Acting Up


In an election year marked by fiercely entrenched viewpoints and unbudging polls, does anyone think a few Margaret Cho jokes about Halliburton can sway swing-state voters? Or that Billionaires for Bush can provoke class-warfare epiphanies with polo mallets and Thurston Howell III shtick?

Artists are mobilizing in historic numbers for the Republican National Convention, volunteering for duty in the Imagine Festival of Arts, Issues, and Ideas, the Unconvention, and other specially organized programs that offer opportunities to sing, act, dance, joke, and otherwise comment on the current state of the disunion.

Progressive culture vultures may thrill at the gargantuan menu of politicized performances, screenings, exhibits, stand-up marathons, and concerts planned around the four-day coronation of George W. But if Michael Moore’s $100 million-plus blockbuster can’t breach the country’s red-state/blue-state mental divide, what can we reasonably expect from an army of fringe acts sprinkled with mega-star cameos?

Maybe the election heat is finally getting to us. Only the most conservative commentator would make political utility a precondition of artistic expression. From Plato’s philosophical dialogues to William J. Bennett’s neocon scratchings, writers and artists have been routinely called to account for their contribution to the commonweal—and from Aristotle onward they’ve effectively countered this line of thinking by appealing to the salutary freedom of the imagination.

“Actors act, filmmakers make films, photographers photograph, and Bruce Springsteen (bless him) sings,” says actor Kathleen Chalfant. “We’re all offering whatever gifts we have to the gods. No one knows whether it will have any effect. But it’s what we can do.”

Like the Boss, who’s not only writing op-eds but also headlining the recently announced Vote for Change concert tour, Chalfant, a stage veteran best known for Angels in America and Wit, puts her talent where her political commitments are. An adviser to Theaters Against War (THAW), she’s starring in the British documentary drama Guantánamo, an exposé of the detainee situation (which begins previews Friday at the Culture Project), and will also appear in an Imagine Festival reading of Sophocles’ Elektra with Marisa Tomei at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on August 30. “Everyone I know feels the absolute necessity to be politically engaged during this period,” she says in soft, deliberate tones. “We all honestly believe that if we don’t stop, or mediate, the direction in which our country—and therefore, unfortunately, the rest of the world—is moving, there will be a disaster.”

Screenwriter and director John Sayles, who’s participating in an August 28 Imagine Festival screening in which excerpts of his not yet released Silver City will be shown and discussed, says, “Artists respond to the world around them, and it’s especially important for them to do so when their version of what’s going on is different from the official story.” As he sees it, the unease around the November election has sharpened everyone’s political focus and fury. “The anger stems in part from people feeling more alienated from the electoral process,” he says. “There’s a sense that corporations are the true constituents of our politicians, not voters. I see a populist element in all this agitation, and I think much of the excitement comes from the hope that the voting public still has some individual power, that it hasn’t all been given away.”

Another spur to the radical resurgence has to do with turf: Why pick a Democratic town for a Republican convention during one of the most hotly contested presidential races in American history? A ground zero backdrop featuring Republican basset hound Rudy Giuliani obviously proved too irresistible a photo op for Bush & Co. It’s easy to understand the accompanying smorgasbord of cultural dissent as a colorful countermeasure to the elephants’ Big Apple gala. Call it a PR monkey wrench.

“The Republicans’ decision to come to New York provides us with a unique opportunity,” says the Imagine’s co-executive producer Chris Wangro. “There are 500,000 people coming to town, along with 15,000 accredited [members of the] press. New York has an opportunity to tell the country and the rest of the world what it thinks about the issues, and we believe New Yorkers respond best when its artists take the lead.”

The propaganda around 9-11—almost certain to be as central a rallying point at the RNC as Kerry’s Vietnam heroics were at the DNC—presents an immediate subject for imaginative deconstruction. The US Department of Art & Technology’s “Experimental Party Disinformation Center,” a media installation at Luxe Gallery operating under the Imagine umbrella, aims to copycat the multimedia techniques the Bush administration has used to exploit the terrorist attacks for the past three years. US DAT secretary Randall M. Packer explains, “Our main focus is on methods of disinformation, the way politicians blur the line between art and politics, media and performance, truth and illusion.” To that end, a team of artists in convincing bureaucratic guise will broadcast their own live reports from the RNC, employing software that allows them to doctor broadcast-TV coverage. “We’re subverting the message of Republicans the same way they’ve used right-wing media like Fox News to influence the reporting of events,” says Packer.

Though the anti-Bush bent seems obvious, Wangro stresses that Imagine isn’t necessarily pro-Democrat. “This isn’t about party politics. Our mission is to raise the level of public discourse. We’re about fighting the soundbite, the oversimplification of the mass media.” As an example of art that offers nuanced contemplation of contemporary concerns, Wangro cites a work in progress by Tony Kushner, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, featuring Laura Bush as protagonist. A scene from it was read at a recent benefit for (and will be reprised in the Imagine Festival at New York Theatre Workshop from August 30 through September 1). “Once again Kushner took a difficult set of issues and showed that they’re not black and white,” says Wangro, “that compassionate characters exist on both sides of the argument. This is what the arts can do—challenge an audience to ask a different set of questions.”

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.”

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.”