Theater archives

The New Anti-Normal

Get ready for troupes of theatrical contrarians, onstage or wherever there's an open space


Theater people are natural-born contrarians. What else would you expect from a profession in which “left” means “right” and vice versa? With our newly elected non-representative government moving the U.S. to the extreme right, you can count on America’s theater artists to do their utmost to push it back toward left of center, where all progress happens. We’ve been here before: When the crooked-Republican economic bubble of the 1920s burst to bring on the Great Depression, and when the more stable economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s fizzled into misery with the escalation of the Vietnam War. In both eras, the theater woke up to its uses as a political medium, exploring multiple ways to reshape public discourse. Staged performances played their part, too, during civil rights marches, Women’s Lib rallies, and in the fight to make America — under another Republican presidency — confront the AIDS epidemic.

So, with the most ignorant, bigoted, and dishonest president-elect in American history about to take office, and with the Republican majority in Congress preparing to transform us from a nation into a ruination — or would Putin’s puppet prefer a urination? — don’t expect us show folk to keep quiet about it, any more than we did in 1933 or 1968. I mean, we’d all like to be as “overrated” as Meryl Streep and Hamilton, wouldn’t we? The range of live-performance methods will certainly be wide, and will most probably take on unexpected forms, but here are some guesses as to the likelier manifestations of theater artists’ ire.

Not by coincidence, actors known for their stage skills — Alec Baldwin and Laura Benanti — have already won the TV-viewing public’s heart with their impersonations of the Tweetstormer-elect and his spouse. Expect to find them both, along with many would-be rival impressionists, emceeing benefits and fundraisers — for causes unfunded by Repugnicans, like Planned Parenthood and environmental orgs. And expect to find lots of other actors, writers, and comedy troupes moving into the satiric arena, in cabaret venues as well as theaters.

Our satirists have a centuries-old tradition of topical jesting to inspire them: When Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) produced Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Servant of Two Masters during the election campaign, with ad-libbed political jokes squarely in the play’s improvised commedia dell’arte tradition, the resulting audience buzz made this mostly anti-Trumpian commentary one of the show’s key assets. People my age remember how Stacy Keach and the late Rue McClanahan first came to prominence, in an Off-Broadway cabaret theater, in Barbara Garson’s MacBird! (1967), a snarky spoof version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which LBJ and Lady Bird were equated with the power-hungry Scottish usurper and his sleepwalking spouse. And the Thin-Skinned Tweeter of Mar-a-Lago makes for a far more tempting target than LBJ ever did.

Women hold up half the sky, and they’re not going to lie passively while Republican males led by Organ-Grabber roll back their hard-won strides toward equality. While the Electoral College was voting on December 19, a band of prominent theater women led by multiple Obie winner JoAnne Akalaitis gathered a crowd in Madison Square Park as they performed an expanded version of Yoko Ono’s seminal 1964 solo, Cut Piece, under the aegis of the pro-Clinton Facebook group Pantsuit Nation. The prestigious list of participants for the somber piece, in which audience members are invited to cut off fragments of the performers’ garments, included Obie-winning actresses Kathleen Chalfant and Elizabeth Marvel, playwright Winter Miller, and HERE artistic director Kristin Marting. Don’t be misled by that prelude’s elegiac tone: This administration will give women plenty to vociferate about, and with the Women’s March on Washington (and a parallel New York march on U.N. Plaza) already planned for January 21, you can count on a lot more feminist assertion happening theatrically over the months to come.

Nonprofit resident theaters, in New York and around the country, tend to plan further in advance, and to proceed more cautiously, than small-scale, low-budget radical troupes that can transform at a moment’s notice. But that doesn’t mean the bigger institutions will be evading our altered political atmosphere. Diversity, much decried by Republican dogmatists, has been the focus of a prolonged evolutionary process in the resident-theater movement, and is now an established fact. Since the nonprofits, Off-Broadway and in the regions, are now de facto the nation’s theatrical mainstream, supplying even the bulk of Broadway productions that aren’t imports, the multiethnic choice of plays, performers, and executants is only likely to increase, with nontraditional casting, as in Hamilton, the new normal no matter what Drumpf’s racist supporters think. Note that Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, about racial conflict among striking industrial workers, J.T. Rogers’s Oslo, about the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords of the 1990s, and Paula Vogel’s Indecent, about a censorship case involving lesbianism a century ago, will all be moving in to Broadway houses this spring. Expect more samples from this newly expanded range of work in coming seasons. Oh — and don’t be surprised to find a renewed emphasis on work involving Muslims and Latinos, especially Mexicans.

