The Future of Theater in the US

Everything is in flux, our future is uncertain, and we’ve never been more important.

Delacriox’s “Liberty Leading the People” with “The Arts” on her flag and “Remember Who You Are” below

Are we really that important?

The arts are always important, but they’re critical during cultural inflection points, and right now, the US is in a doozy. The GOP slide into authoritarianism is unraveling our democracy, emboldening racists, and pushing the horrific stance that everyone but the GOP base are “the enemy,” and, in the words of Eric Trump, “not even people.”

Republicans have radically shifted their approach to the problems facing our nation.

In the past, we discussed problems in terms of: “What do we do about this fact?” Republicans have altered the terms of the debate to: “What is true?” They dismiss factual evidence by claiming that the source of that evidence is liberal — “the enemy.” The circular logic is dizzying — they claim that publishing a “fake news” story is “proof” that a source has a “liberal bias” while simultaneously claiming that the “proof” that the story is “fake news” is that it comes from a “liberal” source. Only stories that confirm their world view — no matter how outlandish or contradictory — can be “true,” and all stories that contradict their world view, no matter how well supported by evidence, are “fake news.”

While the point of this is discrediting any source that could cast their agenda in a negative light, that short term gain for Republicans comes at a major long term expense. If we can no longer agree that facts, evidence, & expertise = truth, then we can get nothing accomplished, there’s no point in thorough, serious debate about any issue, and the only consideration becomes: Who has the most raw political power?

Republicans now have fully committed to Bully Politics. Using their newfound ability to define “truth” politically rather than factually, they feel perfectly entitled to ignore factual problems and substitute a list of wholly invented problems, like “Antifa,” (which Trump’s own FBI determined was an ideology, not an organization), the imaginary idea that trans women are a danger to cis women, or the dire predictions they’ve made about every Democratic politician for years that never materialize — they’ll send jack-booted thugs to confiscate your guns; they’ll outlaw Christianity; they’ll put conservatives in concentration camps; they’ll institute communism; they’ll kidnap, sexually assualt, and eat your children (which, while new for everyone else, is familiar to Jews as one of the primary antisemitic lies, known as the “blood libel”).

Republicans have evacuated all serious discussions facing our nation and the world — climate change, systemic racism, authoritarianism, public health, Russian aggression, North Korean nuclear capabilities, losing our place as the economic center of the world, losing our place as a political world leader, alienating our allies while courting & flattering brutal dictators — by locating the argument in gaslighting rather than in discussing the issues. Republicans have bet the farm on “none of these problems are true” because they have no answer for “what do we do about these problems?”

This inflection point will decide the entire future of our culture. Are we a nation of evidence, careful consideration of the facts, and serious debate? Or are we a nation that prefers to ignore our problems and focus instead on sifting who is in the “in group” and who is in the “out group,” distributing rights and rewards accordingly?

At major cultural inflection points, the role of the arts becomes critically important. The arts are where we, as a culture, determine who we are, what we want to be, what we hope for, what we fear, what we’re willing to fight for. The stories of a culture reflect that culture and shape it. The storyteller shapes the narrative; the narrative shapes opinion and belief; opinion and belief shape the culture. There is no greater power than controlling the narrative, which is precisely why conservatives have radically shifted the terms of the debate and focused on the fictional narrative that the left are not, as previously believed, fellow Americans whose opinions differ, but “the enemy,” hell-bent on “destroying America,” whose statements are always calculated lies.

At this point in our culture’s history, we must fight for a shared acceptance of reality. We must fight for a return to the critical cultural narrative that evidence and expertise are more important than opinion and belief, and that facts should shape our worldviews, not the other way around.

The arts have more power to shape culture than any politician or political pundit. There are examples of this throughout our history. Sometimes it’s an art-led movement, and sometimes the arts distill, reflect, and popularize something already stirring in the cultural fringes — usually both. But one thing is certain:

This is the most important cultural moment for arts leadership that there has ever been in our lifetimes. We must fight for the existence of observable, verifiable truth.

So what do we do?

Pete Seeger's banjo says "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."
Pete Seeger’s Banjo, photographed by Annie Leibowitz.

We’re arts leaders. It’s time to lead. What does this mean in practical terms?

