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Jun 5, 2007

thoughts on "Conservative Theatre"

This is in response to laura's recent post


I'm generalizing here but I think there are many
reasons there is not a lot of conservative theatre.
First of all, the best places for theatres are cities
and cities are the most liberal part of every state.
Wherever the most people congregate, you will have the
most theatre and also the most liberals. So in almost
every community, theatre is set in a place where your
audience and your practitioners are liberal.

Artists by a large majority are liberal if you take
that word to mean generally inclusive. (theatre is
pretty inclusive in terms of different types of
artists and different types of people, but also
oddballs end up in theatre for various reasons and
stick around because they find acceptance.)

In some ways conservative theatre is an oxymoron...
which is not to say it doesn't exist, just that the
word conservative doesn't go with the idea of theatre.
When I think of the word conservative, I think of
certain constricting values that exclude instead of
including which I think is why there isn't a lot of
conservative theatre. Even the work required to sit
and watch a theatrical piece involves a certain
openess and going to the theatre is about putting
yourself in front of something unpredictable that has
not been vetted by any rating system or governing
board and being open to the effect it may have on you.


Jaime said...

This might sound generalized and simplistic, but I wonder if there's also something to the ages-old association of theatre and people of 'loose morals.' Conservatives tend to be less forgiving of loose morals then liberals, or at least quicker to trot out that label.

Adam said...

I think that's definitely true. We love the loose morals.

Laura said...

You know what I think? Conservatives don't get involved with theater because it means a whole lot of poverty. :)

Most conservatives are pro-capitalism. So they'd probably find a way to make money.

I know I'm stereotyping... Sorry.

nick said...

(I posted this question/comment at Laura's also.)

What do you make of the black church-orientated audiences of the brand of urban theatre in this Times article? Isn't this exactly that conservative theatre and conservative audience everyone claims doesn’t exist?


"Urban theater — or what has been called over the years inspirational theater, black Broadway, gospel theater and the chitlin circuit — has been thriving for decades, selling out some of the biggest theaters across the country and grossing millions of dollars a year."

Adam said...

Laura, I think that's very true.

Nick, while they may be conservative in some ways, I doubt the majority of the audience you are speaking of are republicans. And really there is a lot of theatre that goes on in church too. We mustn't forget that. Of course that's not what i'm talking about and that is more about strengthening bonds than questioning the status quo which is the kind of theatre i'm talking about.

Adam said...

Also, an argument could be made that conservative theatre, if it exists, is on Broadway.

nick said...

The problem is many don't think Urban Theatre is really even theatre. Robert Brustein and August Wilson and Louis Gates, Jr all argued on this subject back years ago in the mid '90's.

No, this audience and its theatre is not Republican. But are you also saying theatre belongs only to the Democrats?

And aren't the church folk and/or Urban Theatre basically presenting a conservative counter to the status quo of the Hip Hop culture they often see their communities immersed in.

Adam said...

a lot of people don't think Broadway is theater either.

I'm not saying theater belongs only to the democrats. oh, wait, maybe that's what i am saying. Or rather that the reason there isn't republican theatre is that republicans aren't in theatre.

I would argue that Urban Theatre is all about status quo--all about affirming shared values in the way that television often does. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that.

nick said...

Broadway and Urban Theatre is not high art theatre, I guess is what those “lot of people“ mean. Okay. But it is popular and unsubsidized, something the rest of theatre is not. Here we can bring issue of class and elitism. Red State and Jesse Helms’ argument is against the non-democratic way in which art is subsidized. You are right I think. Republicans are not in theatre. So why should they support it? But they do anyway. Just not the theatre you and I normally do or support. Laura Bush was chair of the NEA nationwide Shakespeare project and the NEA budget was increased under Bush. The Department of Defense produced a touring Macbeth with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival?!?

I would be more interested in a hip hop theatre aesthetic than an Urban Theatre aesthetic. But I think MTV reinforces a status quo as much church does.

bam34 said...

I think this whole debate about "conservatives" in theater needs to be clarified. If you're asking whether theater is attended more by Republicans or by Democrats, then I think you need to ask yourself, what theater are you talking about? I would imagine that Broadway musicals for instance are attended about evenly by both groups. Shows at PS 122, overwhelmingly by the left.

