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Theatre after Obama (or with Trump)

Several months ago on Halloween, three elementary school kids costumed as the Grim Reaper, Abraham Lincoln, and Donald Trump patrolled my Greater Chicago neighborhood. It was impossible not to try to find meaning in this odd grouping. Did the pairing of Abe and Donald imply that the then-presidential candidate, if elected, had the potential to achieve the greatness of Lincoln? If so, what role did Death play? Months later, that trio seems to have foreshadowed a rare moment of national mourning and widely felt anxiety or panic in which the unanticipated ascendancy of a controversial new president rivals the unexpected passing of another polarizing political figure who presided over a divided nation. Within arts communities, the inauguration of President Donald Trump has created a pall akin to a funeral cortege that keeps circling.

The “hope” and “yes, we can” spirit of the Obama presidency is gone—and probably expired years ago in the face of endless partisan political bickering, international refugee crises, and closer to home tragedies (can we call it domestic terror?) that inspired folks to both assert and plea for the value of black lives. Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, the arts continued their slow and steady rebound from the draconian budget cuts of the mid-1990s. Plays and playwrights chosen for national recognition became more reflective of society-at-large. Age of Obama Pulitzer Prize winners ranged from Lynn Nottage for Ruined to Lin-Manuel Miranda for Hamilton. Artists such as Stephen Sondheim, Chita Rivera, Meryl Streep, and Sidney Poitier received the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

It may seem counterintuitive but arts funding has increased over consecutive years with both a Republican in the White House and a Republican controlled Congress.  

Presidents Trump
Donald Trump at campaign rally in Phoenix, AZ. Photo by Gage Skidmore. 

What does the Age of Trump portend for the American theatre? The future may not be as bleak as many imagine. Admittedly, there have been rumors and unsubstantiated allegations that the new administration may seek to defund and shutter the National Endowment for the Arts alongside the National Endowment for the Humanities. However, it may seem counterintuitive but arts funding has increased over consecutive years with both a Republican in the White House and a Republican controlled Congress. For example, NEA funding increased during George W. Bush’s presidency, between 2001 and 2007, by close to $20m. The NEA fares better, in terms of annual appropriations (from the start to the end of a presidential term) with a Republican as President: Reagan (+ $15.3m), George H. W. Bush (+ $7.3m), and George W. Bush (+ $40m). Arts appropriations appear to be imperiled when tensions arise between a Democrat President and a split or Republican Congress, which ultimately eliminates any gains made when Democrats occupy the White House and both parts of Congress. For example, the NEA appropriation was slashed from $163m to $99m in 1996. The severity of those cuts is evident in the fact that the 1995 NEA appropriation in real dollars (not factoring in inflation) is higher than the estimated 2017 appropriation.

In an effort to read the tea leaves of Congressional action, we can look to state arts appropriations for guidance. In the most recent presidential contest, Donald Trump won the popular vote in thirty states. A National Assembly of State Arts Agencies study of projected 2017 arts appropriations within these states reveals that allocations are expected to remain unchanged in seven states, decline in eleven states, and increase in twelve states. From a state perspective, there is not a mandate to significantly increase or decrease funding for the arts. If federal funding is imperiled, it will be important to engage and mobilize allies in both major political parties who advocated for the arts at the state and national levels. We also will need to remind the current president of his campaign assertion that a “holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens.”

Despite calls for theatre to become more politically engaged, it is difficult to imagine that such an increase would be sustained and recognizable on a large scale (but I still hope that Ghostlight Project communities will hold together). Shakespeare is, and will continue to be, the most produced playwright on regional theatre stages. The Bard is not going away. A few artistic directors will attempt to disguise business-as-usual programming (yet another Shakespeare play about an unhinged ruler) as shockingly prescient for our times. Of course, regional theatres do not limit themselves to Shakespeare as Lauren Gunderson, Robert Askins, and Ayad Ahktar can attest. However, new plays take time to develop. We’re just now seeing full-length pieces inspired by Black Lives Matter and catalyzed by the murder of Trayvon Martin five years ago in 2012. Trump’s presidency will influence our theatre—but he may no longer be in office when that work circulates widely.

An engaged theatre is not a politically partisan theatre. It is simply a theatre that takes a smart, nuanced approach to considering and reflecting upon our shared social reality as well as topics that concern us regardless of our political persuasion.

