A Post-Election Plea, To The Theatre And Its Artists

November 9th, 2016 § 15 comments

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I wish that I could write a play, but I haven’t the talent. I wish that I could compose a musical score, but I haven’t the gift. I wish that I could dance, but I have neither the freedom in my body nor the discipline to train. I can sing, a bit, but only well enough to entertain myself on long car rides. So because of my deep admiration for the people who can do these things, because of how they uplift me, move me, teach me, I go to the theatre.

On this post-election morning of November 9, I am reminded that the theatre is my America, because it embraces a multiplicity of stories, of possibilities, of harsh realities and of unimaginable dreams. Its stories are the stories I want to have told, its songs are the songs I want to sing while driving on an autumn day. It is the place where I meet and commune with people on stage and in the audience, inclusive of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, or disabilities. I don’t look to the theatre for escape, but for engagement, which includes the potential for epiphany and joy.

Theatre is where I learn about the world, but even more importantly, the people of that world. In just the past two weeks, the theatre has taken me into the lives of factory workers in today’s Pennsylvania, into the world of Vietnamese refugees discovering America in the 1970s, into apartheid-era South Africa in 1950, where I watched a tragedy play out an inexorably as it did when I first witnessed the same story 34 years earlier. Theatre is my travel, my transport, my time machine.

Yes, I awoke today, after little sleep, in despair. Then I embraced someone I love, and while my worries were unabated, I was reminded that whatever is to come, I do not face it alone. Tonight, I will go to the theatre, and while I don’t expect that the audience will hug and kiss one another for comfort or in solidarity, we will be gathering in the collective embrace of theatre. That tonight’s show was created by a friend of 30 years duration will connect me with the work above and beyond what I might feel simply as a member of the audience. I will go to the theatre again tomorrow night, and the night after that – and then again the night after that.

It has been said that a great many works seen on stage over the past 15 years have been post-9/11 plays. That is not merely referring to the calendar, but to the mindset – that directly or obliquely, so much theatre has been grappling with that terrible tragedy. Did yesterday mark the start of a new era in the work created for the theatre and elsewhere in the arts as well? Intentionally or not, I think it did.

More importantly, I think it must. While our country is divided and we have just elected a man who stoked that divisiveness, we don’t know what’s going to come next, or what the next four years have in store. Pundits and politicians will spin their stories, but based upon the just completed campaign, it will become increasingly difficult to know the difference between truth and lies, between fact and conjuncture, between assured prediction and stark reality.

Because I cannot make art, I look to artists to interpret the world for me, in ways that go to the core of who I am, perhaps challenging my assumptions and at other times affirming my beliefs. Because I cannot make art, I have spent my life in support of it, in one way or another, hopefully helping others to create, and still more to understand it and participate in it. At times, that has required me to challenge authority that seeks to diminish the arts, to deny the arts to others, to reduce the arts to merely inoffensive diversion.

As I have watched this political campaign unfold, I have often said that I expected challenges to art, to theatre, to only increase, parallel to the political divisions that have been set into high, ugly relief over the past year and a half. With the election over and the outcome determined, I’m now all but certain that we will see creative expression targeted as we have not seen for a number of years.

No one can tell an artist what to create, or how to create it. But on this morning when so many people I admire and respect, who have brought so much into my life with their gifts, are reacting in shock and profound dismay, I turn to them and say that while colored maps and percentage points may dishearten you, we need you as much as ever, if not even more than before. We believe in you. Speak your truths for those who hunger for them. Mix the divisions of red and blue into a vibrant purple. Tell us about the lives of people we do not know, but should. And we will fight for your right to tell them and our right to see them, hear them, dance them and sing them.

The great work has gone on for many centuries. We can still learn from the ancient Greek theatre artists. Today it begins yet again. We must learn from you. Tell us a story. Lead us to a better America and a better world.

 

Photo by Max Wolfe

 

 

 


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  • Gai Jones

    Thank you, Howard for inspiring my artistic challenge-that of continuing to work with youth in Theatre who have to make it better for their futures. All of our diverse Theatre students and our Theatre educators who inspire them and give them a place of acceptance, we have to continue to tell their stories.

  • Mrs. McGriff

    Thank you, very much, for this bit of encouragement.

  • Noe Montez

    Thanks Howard. I spent most of today thinking about what I’d say to my Contemporary American Theatre Students today and when I saw this, I knew it would be part of the conversation

  • Morgan Ironwolf

    “inclusive of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, or disabilities”

    I can’t help but notice that you don’t include beliefs or ideologies. That is the kind of diversity that theater (and all of the mass media) needs. Different ways of seeing the world, not just different people saying the same thing. Perhaps if you were more inclusive of different ideas about the world, you wouldn’t be taking this election so hard. You’d realize that those who you belittle and demonize just see things differently and just because they hold a different position, they aren’t necessarily racist, homophobic or misogynistic. (I’m not speaking of you, directly, at this point, since I don’t know you personally – more the popular culture in general.)