But what do you do with a show like "Coast of Utopia," which I would argue is probably the most "conservative" show in New York right now. I suspect a high percentage of its audience is Republican (probably not more than half, but certainly a significant chunk) and I would imagine that the vast majority of them are "pro-capitalism" (how else could they afford the tickets??). The content of the show is deeply conservative in the sense that it takes nine hours to come around to the conclusion that gradual change through liberal deomocratic reform is much safer and preferable to radical socialist revolution.

Let me just state at this point that I'm bothered by the easy dichotomy established between conservative and liberal. Liberal means that one is somewhat tolerant or permissive -- as a political category is says very little about one's stance on, say, the capitalist economy. Part of the problem with our political discourse as a nation (and with the current conversation on this and other blogs) is that we fail to understand that political categories are not binary.

I would argue that theater which does not challenge the status quo, the institutional norms of how theater is produced is fundamentally conservative. This does not JUST mean Boradway musicals and revivals of American classics. Viewed through a certain lens, a lot of downtown theater work is conservative -- it's fighting the same aesthetic and political battles that have been fought since the sixties and it's doing it for an audience that already knows where they stand.

For me, the "conservatism" or "radicalism" of a work of theater in the most meaningful sense has little to do with it's content, but more with the circumstances of its production. If it simply ends up continuing the institution of our theater as it now is (i.e. attended by mostly white, college educated people), then it's pretty conservative. That criteria would encompass both "Coast of Utopia" and much of the work of small downtown theaters, too.

The commenter who mentions Black theater in churches and elsewhere makes a good point. How do we categorize that? Many of the messages in those shows are very traditional -- not just about God, but about family, morality, and gender roles. But it attracts an audience that most of us left-wing types ought to be eager to attend our shows.

That, I believe, is what "our community" needs to do better. Bring more people into the fold, both in the audience and behind the scenes. As far as I'm concerned, I would love to have more middle-aged Black church-going women in the audience for my plays, even if they voted for George Bush and support the war in Iraq. That would make going to the theater a lot more interesting and, for me, meaningful.

Adam said...

Thanks for the comment, bam. You make a lot of good points. Let me just qualify that a new york republican is probably more liberal than most, but even that has to be qualified because really all this is generalizing about individual people coming from many different places. And i agree with you that we can't just say it's one or the other. It's both in varying degrees.

I don't think these middle class african american women are my personal demographic when I write and I imagine a lot of them would be put off by my work. Or if soem of them did like it, i'm sure it wouldn't go over too well in the bible belt. And yet, I'm not doing anything that radical compared to other things going on in this new york theatrical community. Which is to say I guess, I would love for theatre to touch more people, but I'm not sure that's the function of the theatre i make. And yet, if you look at it and look at the country, my work is liberally biased surely.

Am I happy these women are at the theatre? Yes, because i am pulling for theatre's health. But it has very little to do with the kind of theatre i do or am personally interested in and probably has more to do with sitcoms. And yet some of my plays are not really that far from sitcoms. Except my characters say fuck a lot more. and they fuck a lot more. and I don't want to change that to bring in more theatregoers who are not like me.

frank's wild lunch said...

Nick, you forgot to put quotes around "high art theater," along with those "lot of people." Do you recognize such a category? I'm not sure I do. And I sure don't think politicians who oppose subsidizing of the arts do it because they're anti-elitist, even if that is the way they attempt to package their argument to the general public. Your comment seems to suggest that subsidizing art automatically makes that art elitist and unsubsidized art is automatically populist. Or that Jesse Helms wasn't elitist. Or something. I can't imagine that's what you mean, but I'm not sure what you do mean.... So what do you mean?

I'd agree with much of what bam34 says. I think it's probably safe to say that a great deal of American theater is conservative, relatively speaking. I see very little professional work that does much more than reinforce one kind of status quo or the other.

