I was recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts, “Three On the Aisle,” a show in which three NYC theater critics discuss a range of topics. While I always find them extremely well informed and very interesting, I was especially excited about the topic of this particular podcast: “Problematic Shows and Those Who Love/Hate Them.”
The critics presented more questions than solutions, and as is to be expected, their opinions were colored by their own personal preferences. When discussing whether Carousel (problematic because of the ways it seems to justify, and in some ways glorify, a wife-beater) should still be performed, one of the critics, Elisabeth Vincentelli, claimed that it was simply too beautiful to cease performing it. They had similar opinions on My Fair Lady, though they did not shy away from discussing the problems they saw in both shows.
As I listened, the question rattled around in my own brain, and it has continued to do so. Should shows that are considered “problematic” be performed? As the next logical step in that train of thought, I asked myself, “Who is deciding what is problematic?” And then, of course, the inevitable question which is always where I seem to end up these days: “What is the real purpose of theater?”
The only way I could begin to answer that question was to start with what I know theater is not: it is certainly not for an elite few who have the jurisdiction of saying what is problematic and what is not. I have recently been brushing up on my theater history, and one of the things that has struck me most profoundly is how many times theater was recognized for the revolutionary force that it is, and an attempt made to either stamp it out or control it. In each attempt, it eventually came back with more to say and a farther reach.
I have not been shy with my opinion that mainstream American theater has reached a breaking point, and is at a crossroads. It can no longer continue along the trajectory it’s been following and be relevant to the population, and like the melodramas of the early nineteenth century, traditional realism and big-production stage theater will eventually become a relic. Of that I have no doubt. But considering what the next trend will be is much more interesting, and I think it starts with the very questions Three on the Aisle was addressing.
A few months ago I read a fascinating article by American Theatre about the dearth of conservative theater. It highlighted a number of problems, including the fact that some artists claim they have been ostracized because of even the most tangential associations with conservative politics in their shows, and in the case of one woman, a festival she ran in an attempt to provide an outlet to playwrights who couldn’t get their work done anywhere else (even though she herself was very politically liberal.) I’m not going to harp on this topic, though I do feel this is something theater artists need to take a long, hard look at amongst their own ranks. I’m much more interested in the larger point of the article, which was that most conservatives feel no compulsion to go to the theater because they know they won’t see themselves or their opinions reflected onstage.
I believe being approached with new ideas and opinions is one of the essential and sacred tasks of the theater. But I also believe that the core human need and desire with any type of theater, through any age of history, is and has been to find connection. To not see oneself, or a reflection of some part of oneself in a performance is to be completely unmoved by it. Think of the shows that mean the most to you; I know my own most beloved shows are those in which I have found a deep and profound connection to the characters and the journeys they travel.
I am not trying to make a political statement, but I know for a fact that if there is a large percentage of the population that does not feel they can attend the theater because their stories are not being told, we as theater artists are failing. To be honest, I’m not even sure how we got here, because I know plenty of people who identify in other ways (as people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ+, women) who also feel that their stories are not being told. So whose stories are we telling?
Back to the topic of this piece. Should theaters tell the stories of people they do not agree with? Should plays that seem problematic to some, or to many, be performed? For many (most?) theater artists, the answer is probably no. It seems unethical to ask artists to be part of narratives they do not support.
I often feel that I walk a very fine line between worlds, and for a long time now I have been fascinated by the fact that I have friends and colleagues on all sides who sincerely feel that they have been marginalized and squeezed out of the conversation. Friends who are extremely liberal who feel silenced and judged by the society at large. Friends who are very conservative who feel that they couldn’t even consider a career in the arts. (And to be honest, they probably couldn’t.)
I am not sure what the solution is, but with all my study of theater history, I am beginning to wonder if the problem is not necessarily what is being presented, but how it is being presented. Maybe if, as in Shakespeare’s and Moliere’s times, audiences were allowed to express an opinion, more people would be compelled to participate in performances. Maybe if, as with Commedia dell’Arte and medieval mystery plays, people were a part of the action, they would feel more agency in the dialogue. Maybe if we just lowered the effing ticket prices.
I am a bit of a theater revolutionary--not necessarily in content, but in style. I’m ready to chuck the whole thing out, and start again with workshops and devised plays and shabby theaters and day jobs. But I know what that means for a lot of people, and I wouldn’t wish disaster on anyone. I just wish people in American could see their own bodies as vessels of story, their own narratives as worthy of communal performance and a little bit of reflection. I hold desperately to the idea that if we can just stop doing such shiny theater, maybe they will.
I would never ask an artist to work on something they do not agree with. But I do know that feeling ignored is a large part of why so many of the political trends we’re seeing today are happening, and any kind of true change only comes about by extending a loving opportunity to everyone--even those we don’t understand or particularly like. Theater’s primary purpose is not to give voice to the right ideals, but simply to give voice. Scary as that may be.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria