Acting Up

The revolution will be dramatized

Yet Kushner isn't exactly a poster child for moderates. Isn't it fair to wonder how many progressive offerings will reach those women from San Diego in red Liz Claiborne suits, or the smiling good ol' boys from Baton Rouge safely bunkered in Madison Square Garden?

Unconvention producer Randy Anderson recognizes that his theater festival—which, housed at 36th Street and Eighth Avenue, sits near the epicenter of the RNC—will likely be attended "by people who have come to the city to protest or express their dissent." Is he preaching to the choir? It's hard to imagine delegates from the Show Me No Gay Marriage state of Missouri checking out the Bread and Puppet Theater's Insurrection Mass With Funeral March for a Rotten Idea or the comedy lineup "Whips N' Cheney's: A Night of Shock and Ha." Still, the thrust of the Unconvention's theater festival goes beyond mere Bush-bashing—the point, as Anderson says, "is to encourage people to become more actively engaged as citizens."

Hieronymous Bang—whose "guerrilla comedy" I'm Going to Kill the President is being reprised through September 4 to challenge the quashing of civil liberties—may enjoy subversive titles, but his intention is a thoughtful reassertion of the place for civil disobedience in a democracy. "Artists are feeling empowered to talk about things again," he says. "After 9-11, there was a sense that it wasn't OK to criticize the government. But the administration's response has inspired people to educate themselves. We see that our policies affect more than what's happening in a cave on the other side of the world. Politics may be a fad these days, but it's a constructive one."

Un-conventional performer: Kathleen Chalfant
photo: Jay Muhlin
Un-conventional performer: Kathleen Chalfant

It all sounds so darn reasonable. Has firebrand radicalism become a thing of the past? For Kushner, the demonstrations and performances shouldn't be about "deep personal feeling" or the flaunting of impossible ideals. He thinks the breadth of cultural activity planned during the RNC is significant because it affords an opportunity for the left "to say things that may be difficult for some on the left to hear." New eras, in other words, require new strategies. "The notion that I have anger I must express is a tired form," he says. "What we must do is wrest the government out of the hands of the political plutocracy. We need to build coalitions that can wield actual power. The real work is to raise immense amounts of money and volunteer to work in the swing states, and make sure they don't pull another Florida on us."

But can artists contribute simply by doing what they do best? Chalfant says her experience with both Angels in America and Wit has shown her that art has an effect on the wider world. "Both plays crystallized discussion and debate that were already in the air," she says. Angels deepened our understanding of the connection between the AIDS crisis and American political history, while Wit persuasively advocated for the rights and dignity of the terminally ill.

"The only way we can know what the world can be is through the arts," she adds. "Artists make things. If we make things that enhance existence, then it will be better."

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