And isn't it all a big circle anyway? Considering that Socialism historically led to governmental repression of art it considered decadent (and therefore elitist) and subsidized art that promoted the government and the repression of the individual, I'd say the issue isn't an easy dichotomy at all.

bam34 said...

what if bringing in more (and different) types of people had less to do with what we write than with how the theater is organized.

white college-educated people (many of us) have a tradition of theater going from when we are young, or when we went to college etc. many working-class minorities do not, but they might have a tradition of movie-going, or watching sitcoms, or going to church or a neighborhood hip-hop talent show. (and not ALL of those people would be offended by frquent use of "fuck" -- they might be more put off, I would imagine, by the perceived cultural divide between "white" theater and the world that they are familiar with)

what i'm suggesting is that our "community" would benefit from bringing in more people for whom our type of theater-going is not habitual. that has less to do, i would argue with changing what we produce, but with the economy behind our theaters -- we need to do outreach in different ways. in the end, the new mix would benefit everyone.

nick said...


High art and low art is a common demarcation in the art world, but you are right that it is imprecise when applied to theatre. That said, Urban Theatre is considered by a “lot of people“ as low art. The other term used to describe this theatre is Chitlin Circuit, which is derisive of both the audience who attends the productions and the quality of the plays.

Jesse Helms correctly sussed out that his electorate in North Carolina would considerer the NEA elitist especially when highlighting funding that went to individuals such as the NEA Four. The fact is that not just North Carolina but most of country also felt the same. Tax dollars funding Yams Up Karen Finley’s Granny’s Ass or whatever had to be the result of an art cabal gone berserk.

I am not siding with Jesse Helms by articulating his argument or in describing the public sentiment at the time. My peers and I lost state and federal grants for our performance projects in Coney Island in the mid-90’s as a direct result of the backlash from this NEA Four fiasco.

Lucas said...

I think this idea ignores the large number of Christmas pageants and so forth that occur every year. There are also the many community theatres all over the country that this idea excludes. The largest demographic to receive NEA funding is community theatre centers in rural areas, last time I checked.

Tiny "towns" in the middle of Nebraska have far more advanced theatres with state of the art sound and lighting, not to mention newly rennovated lobbies and so forth, far surpassing what is considered adaquate in urban areas.

But to get back to my first point, to ignore the theatere that goes on in religious institutions is a grave mistake. We should never forget that the Western theatre was born from religious celebration and worship.

And do not forget the Opera. There are hugse numbers of socially and fiscally conservative people who are major supporters of Opera companies all over the U.S.

Adam said...

bam, I agree with you in principle. But I am a white middle class man writing from the perspective of a white middle class man. I am making an attempt to write plays that allow for diversity of casting, but content-wise I write about what I want to write about. And I'm sure the faint of heart are immediately alienated.

Lucas, I'm sure you're right about the origins of a great deal of theatre and I have hopes that a great deal of theatre is happening outside cities. I grew up in a small town and my greatest hope is that my plays will be done in small towns throughout the country. However, cities have more people and therefore more theatres. Cities attract the most cultural institutions.

The reason I'm in New York right now is that more theatre is going on here than anywhere else in the country. Which is not to say there are not other places where innovative and exciting new work is getting done, but it is to say more of it is done here than anywhere else in the country at any one time.

A good part of my objective is getting my plays into other cities and small towns but for years i have been sending plays directly which is not realistic on a large scale and is time consuming. The only real way for these small town actors and directors to find my plays if they are published and it doesn't hurt to have a large production in a sizable regional theatre or new york theatre. That's just the way it is. I wish it were different.

But I'm sure you're right about opera and christmas pageants, neither of which i can say I am actually familiar with.

Adam said...

Bam, i do agree with you that something has to be done about ticket prices and bringing in more working class and minority theatregoers. It's a problem. I think a lot of the answer lies in more arts in the schools. that's where I was introduced to theatre through acting in school productions and class trips to hartford stage. If my public school hadn't had a theatre program, i doubt I would be in theatre now. Adn I think that's common.

Adam said...

Lucas, What are they putting on in these "small towns" you're going to? Are you speaking of places you've worked? Are there christmas pageants in these state of the art theatres or are they doing mamet? I'm not trying to form an argument. I'm just curious.

Scott Walters said...

I'm curious, Adam, why that last question is important. Is Mamet a signifier of something?

Adam said...

Honestly, it's not important. I'm just wondering. And as for Mamet, I only chose him because he is famous for profane language.