-conservative arguments among your friends list: I took a step back some months ago, thinking the same thing. After all, if I wanted to profess myself as an open-minded person, why shouldn’t I take that exercise to try and see what’s across the aisle?

    Well. Spoiler: it didn’t work out. I tried to think of what might be the core belief of a person, to think that lowering the deficit was somehow a better goal than public gains, or that a free market, when unregulated, will somehow find equilibrium. As far as I can tell, it’s because they think of people as numbers.

    Why spend money on sick people when it’s “obviously” more efficient not to? If a corporation wants to deplete the market, then so be it – the numbers will balance out when they crash and burn. And since I cannot bring myself to think that way (“what’s a couple hundred thousand people breathing in coal dust, when the profit margins are so awesome?”) I cannot bridge that gap. That jump in societal logic it must take to think to yourself, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

  6. braak says:

    But I mean though, is what is the selection process for my friends that results in none of them trying to make this sincere argument? I mean, I don’t even talk politics with most people, surely there’d be SOMEONE on there who wasn’t completely turned off by my deadly atheist socialism.

  7. Maybe you have spidey-sense for crazy right-wing nutbars like I do. Pretty lame superpower, I’ll admit.

  8. Josh says:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily that important to engage with present-day American political conservatives arguments qua arguments, but what isn’t happening enough is understanding what motivates people to buy into them. Because although the vast majority of my Facebook friends too are politically and socially liberal, I have a few who aren’t. And because I know them in real life, I know they’re not dumb or mean or anti-scientific or even anti-intellectual. But I’m still not quite sure why they believe what they do.

    Also, one function of the sad state of today’s right wing is that there are worthwhile arguments to be made against liberal modes of thought that at this point are almost taken for granted, but there aren’t that many people making them, especially in the public sphere. Marilynne Robinson is one of the few who does so compellingly, and Alan Jacobs is pretty good too. Both are also fairly socially liberal, I think, but in sort of the no-brainer way you’d expect intelligent people to be (e.g., not denying the problem of global warming). At their philosophical roots, though, they’re coming from a conservative place.

  9. David Marcus says:

    The NEA started in 1965, or as I put it “decades ago”. That is also the time period when the not for profit theater movement took root. I would suggest that the period of the 1930s through the 1950s was a much richer period of American theater than we have seen since. I think that is because audiences are better judges of what good theater is than well paid experts at The Public or Yale Rep. I would urge theater artists to focus more on making cheap, well targeted plays that people can afford to see, rather than charging 160 a ticket to watch people read The Great Gatsby for 8 hours. But hey, it takes all kinds.

  10. braak says:

    “I think that is because audiences are better judges of what good theater is than well paid experts at The Public or Yale Rep.”

    A bold statement! What makes you say that, exactly? The massive ticket sales of Spider-Man: The Musical? The fact that Cats ran on Broadway for twenty years? The enduring vital appeal of Neil Simon?

    Or is it just the theater of the fifties? Like I said, I’m discounting the theater of the twenties and thirties — sure, it wasn’t part of the non-profit system as we have it, but the art form (again, not the industry) was massively influenced by the European models that waxed and waned, but generally came out ahead in terms of public funding for the arts, and so the argument that theater benefited from public support is unavoidable. (And, I just want to point out, the popular theater of the 30s and 40s was radically socialist and anarchist, almost without exception.)

    You’re telling me the 50s was the richest point in the history of American theater? Just assuming for the sake of argument that we’re happy to throw out August Wilson and Tony Kushner, Jose Rivera, three quarters of Edward Albee, and the entire, massive sea-change in the structure of theater that happened with the introduction of post-modernism in the sixties (you don’t have to like it, certainly, but let’s at least agree that it’s a significant contributor to to the development of the form), what would you say, precisely, was the high point of fifties theater?

    And if you want to talk about the NEA as being the sole indicator of funding for the arts, then yes, it’s true that there is a net increase in arts funding between now and 1965, but that’s grossly misleading. The Funding for the NEA has never been fixed; it peaked as a percentage of GDP in the 70s, and then again in the 90s, but it’s not like it’s been a steady increase throughout history. And this overlooks the fact that there are dozens of other state and local organizations that provide money for public enterprise, much of which funding has dried up in the last ten years, making the argument about a general trend over fifty years a little on the broad side. You can technically, accurately say there’s more money for the arts now than there was in 1964, but it’s grossly inaccurate to describe the last half a century of arts funding as being one of homogenous support.

    All that is beside the fact that you aren’t seriously suggesting a period of stagnation in the arts that precludes all those people I just mentioned, are you?

  11. braak says:

    Also, and I guess this is probably worth mentioning since I’m here, it’s true that there was no NEA in the thirties and forties, but it’s not like there was no money for the arts — the WPA was literally pouring money into the theater (and the Army, let’s not forget, which is still the largest bureaucracy in the country, was hiring propagandists by the boatload).

