Monday, April 10, 2006

The Audience for Political Theater?

The remainder of the run for IN THE MATTER OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER is sold out and NWCTC is considering a re-mount for the fall, in time for mid-term elections. I'm gratified that the play is stirring political passions, even if it does, inevitably, preach to the converted. Though, that said, I would love to see a political play draw in an audience with more varied opinion. I'm not sure that I care if a political play is 'conservative' or 'liberal,' as long as it's a fulcrum for debate.

Have you seen political theater reach an audience that you would have thought would be unreceptive to it? Do you think there is value in 'preaching to the converted,' which we do most of the time?



paulmonster said...

oh, I'm disappointed I won't be able to get in to see Oppenheimer now.

I certainly have seen political theatre that reaches people you would think were unreceptive to it. Usually these days, theatre achieves a political message by playing it almost flawlessly as something other than overtly political; I remember being much younger and watching my very Catholic mother weep when she saw 'Philadelphia'--a movie, yes, but still.

Going back a bit into this last century, there's this groundswell of political plays that speaks to at least the greater likelihood that political messages had more of a comfortable place in theatre than they do now, for whatever various reasons. The classic examples are Brecht and 'The Crucible,' which still have a lot of power, but you read Clifford Odets or some of the Federal Theatre Project scripts and you wonder how you could possibly stage such splendidly ambitious things today.

Recently I saw Bread and Puppet Theatre when they passed through Portland, and one of their (unbelievably lovely Italian) puppeteers told me how even as venerable a political theatre as theirs was catcalled by activists in Barcelona, because political theatre supposedly didn't have a place in their activism.

But I do think that there's a very important purpose to be served by the sermons we preach to our choirs. Something needs to catalyze the latent forces in the atmosphere before the choir can even begin to sing together. A good play--be it political or no--will remind us of where we've been and why we're here before it asks us to go farther. Sometimes that's enough.

And finally, I think it's important to say that the 'Paul on the road to Damascus'-style epiphany is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of activism or awareness in the arts, and political theatre specifically. As expected, it's the choir that usually waxes the most rhapsodically about 'The Laramie Project' and 'Nickeled and Dimed', but I would argue that even more important work is being done by those who simply and quietly absorb those plays. Because then those plays fit into their personal contexts and interweave with their own individual narratives, informing other experiences, other perspectives, to the point where regardless of whether or not they completely relinquish old prejudices, their minds and hearts are opened ever so slightly.

In some ways, what I'm talking about resurrects Lyndon Johnson's concept of 'the great Silent Majority' for another purpose altogether. It's not that we're only ever preaching to the choir. Even if it's 'The Converted' who will make the most noise when we preach, it's what happens after we preach to whomever happens to be there that still matters the most.

paulmonster said...

Whoa, dude, I'm sorry I rambled on so long there. Can you tell there ain't much to do out here on the road, sometimes? My bad.


David Loftus said...

As another member of the "Oppenheimer" cast who was a little dubious about the play's effectiveness going in, and frankly surprised by the fervor of some audience members' responses, I would add that "preaching to the converted" can be another way of saying what we so often say is a central message of art: You Are Not Alone. Take Heart. Get Up and Do It Again (whatever It is), Because It Matters.