Both Sweat, based on interviews with workers, and Oslo, based on participants’ accounts of historic events, pull real-world facts into an entertaining dramatic fiction. Expect probable further steps toward the reawakening of a theatrical form that’s lain dormant far too long: documentary theater, in which the facts are the action, and the words are those actually spoken by the participants. Documentaries proliferated during the Vietnam War, when the government, especially under Nixon, was putting a lot of concerted effort into concealing the war’s brutal realities from the public: A notable instance was Daniel Berrigan’s Trial of the Catonsville 9, highlighting courtroom testimony in which actors playing the Berrigan brothers and their fellow anti-draft activists enumerated their reasons for protesting the war. Since facts make the strongest riposte to an administration that thinks we live in a “post truth” era, dramatizations of hard fact will probably make a fierce comeback. What will the topics be? Given the right-wing eagerness to undo every progressive policy of the past seventy years, docudramas might tackle anything from melting polar caps to school-shooting statistics. Plan on facing facts when you visit the theater, and don’t be afraid to invite your congressperson along.

Because I’ve translated several Bertolt Brecht plays, I wasn’t surprised when, post-election, directors started asking me if I had a version of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s 1941 cartoon drama, which treats Hitler’s rise as a Chicago gangster story. (I don’t, but pay me enough and I’ll write one.) Ui‘s one of many key plays from the past likely to crop up during discussions of our current political mess. As theater folk cast their minds back to works about the rise of Nazism, resistance to tyrants, or ordinary people battling greed, corruption, and absolutism, several other Brecht plays will start decorating production rosters — I’m expecting opera companies will suddenly find my translation of the Brecht-Weill Mahagonny very appealing — and you shouldn’t be surprised to run across Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, various versions of Antigone by Sophocles and his successors (including Brecht), and any number of Russian plays. (Red Bull Theater’s upcoming revival of Gogol’s Government Inspector couldn’t be better timed.) And theatrical message boards are already abuzz with prospects for a revival of, inevitably, Urinetown.

Don’t be surprised, too, if the operas that start showing up frequently include Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, which won a batch of prizes on Broadway 66 years ago and happens to deal with the plight of desperate refugees trapped in limbo by an unyielding bureaucracy: The people who cheer notions like making all Muslims register, or building a wall to keep Mexicans out, will not be pleased to hear Menotti’s stateless persons singing “O let all flags be burned/And guilt be shared.”

Because the incoming administration has taken such a wide range of hostile stances, striving to exclude anyone different and to halt any progressive gesture, smaller theaters that cater to any sort of minority, whether ethnic or aesthetic, have a golden opportunity: To take a stand in protest, they need only be who they are and do their work effectively. An African-American theater, an LGBTQ theater, a Latino theater, an Asian-American theater, a theater that practices deconstruction, or engages the audience interactively, or mixes, or integrates its actions with the stasis of art on display — anything you offer that’s not “normal” white-people mass culture, Republicans will hate. And the better it is, the more likely the rest of us are to rejoice in it, while Drumpf tweets and Republican senators rant. What Pence would have said on the Sunday talk shows if he’d attended Underground Railroad Game at Ars Nova instead of Hamilton on Broadway is anyone’s guess, but it probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as polite. We’re entering a world dominated by people whose ignorance about what’s been happening in the arts for the past century is exceeded only by their ignorance of the real world in which art thrives. The theater has a lot of startling wakeup calls in store for them. Controversies, scandals, and causes célèbres are likely to abound. The best part of all is, we in the theater don’t even need to make the effort to shock: They disapprove of us so intensely that all we really need, to send them into a frenzy, is to do our job. Little do they know what we have in store for them.