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Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Proposal for the Trade Center Arts Complex

In yesterday’s New York Times Anthony Tommasini wrote a piece on the continuing disarray surrounding the World Trade Center’s Performing Arts Complex.  Superstar architect Frank Gehry is ready to design and build a new palace of culture, but as Tommasini points out, nobody is quite sure what kind of space he is actually supposed to be building, because nobody knows what is going to happen there.  Of the four major non profit arts organizations originally slated to share the space, three are off the project, and the last, the Joyce Theater, has had its role greatly diminished.  The situation is a perfect example of the absolute disfunction of the non profit movement in theater, even with vast amounts of money ready to be spent by the government, nobody is confident that a large NFP company can survive in the space.  The assumption underlying the creation of the space was that it would be a home for very large, very established arts organizations who could take advantage of its huge theaters and spaces.  I propose a very different vision for the complex, a vision guided not by the administrators and gatekeepers of big time theater, but by the artists of New York City themselves.

I was amazed to read in the Times article that in 2007 the city had opted out of using the complex as a theater space (with Signature Theater Company) because the demands of theater were too expensive compared with dance or opera.  Frankly, its absurd that this should be the case.  It reminded me of something my former collaborator Matt Korahais said years ago.  We were preparing with the RAT conference to attend a theater festival in Argentina, and a heated discussion was going on about how many props everyone could bring, Matt got a bit angry, and said “We don’t need this shit, its theater, all I need to make theater is a table to stand on.”  If a theater is too expensive for the WTC arts complex, it is only because major companies have utterly failed to control costs, they simply assume that increased grants and donations will make up for poor management and excessive spending.  But there is plenty of theater in NYC that does not have millions of dollars in technical and space requirements.  And the artists who create that type of theater are much more worthy to take advantage of new public space.

My proposal is a simple one, instead of, or perhaps in addition to the large 500 plus seat theaters, include smaller, lower tech spaces that seat between 40-200 and offer those spaces through a bidding process that any company could engage in.  The biggest hurdle facing small theater companies is space, it is expensive and rare, and often requires an in with whatever non profit entity controls it.  Some will surely think that a drawback to this idea is that the complex would have no artistic guidance, no leadership to ensure “the right type of work” gets done.  To this I say “thank fucking G-d”.  The leadership of the major non profits has proved itself so incompetent at growing and expanding the art form that it is time for them to get out of the way.  If they can’t make theater without hundreds of millions of dollars, there are plenty of people who can.

The process would be quite simple, several months in advance, each small space would be offered in an online auction, some for a week at a time, and perhaps even some cabaret type spaces for one night at a time.  At the time of the auction, every company in the city could bid, and the winner gets the space.  I am extremely confident that a process along these lines would lead to more original, independent and diverse work on the complex stages.  It would also open the space to more diverse audience, as it has been shown that major NFP organizations overwhelmingly create art for wealthy white people.  The theater artists of this city need space, and they will pay for it.  We should give them that chance.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

to keep and bear

Spotlight Right is very proud to announce the upcoming publication of "to keep and bear:  Five Plays in Support of the 2nd Amendment."  Inspired by the recent publication of Gun Control Theater Action, "to keep and bear" offers a counterpoint from five playwrights focused on the value of the American right to bear to arms.  Available later this month as an e Book for Kindle and iBook.

Mike Long ("Propaganda", Republican Theater Festival)
David Marcus (Co-Creator of Sticky)
Kevin Rush ("Crossing Event Horizon", winner Chameleon Theater Circle New Play Award)
Brad Saville ("Williamsburg", "Regretting Fish", co-founder of Eastwind Theater Company)
Jacquetta Szathmari ("That's Funny, You Didn't Sound Black on the Phone" and the Hey You Know It podcast)

We will be having a launch party on April 26th at Happy Ending on Broome Street with readings from the plays.  So stay tuned for more info.