Presidents Trump
Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

If a heightened, politically and socially engaged theatre emerges, it will occur outside of regional stages and a good distance from Broadway. The increased popularity and student interest in devising and also theatre for social change on college campuses suggests that the academy might serve as a wellspring for the creation of a new, civically responsible theatre. To be clear, an engaged theatre is not a politically partisan theatre. It is simply a theatre that takes a smart, nuanced approach to considering and reflecting upon our shared social reality as well as topics that concern us regardless of our political persuasion. In addition to college stages, the ubiquitous ten-minute play festival has proven to be a successful prompt toward the creation and quick dissemination of new work in an effort to rally a community and spur dialogue. Also, solo performance works, which regrettably have yet to win over mainstream theatre audiences (with the notable exception of anything featuring Anna Deavere Smith), continue to serve as effective places for social and political critique.

What fuels my glass half-full pragmatism, essentially a hopeful outlook anchored in reality checks, is an acceptance of the fact that members of the performing arts community either tacitly or actively supported the election of President Trump. It is probable that a subsection of artists pulled the lever, punched the card, or checked the box for him. We need to reexamine the assumption that the election was entirely the result of disaffected, non-college educated white men revolting against what they perceived to be the browning and, perhaps, queering of the country. Exit polls from the 2016 presidential election suggest that that demographic certainly voted in large numbers for Trump. However, a CNN exit poll reveals that a lot of other people voted for Trump: 41 percent of all women voters (including 52 percent of white women), 53 percent of white college-educated men, 27 percent of Asian Americans, and 13 percent of African American men. The Pew Research Center reported that 35 percent of Latinx voters in Florida (including 54 percent of Cuban-American voters) cast their ballot for our current president. Two months before the election, NBC News estimated that 20 percent of LGBT voters intended to vote for Trump (and 37 percent of LGBT voters were planning on voting for a candidate other than Hillary Clinton). The only significant voting bloc that did not vote for Trump in overwhelming large numbers are African American women (only 4 percent).

After the election, the relative diversity of the Trump electorate became more apparent to me. I began to see female college students heading home for break with “Trump/Pence” luggage tags. I found myself in conversation with artistic directors and trustees of prominent regional theatres who, despite briefly expressing disappointment in the results of the presidential election, were eager to talk at length and with great enthusiasm about their hope that a Trump tax cut might be a boon to their theatres. Will deep-pocketed performing arts donors increase their contributions to the arts? I recalled that President Trump, for years, was a stalwart presence at Broadway openings. Suddenly, it became possible to imagine that the new administration could be arts friendly or, at least, not overtly hostile to the arts. The most obvious takeaway from the hullabaloo surrounding Mike Pence’s visit to Hamilton was the fact that the then Vice President-elect had chosen to spend an evening at the theatre.

My chief concern is the elevation of misogynist, racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant rhetoric within society-at-large. Let’s state the obvious: women make theatre possible. The majority of college theatre majors and the majority of theatre attendees are women. The Broadway League notes that 67 percent of Broadway audiences in 2015–16 were female. In addition, the theatre has long existed as a beacon to closeted, questioning, and openly LGBT men, women, and young adults. The stories of immigrants (as well as those brought to this country in chains or forced to accept the arrival of settlers) are the backbone of American theatre. Unfortunately, our theatre communities are not immune from charges of bias and discrimination. The mainstage seasons of regional theatres often marginalize female, non-white, and/or LGBT experiences. A gender-based pay gap exists in the arts. Our theatres, like society-at-large, has inconsistently embraced diversity and, at times, has maintained an adversarial relationship with initiatives aiming for greater inclusion. An increase in hateful rhetoric, indeed “hate speech,” threatens the fabric of our theatre communities and challenges efforts toward greater inclusion.

In this Age of Trump, my hope is that we collectively can lobby for continued (and, perhaps, increased) arts funding, advocate for the creation of socially engaged theatre, and enact changes within our local theatre communities to lessen the influence of misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia. Our local and regional efforts could have a national impact.

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Would be very interested in theatre artists who voted for Trump, and potential collaborations and workshops. I would hope that theatre artists could stand a chance at finding a way to communicate.
I worry about the insular theatre audiences everywhere as dividers. Whether in universities or regional theaters, or indie theaters in NYC...lots of preaching to the choir...very small movements of reaching across any divides of any kind. Black over here, Asian over here, queer over here...does anyone have a plan to invite public housing residents to their shows...?
Theatre should be one of the solutions to the divides here, and it seems to me, especially in the new York bubble that everyone is content to make everything out as anti-trump...which I find mostly useless as a political strategy.

Academia is the WORST place for quality theatre to emerge. All you're going to get out of that are dumbed down message plays, all as sexless as a church picnic, especially if someone gets "triggered" by it. If you want really provocative work, it exists in the shadows.

