Election, Stage Left

Political theater may preach to the converted, but it can still teach us something about the world

Theater is a difficult business to be in at the best of times, but it's even more challenging in an election year. With the mass, commercialized media of television, the Internet, talk radio, and movies possessing an exponentially greater ability to reach voters, many people are apt to dismiss the intensely localized, live medium of theater as irrelevant to the democratic process. The fact that most political dramas espouse a liberal point of view and play largely to like-minded audiences only serves to further ghettoize the art form. Even those among us who believe in the stage's potential as a vehicle for entertainment and social change are annoyingly difficult to please. Some audience members regularly kvetch at producers and playwrights for being too preachy, while others harangue them for not being political enough. Caught between a ballot box and a presidential race, what's a poor theater artist to do?

This predicament is deeply ironic when you consider the intimate relationship shared by politics and theater over the years. Ever since the earliest known political satire, Aeschylus' The Persians, was first performed in the fifth century B.C., the stage has served as a pulpit for political commentary. From Shakespeare (Henry V) and Schiller (Wallenstein) to Brecht (Mother Courage) and Miller (The Crucible), playwrights have embraced the medium's reliance on metaphor and allegory to convey searing messages through subtle stage poetry. In the U.S., the birth of the Federal Theatre Project (a component of President Roosevelt's New Deal aimed at providing work for unemployed actors, directors, and playwrights) led to a more confrontational approach in the late 1930s. Agitprop plays like Marc Blitzstein's pro-union drama The Cradle Will Rock and Clifford Odets' labor strike play Waiting for Lefty had a transformative effect on the political landscape. More recently, hard-hitting works by the likes of Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Anna Deavere Smith (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), and Sarah Jones (Bridge and Tunnel) have sparked controversy and public debate. Meanwhile, the wide reach of theater activism endeavors like Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues and The Lysistrata Project (which sparked 1,029 simultaneous readings of Aristophanes' antiwar comedy Lysistrata around the globe on March 3, 2003) have spread awareness about such issues as violence against women and the war in Iraq through grassroots campaigning.

Theater has long possessed a reputation for being the most inherently political of art forms, thanks to its immediacy and mutability, and the relative speed and low cost with which a production can be mounted. With the possible exception of the musical version of Xanadu, it's hard to think of a work for the stage that doesn't have some kind of political idea buried somewhere beneath the surface, no matter how obliquely.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Making a Killing satirized the Bushies' efforts to control information coming out of Iraq.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Making a Killing satirized the Bushies' efforts to control information coming out of Iraq.

Documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth might be weighty, well-made films of global significance. They certainly generated a great deal of buzz when they were first released. But how many filmmakers can claim to have reacted to world events with the swiftness of, say, the Living Theatre back in the 1950s, or, to give a contemporary example, local theater director Mark Jackson, who incorporated new lines into his play The Death of Meyerhold in reaction to news about the capture of Saddam Hussein?

Bay Area residents looking to galvanize their hearts and minds in the run up to November 4 could do a lot worse than seek inspiration from the theater. Some companies are dealing with the presidential election head-on. Political theater stalwart San Francisco Mime Troupe is developing an as-yet-untitled play: In the words of head writer Michael Gene Sullivan, it is about a small, dying Rust Belt town "which, because of an electronic balloting glitch and the Electoral College, becomes the deciding factor in the election." Unconditional Theatre is presenting Swing State Stories, a "documentary play" based on interviews with Northern California election volunteers, in political clubs and canvassing training sessions. Meanwhile, Climate Theater plans to send up both the democratic process and the media with the reality-TV-inspired America's Next Top President. Even plays with no specific connection to the election may take on new meanings this year, whether their creators intended them to or not. By virtue of the power of metaphor, several upcoming productions will doubtless assume a significance above and beyond what they might achieve in non-election years. Such plays include Gogol's satire about petty government officials, The Government Inspector, at American Conservatory Theater; Macbeth, Shotgun Players' take on Shakespeare's power-hungry Scottish thane; and Magic Theatre's world premiere of Wendy MacLeod's Birnham Woods, in which a middle-class dinner party takes a sinister Orwellian turn.

From the numerous conversations I've had with local theater directors and playwrights in recent weeks, it seems that everyone is united in a desire to create work that inspires people to think more deeply about the world. But with the exception of organizations whose output is directly inspired by the democratic process and/or party politics (Unconditional Theatre, the Mime Troupe, etc.), this aim has nothing in particular to do with the presidential race; it's simply part of their guiding philosophy. In a sense, every year is an election year in the world of theater. "All theater is political if it engages you," Edward Albee said in a 2005 speech. "If more people took theater seriously ... we'd have different election results."

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