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. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Defense of the Catholic Church, an Open Letter to John Patrick Shanley

Dear Mr. Shanley,

I felt compelled to let you know how offensive I found your Op Ed piece in the New York Times calling for the demise of the Catholic Church, should it not conform to your ideas about the equal treatment of men and women.  You say that as currently constituted my religion deserves it fate, which you describe as doom.  You did not call for the demise of all religion, or even all religions that deny full participatory rights to women, of which there are many.  Instead, you focused all of your ire on the Catholic Church, of which you were once a member.  You argue that the scandals, misogyny and mismanagement of the Church ought to consign it to the dustbin of history, should it fail to change.  You fail to mention a few other things though, things like Catholic Charities, Catholic missionaries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, affordable pre K, grief counseling, and weekly free opportunities for people to share time with members of their communities.  So I’m curious, should the Church in fact meet, what you believe to be its deserved fate, who is going to pick up that slack?

Are you, Mr.Shanley, going to devote yourself to serving the world’s poor?  Will you get on the phone with your wealthy Hollywood buddies and mobilize money and action?  Will you provide community centers to replace the churches where communities come together?  Because I have to tell you, when I go to Church I sit next to homeless and poor people as well as wealthy professionals, when I go to one of your plays on Broadway, I walk past the homeless on the street, and they are not invited inside to hear whatever wisdom your words contain.  Will you provide inexpensive private schools like the ones you attended?  Were your parents able to afford Protestant and nonsectarian prep schools like Collegiate and Trinity?  I know I can’t afford them for my kid, but I can afford Catholic school, where do you suggest I send him once the Church shuffles off this mortal coil?  Will you go to hospices and comfort the dying and their families?

If you do not have good answers to the above questions Mr. Shanley, I suggest you get some before you start condemning the Catholic Church to its doom.  

Finally, I was so impressed by your passion for ensuring that institutions maintain equal participation by women in leadership roles, that I looked into your track record, certain it would be a paradigm of inclusion.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that of the New York premieres of your last 10 plays, dating back to 1998, not a single one was directed by a woman.  How can this be?  Why do you think its important that women be ordained as priests when you clearly don’t care if they get to direct your plays?  Did you even ask?  Did you ever say to a producer “hey, its really important to me that women get to direct my plays, so how about we pick one?”  Did they say no?  I mean what is your excuse, and why shouldn’t you hold yourself to the same standard you demand of the Church?

Like all institutions, the Catholic Church has deep flaws, flaws which the Church and its members struggle with in their attempts to live in Christ’s image.  Samuel Beckett provided us with wonderful advice for our art, our lives and our institutions when he wrote, “Try again, fail again, fail better”.  We are all sinners Mr. Shanley, including the Pope.  We all fail.  I join you in hoping that my Church can fail better, much better, but I ask you to reconsider your assertion that the Church deserves doom if it does not meet your expectations of equality.  If your conscious cannot allow you to do so, then you must, at the very least, offer alternatives for the myriad of services which the Catholic Church offers to the millions upon millions of human beings whose suffering is daily ignored by those of us more focused on our own fortunes.


David Marcus


I received this very thoughtful response to my letter from Mr. Shanley.

I read your piece. I singled out the Catholic Church because the editorial had to do with that church, and not all religions. Most of my plays, as well as the film of Doubt, were PRODUCED by women. In other words, the male directors were working under the auspices of a woman. I've volunteered in soup kitchens for the Salvation Army, spent nights in homeless shelters helping out, and I come from a poor neighborhood, not a rich one. I, at this writing, contribute money to Catholic schools in New York, including the one that threw me out. And I think, shoot me, that the nuns are treated very badly, unfairly. I won't get into the rest of it. You get the drift. But I want to say that I'm sorry to have offended you. I would prefer not to have any opinion that hurt anyone's feelings. Nevertheless, it is my belief that God gave me these feelings and opinions, and that it's my responsibility to show up as a person and speak. Peace. John

Monday, February 11, 2013

Why Kushner Really Defamed Connecticut in "Lincoln"

