It began with Churchill, as it so often does. Not Winston, of course—Caryl. We were discussing the politically layered script Top Girls in a playwriting class. There was a pause in the discussion, and my professor looked at the fluorescent lighting above his head. “Come to think of it, I don’t think there are many conservative playwrights at all,” he said. We all stopped for a second, considering this. Were there any theater artists we could think of who produced political work that read conservative?
I found myself at a loss. I couldn’t think of any artists or companies in the theater that had been branded conservative. We could conjure many overtly political playwrights—Churchill, Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner, and Suzan-Lori Parks. But all of those important figures have somewhat similar [liberal] political views. Does the word “political” begin to equate to “liberal” when it is attached to a playwright? Is that a good thing?
This topic is of particular interest to me, a person with a divided history of sorts. I come from East Tennessee—a red state through and through—but now an Emerson College student, I live in Massachusetts, which is rather liberal, particularly in Boston. In many ways, my two homes could not be more different. Growing up in Knoxville, TN, my experience with theater was limited to whatever was on stage at the local churches, the annual Nutcracker, and the big-budget Broadway shows that were being bussed through on their third or fourth touring cycle. When moving to Boston, the scene expanded hugely with regional theaters like the A.R.T. and the Huntington just a subway ride away, not to mention the proximity of New York.
All things considered, I have acclimated well to my new surroundings. I have always been the black sheep in my family when it comes to social politics. I hold an interest in the “other,” and that is why the theater community is attractive to me. I do not need to agree with what I see on stage, I merely hope it makes me think. But I remember the time my sister came to visit, and I took her to see the touring production of August: Osage County which I had seen on Broadway the year prior. With her by my side gasping at every f-bomb and sexual reference, I became suddenly aware of just how “liberal” theater can be, even when it is not aiming to be political.
Looking at the popular programming for regional theaters during the last several years, a theme emerges. Theatre Communications Group annually releases the most popular productions in theater seasons from all over the country. In the last several years, popular play titles have included Next Fall, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, Time Stands Still, and The Motherfucker with the Hat. Musical titles feature Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I would be interested in hearing a convincing argument that makes the case that any of these plays represent a conservative worldview.
It makes one wonder: why has the political tone of the theater become seemingly unilateral? It is difficult to approach this subject without making erroneous generalized statements that cannot hold their own water. Some may say that the artist has developed a keener interest in humanity in all its various forms and is therefore more willing to accept political views of welfare, personal choice, and alternative lifestyles. Others may say that the theater-going audience is comprised of liberally minded people who would shun anything expressing conservative worldviews. Can there be any proof for statements like these?
As a person who lands, give or take, almost dead center on the political spectrum, I begin to wonder what it would look like to mix up the theater scene a bit with some conservative voices. Personally, over the past several years I have found myself inexplicably attracted to the marvelous talents of Adam Rapp, Suzan-Lori Parks, Stephen Adley Gurgius, and Kirsten Greenidge, amongst others; although I do not act, write, speak, or even think identically on a political scale like these artists, I see undeniable value in their work and love being challenged by their writings. I imagine I would be equally challenged by a well-articulated, hyper-conservative playwright.
Have we closed the doors to people who don’t think like we do? How could a community so loving and open-minded deny anyone their right of expression, whether they agree with them or not? I think it would be fascinating and motivational to see a conservative playwright head-to-head with someone like Tony Kushner—maybe a David Mamet/Kushner debate? After all, people of any political standing have creative sensibilities. Wouldn’t it be gratifying to leave a theater having a conversation about a political viewpoint that you had previously not taken seriously?
Perhaps I’m just travelling the wrong circles. Maybe there is a burgeoning conservative theater scene that has not crossed my path. I turn it over to the global forum of cyber-space: what political views do you see expressed most frequently in the theater? Is there room for more political diversity in the work that is being presented on the American stage? And if you feel resistant to the idea of conservative theater, why? Do you feel the same way about all political theater?