Interesting claim. Do you base that on some sort of theory? Or is that all you have seen in academic theater? Both theoretically and practically, my experiences vary from yours. A huge advantage of academic theater is that university students have -time- and -resources-. Where a professional regional theater has severe financial responsibilities that (in this country) require them to mount shows as quickly as possible, often with as few people as possible, and where small theaters "in the shadows" as you put it are usually working with actors who have another fulltime job or two, university students can take the time to drill down into a script. Of course there are other advantages to being a big regional theater or a small storefront - each has their strengths and weaknesses.

Practically speaking, some of the most provocative and thoughtful work I have seen lately has been at universities: Loyola, DePaul, and North Park universities here in Chicago have done some amazing work just in the last few months, and while it has been a while since I saw a show up at Northwestern (where the author of this piece does his work), I have worked with directors and playwrights who were in the MFA programs there, and there was nothing "dumbed down" or "sexless" about their work.

Actually, can you give me an example of some plays or some links to the work that YOU are speaking of? I will use everything at Playwrights Horizons in NY as an example of sexless work, and all of this work is vomited from the banal cornucopia of American MFA programs. What I mean by sexless is "twee." A lot of college work is twee. I will use Sarah Ruhl as an example and all the work influenced by it.

I use Howard Barker, Sarah Kane, and Elfriede Jelinek as sort of a litmus test of what I'm NOT seeing on American stages including academia. Where is the raw sexuality? Sex and death? Pushing the form of the language play? WITHOUT BEING TWEE.

Samuel Beckett in his late works, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp,and Bernard Marie Koltes are more examples of quality work, the kind I'm not seeing the equivalent of formally on our stages. And I'm speaking of aesthetics and content as well. Annie Baker, Terrell MacRaney, and Samuel Hunter are the examples of bad work I am seeing out of young generations. Shepard, Beckett, Barker, and Kane pushed the form of literary theatre. Younger generations are not pushing this further. Perhaps it is too much of a focus on Brecht and Social Change theatre and less on a tragic theatre from the line of Artaud on to Grotowski and Howard Barker's Theatre of Catastrophe.

I am finding work that comes out of academia across the board safe and regressive. I have yet to see an example of theatre right now in America that is on the level of the writers I am referring to.

I keep watching Lars Von Trier in film and I keep thinking..."why isn't this on stage?"

I believe its because academia is overly p.c., concerned with worrying whether or not the play is going to offend some "victim." We are in an era where ideology trumps aesthetics (no pun intended regarding the word "trump".) Also I am leery of work with obvious liberal humanist messages and we know full well that academia tows this ideological line.

By prejudice I am inclined to join the anti-academic thesis, but this argument doesn't carry it. Academia is too PC? By now PC has become such a meaningless phrase; as far as I can tell it means considerate manners. Twee? You have to define your terms better, sir.

I would like to know more the specifics of those Chicago shows. Some of the best theater I have seen has been student productions. As for new plays? That we do not have a young Beckett writing in the MFA program is beside the point.

Probably the argument against student plays would simply be the youth and inexperience of their authors. There are always exceptions, which is what we yearn for regardless the category. The point is moot, however. Theater (as we have it) arises from the university programs, almost without exception. It would be curious to see something different.

The last thing theater needs is Lars von Trier transplanted to stage. As a start, you have to recognize that the media are different and distinct. If anything, the effort to make stage more like cinema and television has been to the form's detriment.

I am not sure I can give you examples of what you actually want - it seems your taste runs to violent sex scenes and abuse. Now, I find Sarah Kane interesting too, and Lars von Trier, for that matter. But to say you are interested in experimentation in form and then say you don't like Sarah Ruhl, is confusing to me, since she is a prime example of experimentation in form - Melancholy Play, Eurydice... these are formally experimental. (And, I am not sure what twee actually means - I have a rough sense, but you seem to be being very specific, so I am sorry if the problems with those works is that they are formally experimental but "twee". But at that point, it feels like you are just saying you have very specific tastes, and artists are interested in other things than you are. Which might be true, but is a less compelling criticism).
So, for things that academic theater has done lately that has been compelling _to_ me_, DePaul's production/adaptation of The Tempest was outstanding, Lavina Jadwhani wrote (while in Grad School) an adaptation of Vanya that flipped the whole play (literally, but also aestetically), Loyola is doing (right now) a production of Getting Out that promises to tackle important issues with maturity and power, North Park's storefront theater program continually produces surprising and hard-hitting work.

Good article. Also theatres around the country, especially non-profit, are reflecting diversity and doing performances that are creating a cultural discourse on race, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. Whether their funding will be cut due to this, I don't know. But let's continue to do what needs to be done to reflect the diversity of America and push the conversation.

I also hope that people will lobby for continued arts funding, it's so important that people of all ages have the opportunity for an arts education. I liked your comments about politically engaged theatre, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on shows like "8" that directly challenge current (at the time) political conflicts. I'm writing about theatre too: https://ghostlightbway.word...