A spat began last week between Democratic Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney and playwright Tony Kushner over a detail in the latter’s screenplay “Lincoln”.  The moment in question comes as the 13th Amendment, ending slavery, narrowly passes the House of Representatives.   In the film the Connecticut delegation votes against the Amendment.  In reality, all of Connecticut’s congressmen voted in favor.  Rep. Courtney rightly feels that this choice defames Connecticut, placing it as he says, “on the wrong side of history”, he demands that the scene be corrected prior to the film’s release on DVD.  Mr. Kushner, in a rather snarky reply in the Wall Street Journal, defends his “historical drama”, implying that the falsehood about Connecticut serves a higher narrative purpose, to show how close the vote was in the House.  

The first, rather glaring, historical inaccuracy in the scene is that Kushner has the House vote by state, which it very rarely does, and did not do in voting on the 13th Amendment.  Mr. Kushner does not explain why he made this choice, but he does explain, in part, why Connecticut was given the handlebar mustached villain’s role of pro slavery state.  It turns out that Lincoln won the state of Connecticut by a very narrow margin in 1864, and was not as Courtney claimed, “solidly pro Lincoln”.  So to Kushner, the historical record is not telling the whole truth about Connecticut, and if he has to make up a few facts and few fictional politicians to show the Nutmeg State’s true colors, so be it.  But was Connecticut a pro slavery state?  Or an almost pro slavery state?  The broader historical record shows emphatically that it was not.

In 1858 Connecticut elected Republican, William Buckingham as Governor.  Buckingham was a strong supporter and personal friend of Lincoln.  He was a proponent of the 13th Amendment, and after it passed the congress, brought the issue to a ratification vote by the Connecticut legislature.  In addition to the state’s anti slavery Governor, the entire congressional delegation voted in favor of the 13th Amendment, as noted above.  So who were the pro slavery political voices or forces in Connecticut for whose sins Kushner paints the state in the stars and bars?  An 1894 biography of Governor Buckingham helps us answer that question:

“The Democratic leaders promised that no opposition should be made to the passage of the resolution provided the yeas and nays were not called, Under this agreement, the resolution was passed nem.com., the Republicans voting aye and the Democrats maintaining the stipulated silence.  In the Senate, the roll was called and the twenty-one Republican Senators voted yes.  So Connecticut cast her vote for the abolition of slavery without a dissentient voice.”

WITHOUT A DISSENTIENT VOICE!  So Kushner invented Connecticut congressmen to oppose the 13th Amendment when in fact, no politician of that state from either party ever cast a single vote against it during any part of the process.  But why?  In order to show how close the vote was, as Kushner claims?  Surely he could have made it clear that the Amendment only passed 2/3rds of the House by two votes without defaming Connecticut.  

The most plausible reason why Kushner cast Connecticut in the role of pro slavery state has to do with the progressive historical impulse to impugn the motives the of the pro Union North and to reveal their complicity with slavery in general.  This is not a new idea, it is not even new in entertainment.  We see this theme in the musical 1776’s song about the triangle trade (Molasses for Rum for Slaves) and more recently in AMC’s Hell on Wheels in which a lovable ex confederate soldier is much nicer to freed blacks than the nasty Irish ex Union soldiers.  In a very general way this view of history is perfectly accurate, many in the north were certainly racist, and many cared much more about preserving the union than freeing the slaves.  But Kushner is not dealing in generalities here.  His choice of Connecticut is quite specific and quite telling.  By choosing a state in New England, the region of the country most associated with the abolition movement, Kushner spreads the evil of pro slavery sentiment as far north as plausibly possible.  Certainly to have Massachusetts or New Hampshire vote against the 13th Amendment would have been too absurd even for Kushner, Connecticut he could get away with.  Or so he thought.  

