We Might Be Right
A Libertarian Voice in the Theatre
Back in November, Daniel Jones wrote a piece in HowlRound titled “How ‘Right’ is Right? Conservative Voices in the Theater.” He argued that he couldn’t think of a conservative playwright, and wonders, “Why has the political tone of the theatre become seemingly unilateral?” Frankly, I have the same question, but for arguably different reasons. Of course to say that politics are incredibly complex would be the understatement of the century. But, as someone who identifies as a libertarian, political complexities are a part of my reality. I’m here to say that there are indeed conservative voices in the theatre—or at least one conservative voice—but not in the kind of conservatism that one might expect.
Libertarianism as a movement has a number of different facets, and I’d like to begin by saying that there are plenty of libertarians who may not agree with my views, just like with any other political group. The generally agreed principle of libertarianism is a focus on individual rights, liberties, and responsibilities. However, this idea has been paired with everything from anarchy (Murray Rothbard, Robert LeFevre) to hardcore capitalism (Ayn Rand) to forms of socialism (Murray Bookchin). In my case, the simplest explanation I can give for my views, for which “libertarianism” as a word seems to be the best fit, is fiscal conservatism coupled with working for social good (hence why I am a big fan of the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians).
So what does this have to do with theatre? Augusto Boal says in The Rainbow of Desire that theatre is an inherently human vocation. It’s something we all are, but something “some of us also do.” What I find so compelling about this distinction is Boal’s emphasis on what theatre can make possible for an individual person. Theatre is like a mirror, it’s dichotomizing. We can act as ourself, and we can see ourselves acting. We can have past, present, and even future versions of ourselves on stage—and reflect on what this means. As someone who also does theatre, this also means that I’m not just focused on what theatre can be for me—asserting my own individual rights, exercising my freedoms of speech and assembly—but what it can be for other people. Ideally at least, it means that my work can empower others, providing a space for each person to ask, “What if I acted as the author of my own life? What if my rights and freedoms meant something to me? What if I accepted the primary responsibility for my life? What if the power of choice became a priority of citizens?”
I’m not just focused on what theatre can be for me—asserting my own individual rights, exercising my freedoms of speech and assembly—but what it can be for other people.
Given that on some issues I toe a conservative line, I’ve encountered some people who are surprised at my use of “progressive” pedagogies like Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire. So before I go any further, let me say again that a conservative voice in the theatre is not necessarily the one that people expect to hear. But more important, there really isn’t a conflict of ideology. I’m all for theatre that scrutinizes social issues and generates what Freire called “concientização” or “raising of a critical consciousness.” To a libertarian mind, that kind of consciousness is absolutely necessary if we are going to be vigilant about protecting the rights and liberties of every person. At the same time, protecting and advocating for individual rights also means being wary of government interventions, including government subsidies. As the title of an article by Lauren Galik aptly put it, “If Government Subsidizes Art, It Will Always Be Censored.”
Hence, why I agree with Daniel Jones’s comment on theatre seeming politically unilateral. For example, why don’t we see theatre about skyrocketing government debt, or the challenges with programs like Social Security or Medicare? Perhaps because that’s considered “biting the hand that feeds you.” As artists, we are supposed to draw attention to issues that affect our society, to engage our audiences with the goings-on of their lives. Yet, artists face a choice: either go for the grants, or struggle to make ends meet. Galik goes on to say, “Individuals have many contextual reasons for valuing a work or style of art that extends beyond the government’s limited vision of what art is and what it should do. … As long as the government subsidizes certain artists’ works, there is always a case to be made for censorship by those taxpayers and/or government officials who disagree with the art’s content.” It’s my hope that a libertarian approach can offer something different.
That’s why I’m thrilled by movements like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and DonorsChoose. What some people see as “crowdsourcing,” I see as an opportunity to assert individual, grassroots choice. Rather than funding the arts (or arts education, with DonorsChoose) through taxpayer money and endowments, why not selectively choose, each person, where we put our money? Galik says, “No individual should be forced to fund the arts—in whatever trivial amounts or indirect ways—that they may openly despise. Forced funding of the arts forces artists and institutions lucky enough to win momentary favor from bureaucrats to become submissive and uncreative to meet government standards, or become instruments of the powerful and well-connected. Either way, everyone loses.” What would our theatre work look like if it weren’t influenced by where the grants come from? Returning to my earlier question, what if our work could instead focus on individual liberty and responsibility—essentially, focus on the meaning and repercussions of our personal and political choices?
