Red-state theatre

In the second in his series of follow-ups to our recent interview with him (and some of the heated discussion the followed elsewhere), University of North Carolina theatre professor Scott Walters has elaborated on this question:

Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts community?

In expanding his argument, he offers the following 10-point manifesto:

Great theatre artists should:

1. Avoid dogmatism and propaganda. Any part of life worth writing about is worth portraying in complex terms. Melodrama has one-dimensional heroes and villains – don’t stack the deck in your favor.

2. Assume that your audience is as smart as you are. Or better yet, smarter.

3. Believe that your spectators are capable of change.

4. Understand that change comes from persuasion and empathy, not nagging.

5. Allow for the possibility that viewpoints other than your own may be valid. As Neils Bohr famously said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Strive to create plays that contain profound truths rather than correct statements.

6. Include yourself in any accusations. Remember that when you point a finger, three fingers point back at you. If you must point, that is good dramaturgical advice.

7. Even if you disagree with a particular value, try to understand it deeply, and present it fairly. Don’t turn values into cartoons. The thing that makes Angels in America great is that all of the characters, even Roy Cohn, is presented with complexity, depth, and (yes) empathy. See number 1 above.

8. There is a place for preaching to the choir – as Slay wrote, quoting (he thinks) West Wing: “Sometimes you have to preach to the choir, if you want them to sing.” So true. Sometimes values need to be strengthened and reinforced. But don’t confuse this with creating high quality theatre – this is propaganda. Sometimes propaganda is necessary.

9. Imagine a better world. As Jill Dolan writes in Utopia in Performance, try to “inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible, rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential.” As I tell my dog, Kip, you can point out shit without having to roll in it. He never listens either.

10. Believe in hope. As Barack Obama says, “the audacity of hope.” Cynicism and despair is the idealist’s wound. Always open up your heart, even though it seems dangerous to do so. (And if someone brings up Beckett as an example of a great artist that writes about despair, I would beg to differ. All of his characters have hope, in my opinion, and in their hope is their tragic heroism.)

Check out the entire post at Scott Walters’ blog. Lots of insightful feedback in the comments section, too.

Anyone care to argue in favour of cynicism?

2 thoughts on “Red-state theatre

  1. re #8 I have a friend who is quite a successful playwright in Toronto that I talked with about the whole, “preaching to the converted” problem inherent in a medium that plays almost exclusively to left leaning middle class professionals.

    His semi-nihilistic response was, “Even the converted need their values reinforced from time to time”. This is an excellent soundbite , but it would probably leave Barak Obama wanting for more of a sense of hope.

    I think material that has a leftist perspective or agenda has to do a heck of a better job at being entertaining. 24 (the tv show) is an insanely entertaining piece of right wing propaganda. how many american cities have not suffered a major terrorist attack over the past couple of years? We watch because it is compelling anyhow. Colbert does a good job coming from the other side. Clearly this is left wing propaganda. We cannot help but watch beacuse he is the funniest man alive…where am I going with this…IF it’s something people WANT to watch they will swallow your political persepective quite easily. If it’s like eating your vegetables, not so much.

  2. Thanks for the shout out, Ian. Your readers are probably getting sick of hearing from me!

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