    If you want to come here and make the basic statement that “The most compelling argument against the not for profit model in theater is not that it costs too much, it’s that it hampers the growth of the art form”, then you’ve got to show the peaks of artistic growth and innovation with direct correspondence in troughs of public funding for the arts, and I’m not even seeing a correlation here, much less anything that would prove a determinate causal relationship.

    And all of THAT aside, even if you could show it from the 30s-to-the-50s (for the sake of argument, you can have all three decades if you want), you’re talking about a thirty year period in a genre that is TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED years old — that is not a convincingly large sample size, even if there WAS a direct correspondence.

    And even setting that issue aside, I think it vastly misses the point of the not-for-profit system to suggest that it somehow 1) disregards audience interest, 2) somehow makes theaters MORE preoccupied with money, and 3) that these conditions are both mutually exclusive and contrary to artistic development.

    There’s not a not-for-profit in the country that wouldn’t go out of business if it didn’t sell tickets, and sure enough, the “conservativism” (lower-case c) in theater directly corresponds to how desperate those theaters are for money. I think historically, artistic innovation always comes at the expesne of audience interest, that audience interest becomes of paramount concern when theater’s run out of money, and that the not-for-profit model is designed to allow theaters to take more artistic risks precisely by easing the burdens of ticket sale requirements.

    If anything, I think the growth of the artform is stymied because we don’t spend ENOUGH money on the theater.

  12. David Marcus says:

    I think the WPA is a perfect example of how government can effectively contribute to the arts and especially to theater. I’m not an expert on it, but my understanding is that the WPA provided mostly infrastructure, ie physical theaters. I don’t think the WPA was paying half the production budget for professional theater companies. There are great ways that government uses zoning laws, and negotiates for public space on development, that help theater. And the spending is agreed to by a legislature, not by a rich person trying to pay less taxes. And this gets right down to it. I’m arguing for a theater that is popular, where a large and hopefully growing number of people influence what gets produced. The non profit model produces the opposite. You said yourself that some shows need that freedom from ticket sales. But if a bunch of experts are picking plays for a small elite audience, why should I believe they are good, or be willing to pay for it every April 15th? Let the rich folks in Williamstown pay more if they want “important” new work.

  13. braak says:

    @David: you still have not even made a remotely compelling case that there is a direct correspondence between the not-for-profit model and the hindrance of the development of the theatrical artform.

    Listen, there’s no law that says that theaters have to be not-for-profit. In fact, there are a lot of theaters that are for-profit! New York has several of them, and several for-profit companies that rely entirely on investors to front the costs of a production which is then made up in ticket sales. If you want to make a theater company that is a for-profit theater, you can do that, and if you live in New York, then you’re basically in the ideal place to create a popular theater in which you make a product for little money and don’t charge very much money for people to see it.

    All you have to do is 1) not ask for donations (easy! Just don’t ask for them!) and 2) only perform gigantic musicals based on pre-established media properties that have an existing fanbase.

  14. Josh says:

    On that note, let me just add that I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in the first two weeks of previews, and wow, there is an example of for-profit theater not resulting in anything that anyone should ever have had to see. (And I say that as a man who owns six-foot-tall images of Bono’s and the Edge’s countenances, and who counts Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends among my favorite television shows ever.) And then apparently they spent a lot more money and it became watchable. It was sort of like the Wall Street bailout, I think, as it had become too big to fail, although in fairness the taxpayers didn’t have to foot the bill.

    Anyway, yeah: For-profit theater. Not any more reliable or consistent than not-for-profit theater, as far as I can see.

  15. braak says:

    Well, and there’s no reason to assume that it would be. Up until Kickstarter, there was no way to generate a play based on audience interest beforehand — ticket sales are feedback, not reconnaisance. So no matter what kind of model you’ve built your theater on, unless it’s predicated on the audience reading all the scripts and voting on the one that they like and then finding a director that they want in order to do it, then the whole thing is still going to hinge on some person somewhere sitting down and making a decision about what plays are going to go onstage.

    In the for-profit world, this is based entirely on “what do we think is going to sell?” and in that respect, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was probably the riskiest misadventure on Broadway in years, just because it wasn’t a play that someone, somewhere else, had developed beforehand — but, of course, a Broadway producer doesn’t look at plays necessarily, they look at resources: media property evaluated by name recognition scores, director evaluated by past ticket sales, actors and music evaluated by Q rating, &c. “A million dollar property with a well-known director and music by one of the most popular bands in history? Of course we should make it! What do you mean, ‘script’?”

    So, in that sense, the systems aren’t any different. Someone’s got to make that decision, and that person is going to be chasing some form of reward for the effort in some respect. In the for-profit world, it’s only ticket sales; in the not-for-profit world, it’s just MOSTLY ticket sales, and occasionally the tastes of individual rich people (though more rarely, I think), sometimes it’s institutional grants. And the merit of the non-profit system is that, because you sometimes DON’T have to chase ticket sales, then you can sometimes take a risk developing a property that you’re not sure an audience is going to like ahead of time, and that is the one and only place where the artform is actually developed.

  16. […] the Republican Theater Festival occurred, and all in all, it was really not that big a deal. No fights broke out; I was not […]

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