Talking Points Media published an article, “Kickstarter Expected to Provide More Funding to the Arts than the NEA.” “Successfully funded projects are the independent creations of these people,” Kickstarter cofounder Yancy Strickler said in the article. Because Kickstarter focuses on artistic projects, and because people use their networks of friends and colleagues to make a project come to fruition, Kickstarter is changing the way the arts get funded—especially film. In 2012, thirty-one films at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival and seventeen films at the Sundance Festival were funded by Kickstarter. This means that while the NEA likely won’t be going away anytime soon, artists now have viable alternatives to making their work happen, without having to meet imposed standards.
Like films, the kinds of theatre projects funded by these kinds of campaigns are arguably not the mainstream. Not yet, anyway. Still, Jones’s article focused on wanting to see other political ideologies in mainstream theatre, like Broadway. While I share his sentiment in wanting to see more diverse opinions on the grand American stages (and I do enjoy a good Broadway show when I have the opportunity), I also don’t think it’s as likely that we’ll see conservative or libertarian voices there—and it seems that sites like Kickstarter demonstrate that.
Personally, I made a very deliberate choice to not to work in popular theatre, because I’d much rather be out in a community, in the streets, making theatre with ordinary people. I’m more concerned with people discussing issues than in discussing politics in general terms. I’m not trying to say that my liberal colleagues aren’t in the communities; they are. But I do believe that the grand stages leave audiences as passive observers, and this isn’t what a libertarian approach to theatre entails. A libertarian sees every person as the author of his or her own life, and worthy of active involvement in their communities and engaging with the issues that most concern them. To that end, Boal’s spect-actor is a crucial part of how I do my work as a teaching artist.
I want my students to tap into their own creativity, and for us to create together works of theatre that explore the issues relevant to them. In my work with immigrant youth at a shelter in Phoenix, our work often centers around home, culture, and family. I sincerely want for them to be successful and contributing members of their communities, and I am humbled by how hard my boys (all under eighteen, by the way) have worked just to make it to America. If anyone still has a view of the classic American dream, it just might be the immigrant population.
That desire for a better life is where I begin when my students and I devise theatre. As Freire asks in Pedagogy of Freedom, “Why not establish an ‘intimate’ connection between knowledge considered to be basic to a school curriculum and knowledge that is the fruit of the lived experience of these students as individuals?” Many of my students don’t have a lot of schooling, and their English is limited. But they do know that there is honor in hard work, and America to them means opportunities. Every day we again face the fundamental questions—what are my responsibilities? What are my liberties? What are my choices? To a certain extent, my students have begun to answer that question by coming to America. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to carry those questions further, using theatre. Through theatre, my students can both understand the freedom found in possibility, and the responsibility found in autonomy.
Theatre gives a safe space for all of this—exploring what’s possible, and discovering how to be responsible.
My students are curious about the possibilities of life in America, and they also feel a responsibility to help their families back home. So we act out their families, we act out their future jobs, and we act out what it is like to be an immigrant. There’s a quote from Boal I often use with them, “Have the courage to be happy.” For my students, that has meant looking into what it takes to go to culinary school, veterinary school, and trade schools. It has meant owning up to having come here illegally, and working to learn more and more English. Theatre gives a safe space for all of this—exploring what’s possible, and discovering how to be responsible.
There’s another quote from Freire I’d like to use in closing. He said, “There could be no creativity without the curiosity that moves us and sets us patiently impatient before a world we did not make, to add to it something of our own making.” What the libertarian voice adds to the theatre is an emphasis that engaging with social issues is a matter of individual choice and responsibility, but also that theatrical expression is a part of our vital personal liberties. In that sense, hopefully a conservative voice in the theatre doesn’t seem so different after all. In Soul of A Citizen, Paul Loeb urges people who want to engage with social issues to “seek unlikely allies.” Libertarians, and yes, perhaps even more hard-line conservatives, can be those “unlikely allies” in creating theatre that stirs citizens to action.