Kushner is right to say that “historical drama” need not bother with making sure every fact is correct, conversations are invented, motives are guessed at, but with this freedom comes responsibility.  For better of worse, Lincoln with its big budget and superstar director and actors, will provide many people with their most comprehensive understanding of Lincoln and the 13th Amendment.  There are far better targets for Kushner’s dramaturgical ire, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Delaware all actually voted against ratifying the 13th Amendment.  But none of those states provide the opportunity to stain the New England region with sin.  Kushner ought to take heed of Representative Courtney’s request and restore the State of Connecticut to its rightful place, as a stalwart force in favor of the abolition of slavery.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why Big Non Profit Theaters Will Never Diversify

The movers and shakers of the theater world are very big on diversity.  They talk about it a lot, they hold symposiums and festivals and talk backs.  Diversity is minutely dissected, and viewed as an important goal by almost all theater artists.  I have yet to meet an “anti-diversity” artistic director.  However, notwithstanding this unanimity within the art form, real diversity in American theater remains illusive.  I am hard pressed to think of another industry where so many people, with so much power, are incapable of bringing about a result they all agree upon.  I would suggest that this failure  is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what “diversity” in theater means.  In his blog post “The Weight of White People in the World” in Arts Journal, Clayton Lord, asks “Should an arts organization that finds itself located in a more diverse community be expected to to serve a more diverse audience?”  Not surprisingly, his answer is yes.  But his point is that as white artists and producers, we are blissfully unaware of our privileged position in a cultural hegemony of whiteness.  It may be a valid point, but it doesn’t lead to me to ask whether today’s arts organizations “should” serve a more diverse audience, it leads to me ask whether they could, even if they wanted to.  

Lord, who has been studying patterns in theater in the Bay area, shows that 80% of theater audiences are white.  Even where the overall population in their locations are much more diverse.  The typical answer to address this imbalance is subject matter and casting.  If you do more plays about minorities and cast minority actors you will attract more diverse audiences, a kind of “if you build it they will come” approach.  As anyone involved in theater over the last 15 years knows, this has been tried, at least to some degree.  It has not been a glowing success.  Perhaps the “weight of whiteness” in theater has less to do with subject matter and more to do with basic infrastructure and funding models.  The one assumption shared by the theateratti who push diversity is that it can be achieved without fundamentally transforming the means by which theater is created.  I find this difficult to accept.

We can see an interesting parallel in religion.  Christian sects differ in their theology, or subject matter, but they also differ greatly in their forms of worship and church membership.  If the Catholic church suddenly adopted the theology of Quakerism or Pentecostalism, but expressed that theology within the structure of the Mass, and the social systems of the Catholic parish, I’m not sure it would attract a whole lot of converts.  Theater is more than subject matter, it is the building, the lobby, the social interaction, the food and drink, the neighborhood, the dress codes.  Most of these factors are already baked into the experience of going to a big budget NFP theater.

Fancy theater people mourn that minorities aren’t getting any theater in their lives, and its just not true, what they aren’t doing is partaking in the non profit palaces of noblesse oblige.  And it is these palaces that contain the hegemonic “weight of whiteness” (if you care to call it that, could also be class, or education level, etc.)  As I have pointed out before in the pages of this blog Tyler Perry sold millions in theater tickets in the black community (as a for profit company), but is systematically ignored by his artistic betters.   People of different cultures, means and interests interact with theater in different ways, and trying to force all of them into the “high theater” box of the “serious” theaters is never going to work.  When we take that approach we ask everybody else to accept the dominance of the style of theater preferred and created by wealthy, well educated, white people.  To make matters worse, the very existence of high profile, moneyed 501(c)3 theaters has a chilling effect on other theater producers who struggle to overcome the hurdles of NFP tax status and a lack of wealthy friends and relatives.  

If we want more diversity, if we want more blacks and asians and women and hispanics to write, produce and attend plays, we need a more level playing field, not an attitude shift among wealthy donors and artistic directors.  The 501(c)3 funding model, as currently constituted, is an institutional guarantee that the elite will control theater.  If it is not changed, we may be sure that our “great” theaters will continue to hire far more poor and minority people to clean their facilities and serve at their Galas then they ever will to make their art.