Political Theater Now
I remember seeing Mother Courage at Berkeley Rep a year or two ago. The acting and production were excellent! But the transaction seemed off. I would have preferred a documentary film about one of our current Mothers Courage, living in Iraq or Congo. The transaction at Berkeley Rep seemed comfortable. An affirmation that by watching this play and getting it, we audience members know something about the world and are on the right side of things.
Some days I wonder how much theater (and other art forms) consists of flattering its audience. Offering comfort food of one sort or another.
I look at the world. Who can fathom the global economy? The future of disease? Climate change? Korea? Megacities? The massive behavior modification experiment called the Internet? I inspect my world view. Totally inadequate to the times.
So for me the question is always: How do I let myself write from inside the question, and resist any impulse to offer an easy resolution, facile answers, or stale truths? When I'm doing my work right, my characters take me to places I wouldn't otherwise go, and say and do things that scare and trouble me.
And now I must indict myself. Last fall, my agent got me a weekend's worth of gigs doing Rush Limbaugh in Night School in Kirkland, WA and Tacoma. I printed out the 3-year-old script -- which was itself a 10th anniversary revision. Which meant that many of the words were already 13 years old. Reading the script, I laughed. Some good jokes! It was like reading someone else's play. One of the nice surprises of time passing. You get to be the audience of your own work. I memorized, I did character work, I purchased pears. Politically the play felt dated. I cut out some lines about voting machines in Florida. But satire really wants to be fresh -- to have not just the absence of the stale but the startling new. And RLNS did not meet that test. I rationalized doing the show on the grounds that it's a well-wrought story, it's funny, and people need to laugh. And I need to buy groceries.
But that is a rationalization.
One night recently in my solo performance class, a guy about my age did a piece about his first job as a newspaper reporter, in the early 1980s, in a small town in Connecticut whose main industry -- silverware making -- had just collapsed. The Hunt brothers had bought up silver futures, causing the price to skyrocket, and the industry fled overseas. The performance piece was full of the texture of decay -- potholes, eviction notices posted on plywood doors of houses, bars full at 2pm. A girl rides a motorcycle without a helmet, suffers brain damage, Reagan's Medicare cuts prevent her from getting the rehab she needs. The reporter writes a series of stories about this and wins an award; some action is taken; and there is a death. So why was I riveted? Why didn't this all feel dated?
Maybe it was the presence of the man who had lived it. The events occurred 25 years ago, but he's here, still struggling to understand, wrestling with the past in the present, asking me to join him on the journey. Maybe it was the fact that it forced me, uncomfortably, to see afresh. "Holy shit, I lived through this! I lived through Reagan and decimation of social programs and deindustrialization!" Or maybe it was just that he told it well.