1. Honor and promote expertise. This means recognizing that an industry centered around white male able-bodied gatekeepers is limited in its understanding of the issues that face our industry and our nation. Hire, center, promote, & share power with marginalized people. Disabled people & BIPOC in particular have been pushed to the margins in our culture and our art. BIPOC are pushing theater, film, and television into a diversity, equity, and inclusion reckoning that’s been a long time coming. Embrace this rather than push against it. Disabled people are still almost completely ignored in DEI work in the theater. LEAD by putting both BIPOC and disabled people into real positions of power at your company and listen to what they have to say about every issue, not just about BIPOC-specific or disabled-specific issues. BIPOC and people with disabilities will have perspectives on general issues that white and able-bodied people lack. We recognize that professional experience grants expertise; this is not controversial. A development person with 20 years of experience has expertise in development; no one questions that. We must also value expertise gained through lived experience as a marginalized person.

2. Act on your principles. Move DEI from an “initiative” to a foundational component of your mission. Move DEI from vague and general to specific and direct. Several white men I was working alongside for the past few years publicly supported Black Lives Matter and #MeToo while simultaneously insisting that Black women in our own organization were “exaggerating” and “wrong” about sexism and racism in our own workplace. Online support is great. It helps shift the zeitgeist. But performative support for victims in high-profile cases of abuse, marginalization, and bigotry in which your personal influence is minimal becomes a depressing joke when you actively work against victims in your own workplace, where your personal influence is deeply consequential. It’s great that you show public support for women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people, but it’s critical to stand with them in your own organizations. I understand that it’s much easier to denounce someone far away than it is to examine and admit your own complicity, learn and grow from the experience, and commit to finding better ways to navigate your cultural privilege. But it’s work that can’t be avoided if we’re committed to justice. 

3. Reject “balance.” Reject “neutrality.” Now is the time to take sides. Side clearly with the idea that reality exists and that evidence is unchanged by opinion. We’ve gone well beyond Rashomon-style examinations of subjectivity. In our culture, the terms of the debate have been deliberately shifted from “How did this murder happen?” to “Did the murder even take place?” and “Did this person even exist?” We’re seeing it in the shift from “What do we do about Covid?” to “Is Covid really dangerous?” and even “Is Covid even real?” We’re seeing it in the attempted ban on diversity training and the words “systemic racism.” But Covid is a public health crisis no matter how many times they deny it, and systemic racism exists whether they yank federal funding or not. Reality cannot be blackmailed. What does this mean for us in practical terms? Refuse to stage work or host discussions that feature false equivalencies between reality and propaganda. The terms of the discussion must be “What will we do about this issue?” not “Is this issue real?” Do not allow the terms of the debate to include calling hard evidence into question for ideological purposes. In other words: Do not stage Oleanna or any other work that pretends racism, sexism, ableism, or other forms of bigotry might actually just be tools to destroy good white men. These works are not “controversial” or “provocative.” They’re dishonest. No one needs to explore Oleanna’s silly, disingenuous central question “Are accusations of sexism just women exacting revenge because they aren’t smart enough to understand the brilliance of white men?” Stage works that deal with problems honestly. There are plenty of “controversial” and “provocative” plays that honestly explore issues. Remember that everything is political, so all of this applies to fluffy romantic comedies just as much — and likely more — than it does “political theater” with an outwardly political agenda. This extends to all programming. Do not host audience engagement events that include discussions that claim to feature two people from “both sides” of an issue when one side is just dismissing or minimizing the issue. And do not be afraid to ask for help. If you’re unsure, reach out to someone in your org or in the community, or hire a DEI consultant to confidentially help you navigate the situation.

4. Remember who you are. Remember your magic. Remember your power. Make “Guardian of Truth” part of your work. Remember that “truth” includes diverse perspectives. Remember that “truth” doesn’t mean “linear political theater.” Remember that “truth” extends to how you treat every human who touches your organization — staff, audience, press, donors, board, grant officers, passers-by, the dude at Office Depot ringing up your printer cartridges — everyone. I know times are tough. I know not every company will survive. But we will go down fighting. REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. Your work makes a difference. Your work is powerful.

There’s so much more to discuss, and so much more we can do. This is just the Starter Pack.

Now is the time for arts leaders to lead. Suit up, theater. Let’s go.

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