Making Theatre in the Season of Trump
There is a distinct possibility that in less than ten months Donald J. Trump will place his left hand on a Bible, raise his right hand, and take the President’s oath of office. Even as someone who deplores today’s hyperbolic discourse, I believe no characterization of such a catastrophe would be too overblown. I am constantly preoccupied by thoughts of what it would mean for myself, my family, my country, and my planet if the American people were to elect a white supremacist autocrat. Apocalyptic visions distract me throughout the day, and I fear that I will soon reach the point where images of Trump in the Oval Office occupy at least 75 percent of my brain space.
For the well-being of our country, we need a collective conversation about why Trump and why now, and if theatres remain absent from that conversation, then they are abdicating their civic responsibility and further consigning themselves to irrelevance.
Sometimes, though, my mind drifts from the future of the human race to the little corner of the world occupied by the American theatre, and I find myself wondering: What will companies’ 2016-17 seasons look like if our country is being governed by a megalomaniac? In such a socio-political context, can a production of Noises Off or Proof be anything other than a shameful exercise in denial? What works would even matter during The Donald’s reign? Do they exist in our current canon, or do we need exclusively new works to address this new reality? How many artistic directors even mentioned Trump when they huddled with their staff to plan next year’s offerings?
A quick perusal of upcoming seasons across the country reveals that too many theatres are operating as if next year will be business as usual. But if we take anything away from this election cycle, it should be that it is not business as usual in the United States. Even if Trump ultimately loses at the ballot box, his meteoric rise as well as the persistent allure of his hateful ideology demonstrate that the nation is in the midst of a crisis. For the well-being of our country, we need a collective conversation about why Trump and why now, and if theatres remain absent from that conversation, then they are abdicating their civic responsibility and further consigning themselves to irrelevance.
Personally, I am less troubled by Trump than I am by those who support him. Trump is an all-too-common figure in history. He is a narcissist who preys upon people’s vulnerabilities to augment his own power, and like all democratically-supported despots, Trump is a manifestation of the popular will. Thus, the only effective response to Trump is to engage his supporters.
I am certain that this Agent Orange would be soundly defeated if the 2016 election were conducted strictly in theatres. On certain nights and in certain buildings, there might not even be a single audience member who would cast a ballot for Trump. There is something virtuous about this, for it demonstrates our institutions’ commitment to decency, tolerance, and critical thinking. However, there is also something disquieting about this fact. It shows how limited our reach is, how homogenous our audiences are. This becomes especially apparent when one considers the absence of individuals from low-income rural and decaying industrial communities (i.e. Trump Country). Looking beyond their xenophobic rhetoric, the subtext one hears from Trump’s supporters is this: “Trump spoke on our behalf at a time when no one else would.” But would Trump’s devotees feel this way and would they have gravitated toward a lupine billionaire cloaked in populist garb if other individuals and institutions had given voice to their concerns first? By no means am I suggesting that theatres should become a mouthpiece for the views held by Trump’s most odious supporters, but I do wonder if the Trump phenomenon would have come into being if politicians, artists, and activists had made an effort to engage members of these communities sooner.
Theatres must now ask themselves: What would such an engagement look like? What barriers of entry would need to be dismantled to reach these communities, and what plays would make these individuals feel empowered instead of angry and resentful? If theatres are committed to fostering positive social change, then answering such questions should become a core part of their mission and programming.
Today’s theatre offers nothing comparable to the emotional release facilitated by comedians such as Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee. In large part, this is a function of our tortuous development process, which all but ensures a play is speaking in the past tense by the time it receives its first production.
There is also a second—albeit less inclusive—approach that theatres could adopt towards the Trump phenomenon, for the truth is that dialogue, while essential, is not always possible. In such instances, theatres might look to provide a different service: an emotional catharsis for their patrons who are disturbed by current events. Comedians frequently refer to Trump as a gift from the Comedy Gods, yet I have not encountered a single theatre practitioner who has voiced a similar sentiment about Trump and the Theatre Gods. This fact is telling, for it shows the difficulties theatre faces when it tries to speak in the present tense. Today’s theatre offers nothing comparable to the emotional release facilitated by comedians such as Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee. In large part, this is a function of our tortuous development process, which all but ensures a play is speaking in the past tense by the time it receives its first production. What if, instead of announcing a season of preexisting texts, more theatres agreed to commission and produce plays written only during that calendar year? How exciting to open a season brochure and see a theatre declare: “We are producing an entire season of new plays. None of these plays even has a title, but they will all be a reaction to this political moment.” Such a bold statement is the kind of response that this inflection point demands.
Trump’s campaign represents something undeniably awful for the nation, but it also represents an opportunity. This opportunity exists for theatres as well. We need to view Trump’s troubling rise as a call to action, as a sign that things should be done differently. This will mean rethinking what our stories are about, who we tell them to, and how we develop them. Such a reimagining will not only make our theatre more vital, it may just help to keep America great.