Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thoughts on the phony progressive politics of the theatre

Gandhi's statue at Occupy Boston.
You know, I am not really an activist, but I do try to get out there when it counts, when showing up makes a difference. I support Occupy Boston financially, and visit as often as I can. Back when the Massachusetts Supreme Court made marriage equality a possibility in this state, I went to the marches and spent days at the State House, laughing at the praying nuns and the bleach-blonde moms shipped up by bus by the Baptists.  And I was in the crowd facing the riot police when the protests got a little rough at Boston's Democratic Convention - which I admit was frightening, although I still remember with affection the guy who kept yelling, "They're not scary if you picture them naked!" as we were pushed relentlessly back by the advancing line of plexiglass shields and automatic weapons.

And you know, I have to say one thing - I've almost never seen people from the theatre out there when it counted.  I don't remember seeing any actors or directors or playwrights at these events (or critics either).   Instead I always seem to see the same folks - the earnest, scruffy college kids, and the lesbian ministers, and the guy in the wheelchair, and the crunchy septuagenarians with their stringy hair and their beads and rainbow shirts who, let's face it, have always been in the right about everything.

I don't really feel the presence of the theatre, though.  And certainly nobody at the protests thinks about the theatre (aside from maybe the Bread and Puppet folks).  They know today's theatre follows, but never leads, the breaking political movements.  You can count on the theatre to show up late, watching itself in the mirror.

But God, you would imagine from reading the theatre's own journals and blogs that it was somehow on the barricades.  There's a constant ongoing battle, in fact, over who can look more progressive than whom.  The world marches on without it, but the theatre still dreams it's leading the charge, and that its internecine squabbles are somehow mystically driving the dialogue.  If only!

Which may be why I get pissed off (too pissed off, I know) when I read self-promotional material like this.  On the one hand, I suppose, good for its author: she certainly understands how to get ahead in her little fishbowl (the other fish are all applauding).  On the other hand - for chrissakes, to somebody who shivered in the cold and shouted down the opposition for the sake of marriage equality (or any equality) this all just looks so spoiled and obnoxious: an elaborate moral toilette that's all but indistinguishable from narcissism.  No wonder nobody really takes the theater seriously!  It has no fucking skin in the game.  (I note the Youngblog's latest gambit is to "Brunchify Wall Street" - oh, how clever!) Seriously, you can't be a saint and a self-promoter at the same time - well, maybe you can in the blogosphere, and on the new play circuit, and even in Paula's playwriting class - but not at the pearly gates, if you know what I mean.  And I think the people on the ground can feel the difference.  The theatre won't really be politically relevant again until that changes.


  1. Followed your link... dontcha just love when the choir complains that they're not being preached at?

  2. I've almost never seen people from the theatre out there when it counted. I don't remember seeing any actors or directors or playwrights at these events (or critics either).

    I've seen Danny Bryck down at Occupy Boston-- in fact, he is working on a documentary theatre piece about the movement.

    I should also note that the "Boston Occupier" is edited by Daniel Schneider, who may not be as well known an actor, did act in one of the staged readings I produced.

    As for me, I used to demonstrate and rally all the time but developed a bit of an allergy...

  3. Good for Danny! And I know you're politically involved, Ian. Would more local theatre people truly were! I stand by my remarks that I don't see the local theatre community at the forefront of protest, however. And anyway, the thing is that you - and other local performers who do hit the streets - are not the type to put up navel-gazing holier-than-thou posts about finding this or that thing "offensive." (The kicker is that then they huff that they've got "work to do." Uh-huh - then get to it, we all do, sister.)

  4. Generally the people who say "Ian, you're smart, I wish you would get more political" not only don't know me well, but would likely find themselves wishing I would get more apolitical.

    My years of frustration with dealing with ideologues when I was "more political" has led to my behavior of criticizing prominent theatrical personalities for taking either extremist or non-sensical political positions (which apparently is a big no-no amongst self-proclaimed political progressives in the theatre.)

  5. Like I said, the theatre types show up late, looking in the mirror.

  6. If you had just written the above in your comment on the Youngblog, people would have agreed with you. When it comes to your larger point about the theater and political engagement you're pretty spot on (aside from your weird fixation on Youngblood.)

    Instead, you took it as yet another opportunity to toss insults at an online community to which you don't even belong. It's sort of a shame, really. You could have started a conversation rather than shutting one down.

  7. Sigh. Josh is still upset. Trust me, I'm not fixated on Youngblood; I happened to wander by and got irritated by the evident navel-gazing going on there. So deal. This is the INTERNET, not some transgendered tea party. Critics and other skeptics may be gate-crashers.

    What's funny about you, Josh, is your idea that some sort of invisible fence of niceness should always exist around you and your friends - and what's more, that life trading compliments in this candy-colored zone could lead to your best work. Wrong on both counts, I'm afraid.