Theatre After 11/9

What Now?

two actors at a table on stage
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in Itamar Moses and David Yazbek’s The Band’s Visit at Atlantic Theater Company. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

A week before the 2016 US presidential election, I was in North Carolina, where I tried to ignore the Trump signs that littered lawns. I returned to New York City. And then it happened.

On November 9, the day after, everything appeared bleak: the faces on the subway, the rainy sky. The chatter you hear in New York was suddenly muted. But I could also get on the A train in Washington Heights and know that my fellow passengers had probably voted for Hillary Clinton and were totally miserable with the results.

When I walked into a playwriting class at NYU that morning, I was still in that bubble. One student had to excuse himself for some time. Another cried. I vented angrily, knowing nobody would challenge me.

After 11/9 I spoke to seven people—mostly playwrights, one scholar—about how the election has affected them. Snippets of these conversations appear below.

What are you working on now, and how has the election influenced your work?

Itamar Moses: I’m trying to write the first draft of a new play. One thread of the play involves my family leaving Europe in the ’30s because of the Nazis.

Cusi Cram: I spent five weeks last summer working on two very different plays. One is an AirBnB thriller that takes place in Chicago, and the other is more autobiographical, about my mother and father—both immigrants. I’ve been thinking much more about immigrant rights. The hope of coming here is such a huge thing that is being erased from the narrative of the immigrant experience. I’ve also been co-authoring a television pilot. It’s a lot about religion in a small town—all kinds of religion.

Mêlisa Annis: I’m currently working on a play called Han Hepi Wi (or The Cult Play). It’s an adaptation of Little Women. I started this play in August 2016 at the Theresa Rebeck Writers Retreat with The Lark, when we were very much in the throes of the presidential primary. I watched Hillary Clinton’s nomination there. Theresa and I were in happy floods of tears.

Ken Urban: My play Nibbler opened in February at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. It’s set in 1992 and is about this group of teenagers, before they go to college—their expectations about Bill Clinton, how they thought the world was gonna get better. When we were doing auditions in early November, we thought Clinton was going to win, and thought all these references to Clinton were quite funny. Then it took on a whole new dimension—a tragic one. I’ve been revising that play and getting ready to go into rehearsals for it. It’s strange—Adam, the narrator, feels like he might grow up to become a Trump supporter because he feels left behind. That has made the play feel a lot more potent than I thought it was going to be. The day after the election I had to work on a rewrite of the play.

Katie Palmer: I am the co-Artistic Director of Theater in Asylum, an independent theatre company in New York City that provides asylum to highly charged characters and subjects. We started in September of 2016 building a team that would create theatrical adaptations of the Democratic primary debates. On April 19, 2016, voting day in New York state, we presented our culminating show of the Democratic primary, with scenes that had been developed and shown throughout the past seven months. In tackling the general presidential debate, we only created one show based on the three presidential debates and the one vice-presidential debate. We presented it the Sunday and Monday before the election.

Daniel Goldfarb: I had an idea for a play (currently titled Men’s Health), using health and turning forty as a way to talk about American male identity and male friendship. I wanted to write a play about a doctor and his patient. When I told my manager, he thought it would make a great television show, and I started thinking about it in those terms instead of as a play. And then the election happened. The election was just devastating. I was depressed. I realized part of what I was feeling was part of that initial impulse of the play I wanted to write, but then, over time, I lost the impulse because I tried to think of it as a television show. The election convinced me it was a play and I started writing it.

Claudia Orenstein: I am actually teaching a class at Hunter College this semester called Theatre of Protest. The last time I taught this class, ten years ago, the driving question was “how do you make political theatre in politically disengaged times?” But with this election suddenly everyone feels engaged and what they’re looking for is something to help them.

How has the election made you think about your role in the world?

Mêlisa: I actually feel recharged, perhaps because I’m so angry, perhaps because I now feel that what I’ve been writing all along is justified. I used to be worried about sending my work out into the world…Now I don’t care. 

Itamar: In the immediate aftermath of the election, I felt a kind of invigorating clarity and sense of purpose, like: “Well, I know what all my work is going to be about for the next four years.” But it’s been hard to maintain that exact feeling. The real task, I think, is going to be simply remembering what happened, and what is going on, and letting it guide our choices and responses. Keeping this up for years will take vigilance.

How have our political circumstances affected the work you’re focusing on now, and/or what should we be focusing on now?

Itamar: On the one hand, maybe not at all. I don’t think agitprop or polemical work is particularly effective or has much staying power, and you could argue that the basic humanistic values and empathy that good art is always trying to remind us of anyway are now more than ever the thing we need…but on the other hand, there are particular themes that might be extra important for awhile: the importance of objective reality and the existence of facts, the dangers of mob mentality, questions about what the antidote might be to hate and fear.

How has the election influenced your work or plans?

Daniel: The impulse for Men’s Health reinvented itself. The first scene is all about the election and depression, and actually feeling traumatized by it, and that in a way launches the whole play. When you have those impulses you have to ride them.