    I did not vote for Donald Trump. I did not vote for Hillary, either. Neither of them were acceptable options to me. But I know a great many fine people who did vote for Trump, for reasons disconnected from the bombast that marked much of his campaign. I do not like the way my friends on the left speak of them. My theater friends are, quite honestly, some of the most close-minded people I know. They follow every left-wing argument lock-step and would no more admit Hillary’s many deficiencies than they would admit the valid points made by Trump in his more lucid moments. They are angry, afraid, in despair, as you say. But they would have mocked someone who said the same thing, had Hillary won. They post facebook profile pictures that say “He’s not my President”, but decried as un-American those who said the same of Barack Obama (and, naturally, called them racist, to boot).

    I hope you mean it when you say “Tell us about the lives of people we do not know, but should.” Because I rarely see anything that breaks from the politically-correct-left-wing-approved template being offered up these days. Locking yourselves into an echo-chamber of self-supporting, self-reassuring “expression” will do little to mix that purple you claim to want.

    • Garmin Woods

      Morgan, thank you so much for this. I thought I was the only one who was experiencing it. Like you, I voted for neither Trump nor Clinton. And I also know a lot of fine people who voted for each. I am deeply distraught by the way that the Hillary supporters are treating everyone else, especially within our local theatrical community, where just weeks ago we were a family. Now, everything you described is happening to us. The anger, fear and despair is manifesting itself in a very public expression of intolerance towards alternative beliefs and ideology.

      Through Facebook, our local message boards, and vocal proclamations at rehearsal, Trump supporters have been shamed into silence, and even third-party voters are outcast. People who used to smile and hug me when we met now turn their eyes away, including local directors and producers who have a significant say in the extent of my involvement in theatre. I can only imagine what this means when it comes to getting cast in future productions. I love theatre, but I can’t endure such a toxic environment.

      • jeremyvm

        If it means standing up to and voicing out against the Alt-Right movement, then my “public expression of intolerance towards alternative beliefs and ideology” is something I will firmly stand behind. Stemming from no anger, fear nor despair because this theatre artist does not choose to live his life in those realms.

  • Kristin Brownstone

    Thank you so very much for this beautiful articulation. And a reminder of a ray of hope…..

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  • Dewey Moss

    Dear Mr. Sherman:

    Thank you for this article. Your thoughts were very healing to this artist’s soul today, and has re-energized me to continue the work that I do. I’m a writer/director/producer in NYC, and primarily concentrate on writing plays that deal with important human rights issues. My current work, The Crusade of Connor Stephens, has been described by critics as a work where “Gays, Guns and Religion Collide” and “eschews easy answers and ripped-from-the-headlines relevance in favor of a more challenging exploration of clashing ideologies. ” It deals with gay parents having lost their child in a school shooting, and explores the seeds of hate that causes such an act to occur as their family is torn apart by religious beliefs.

    Despite amazing reviews, celebrity endorsements, standing ovations at developmental productions, works like mine continue to be difficult to get produced. Mainly because the pieces often aren’t seen as having “commercial” value. So the struggle to produce it feels like an uphill battle at times. But I’ve long held the belief that theater can be both commercial AND life changing through opening people’s minds and hearts to see new truths.

    So thank you. Today you’ve reminded me that the struggle is worth continuing. That continued creation is key. And that our work makes a difference.

  • Conie petersen

    THANK YOU for your words of hope and confidence. I just read it my college theatre class of students who are struggling with the outcome. They were very touched by your words and inspiration.

  • Alia Curchack-Beeton

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. There is nothing I wish more for my life than to be useful, to be of service to our collective humanity and home. But I’ve so often fallen short in my own eyes and questioned my path as an artist, which can easily be construed as narcissistic and self-serving. That conflict, along with both nihilism and idealism vying for my attention, has kept me straddling the fence at times, hesitant to go all in. Except… I’m an artist. That’s what I know. I don’t really have a backup plan as yet. Your article is a wonderful validation of the work artists do, and speaks to me now more than ever, in the darkness and upheaval we face collectively.

    Hope is a powerful driving force and I’m seeing it expressed in a multitude of ways right now, all around me. Coincidentally, the musical play I’m currently rehearsing is called “Hope,” written by activist Si Kahn. It tells stories of his Eastern European Jewish ancestors fleeing to America- these are my ancestors too. 5 days a week I get to collaborate with a talented group of artists who care as deeply about humanity as I do, and we get to raise our voices in song and story to tell about our past, our dreams, and the collective vision for our future. Despite everything in the political climate conspiring to elicit fear within me, I feel hopeful. And, maybe for the first time, I feel all sides of myself coalescing onto the same team. Thank you again for your words of inspiration.

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  • intranautt

    Konstantin Raikin, director of Moscow’s Satirikon theatre has accused the state of returning to a Stalin-like era as noted by the Guardian http://bit.ly/2dU4X8q. Addressing Ms. Ironwolf, “inclusive of all ages,genders..” is a statement of “without discrimination,”
    as in the Civil Rights act. I believe you’d find a bunch of beliefs or ideologies in all the genders,races,ethnicity,and so on.Now we find ourselves in a period where our beliefs may be targeted. It has happened before but the artists came,particularly the playwrights whose plays showed us the injustices of bigotry,racism,misogyny,and the like.

  • jeremyvm

    Thank you, Howard. This is now posted on the wall of my tiny office at a small theatre company in Minnesota. These words compel all of us to continue our work for the common good of all.

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