Ken: I got attacked online this Christmas. I made a donation in my family’s name for my parents (who are Republicans) and my sister and her husband to the Southern Poverty Law Center, because they need money and because they’re a nonpartisan group that tracks hate groups, and I thought it was important that my family know that hate crimes are on the rise steadily since Trump’s election. The Guardian interviewed me about the fact that I was giving my parents a donation to the SPLC, and the article was picked up by a couple of alt-right sites. I got hate email and Facebook messages. If you Google “Ken Urban Planned Parenthood,” an article comes up saying I ruined Christmas for my family. The fact that the article misquoted me and misexplained the point of my giving to the SPLC is just a sign of how insane this country is, and the fact that people don’t get their news from legitimate news sources is stunning.

Has your response to theatre you’ve seen changed post-11/9?

Cusi: Plays that I’ve seen since the election…I’m not even sure if they’re good or not. But I feel really moved by being in a theatre with people. It feels like church to me—what church must feel like to people who go to church. It’s interesting in that way.

Ken: The play that I keep thinking about most is Ivo von Hove’s Kings of War, a marathon Shakespeare piece done at BAM. Richard III was portrayed as Trump-like. The Dutch actor said “nasty woman” in reference to a character onstage, in English. It was one of the only things that wasn’t subtitled. Everybody laughed because they were like, oh my God, Donald Trump is Richard III. It was funny then. Now…

Claudia: Martin Esslin, a scholar and my professor, used to say that in Eastern Europe under communism, everything was read as political. With a French farce, audiences would read it as—who’s in bed with who in the political scene? There was so much vibrancy to the theatre. After the Berlin Wall fell, theatre was much less interesting. Now people will see completely different plays than they saw before.

How are you coping?

Ken: Initially I was pretty depressed, but because I had so much work to do in November, it forced me to be social. It’s a truism—it’s always helpful to be with other people when you’re feeling that way. I was teaching a TV pilot class at the Einhorn School of Performing Arts at Primary Stages. Going into a room of writers then going to teach at Princeton the next day felt good. Everyone needed to talk. Teaching gave me some fight-back. It’s only recently that I feel more despair.

Itamar: Well, I can no longer read the paper or watch any news, basically. Hopefully that will change because it’s important to know what’s happening. And when something about what’s going on does drive me crazy—like for instance the sheer jaw-dropping level of hypocrisy currently being exhibited by Republicans who spent eight years obstructing the government and now are acting outraged at the idea that the Democrats might oppose anything, or Trump calling individual citizens “losers” after eight years of calling Obama “divisive”—remembering that I can write about this stuff, and call it out, and satirize it…I do find that soothing.

Where you do turn for inspiration, faith, etc.?

Daniel: I found my NYU students really inspiring, actually, after the election, especially my freshmen. They gave me hope. They talked about Dumbledore’s army. And my daughter’s really inspiring. I haven’t lost hope.

Itamar: The night of the election—when the results were becoming clear—I texted Tony Kushner and asked, “What do we do?” He said, “New phone. Who dis?” Just kidding. He said, “Organize.”

Advice?

Cusi: Don’t be afraid of writing your fear at this moment in time. There’s something that happens in exorcising fear on the page, and being rigid with yourself and being truthful. I think everybody is wrestling with fear, and one way to deal with it, for me, has always been to write it out, to write your greatest fears out. And being with people. Not being afraid to ask people for things.

Daniel: I think it is really important that theatre artists keep doing what they’re doing, and to not worry about the numbers. To not worry about, “Oh, I’m only reaching a couple hundred people or a couple thousand people in my entire run.” Whether they know it or not, I think their influence is far beyond the audience that actually sees the play. People in film and TV and music are going to the theatre and they are inspired and influenced by it. I do think theatre artists push boundaries and are usually five or ten years ahead of the culture.

Ken: I resist the idea that theatre is supposed to teach anyone anything. It puts you through an experience and it makes you empathize with people who are quite radically different than you are. The hope is that that empathy transforms you into a more generous, more kind human.

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While I do think it's good to see more artists responding to politics...I worry greatly about the centering of Trump in the narrative of our lives...I think lots of people were lulled to sleep by the election of Obama, and the centering of him in the narrative of American politics. I think the focus on the celebrity of the president, is as dangerous to politics, as the focus on reality tv is in degrading our performance culture.

I worry that after Trump is gone, we will disengage again, and never truly get to a deeper level of political communication that we, especially in our country have ignored in the 21st century.

On 11/9 I walked into the theatre to see the opening production of a Theatre for the Very Young piece I wrote and directed. I asked the actors and crew not to talk about the election until after the performances so we could focus on our run. That morning the theatre had a magical healing power as it filled with preschoolers ready to engage in an experience that brought them together as a community to laugh, play and enjoy a story. In seeing small children empathize with the characters in the story and play together I realized that my audience full of children was where I could find hope for the future.

Thank you for this. My brain is still sorting through this new reality. Sometimes I'm on top of it and sometimes I just want to shriek and run up and down my street warning of impending doom. Hearing how other playwrights are doing was heartening. All I know is truth needs a soldier. Here I stand. Send me...