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Much of DC’s drama may play out on Capitol Hill, but the theater scene here is also deeply infused with the political. It might be play about politics, like “Camp David,” a Russian theater festival cancelled because of political tensions, or a classic play like Richard III infused with contemporary themes. Others would argue that all theater is political, from the family drama to the biggest musical. We explore what political theater means in a political town.
- Michael Dove Artistic Director, Forum Theater
- Miriam Weisfeld Associate Artistic Director, Woolly Mammoth Theater Company
- Derek Goldman Artistic Director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and Professor of Theater and Performance Studies, Georgetown University
- Peter Marks Chief Theater Critic, Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Much of D.C.'s drama may play out on Capitol Hill, but Washington is also a thriving theater town. And what happens on stage here is often deeply infused with political themes. Whether it's a play about politics, like "Camp David," or Shakespeare's "Richard III" played with a contemporary spin. And sometimes real politics are waiting in the wings to influence a production, as in the case of a Russian theater festival canceled in the wake of political tensions over Ukraine.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss theater in a political town is Peter Marks, chief theater critic for the Washington Post. Peter, good to see you again.
MR. PETER MARKSNice to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Miriam Weisfeld, associate artistic director at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. Miriam, thank you for joining us.
MS. MIRIAM WEISFELDIt's good to be here.
NNAMDIMichael Dove is the artistic director of Forum Theater. Michael, welcome.
MR. MICHAEL DOVEThank you. Pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Derek Goldman is professor and artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University and founding director of the laboratory for global performance and politics at Georgetown. Derek, thank you for joining us.
MR. DEREK GOLDMANNice to be here.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Has a play ever sparked a political discussion for you? What do you feel about the relationship between politics and theater? 800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Peter, perhaps it comes with the territory of reviewing theater in Washington, but you've been interested in this topic for a while now.
NNAMDIWhat do you consider political theater?
MARKSWell that's a great question and it's a very broad topic. There are different kinds of political theater. There's both the kind that examines the political culture of a country or, in particular, even of Washington. And then there's the ideological play. There's a play that takes a point of view and drives it home. And then there are, in between those plays, there's plays about personalities in politics. So you have this sort of huge category that gets defined and redefined over and over again, and seems to be happening in all its permutations with increasing frequency in Washington.
NNAMDIAnd sometimes politics becomes theater. I remember you reviewing the Republican convention in Tampa in 2012 as political theater.
MARKSWell, that's it. You know, I actually, when I worked at The New York Times, I was a theater critic who was recruited by the executive editor to cover the 2000 presidential campaign because they thought it would be kind of hilarious to have a drama critic covering politics. What I discovered was that every political reporter is a theater critic. Essentially they're all reviewing the theater of politics.
MARKSSo, I mean, there is this sort of exchange, this conversation going back and forth. And perhaps one of the reasons that Washington is sometimes pegged as a place that doesn't want that much politics in its theater is because it's getting the theater of politics all day long.
NNAMDIAnd of course I remember the days when conventions used to be improv theater.
NNAMDIBut in recent years they've been completely scripted.
MARKSNo, very scripted. Totally. That's very good.
NNAMDIMichael, it seems Washington is an interesting place to do theater with a political edge. What's been your experience?
DOVEYeah, in fact, I mean, a lot of -- my company, Forum Theater, has been around for, this is our tenth season. And I actually remember, Peter, an article you wrote probably nine, ten years ago about that very concept of, are we -- do we have a populous who's tired of politics? And so that really, to be honest, shaped a lot of my thinking about political theater and the type of work we wanted to do. And I think you're right.
DOVEI think we have an audience who's extremely -- in the D.C. area we have an audience that's extremely informed and knows everything about, sort of, if we want to start approaching plays about politics. And so I think what's changing, I've seen over the last ten years, is more about the approaches to theater and finding ways to take things that are a little outside of the D.C. experience and find relevancy, bringing people together to have conversations about what their work means to them, about their community, how they work better with one another.
NNAMDIMiriam, you tackle some of these questions in your role at Woolly Mammoth, including the connection between theater and Democracy. Talk about that.
WEISFELDWell, you know, that was one of the reasons I left New York City to come and work at Woolley Mammoth here in Washington. Peter and I were just talking about this. I went to school at -- I went to graduate school at the American Repertory Theater's Institute at Harvard, which has a relationship with the Moscow Art Theater School in Russia. And that was how I began to think about my theatrical work as inherently political. And one of my mentors, Robert Brustein, said something that really stuck in my brain when I was in school.
WEISFELDHe said, "The United States is very strange because our political capital and our cultural capital are different cities. And that's not true in just about any other first-world nation." And, again, that's what brought me from New York to Washington, because there was something really interesting, I thought, about the fact that Woolley Mammoth was making provocative new plays a stone's throw from the nation's capital.
NNAMDIDerek, artists always hope that their work has an impact. What's the idea behind the laboratory for global performance and politics at Georgetown?
GOLDMANYeah, it actually relates directly to what I think Peter and Miriam are talking about in terms of looking for a way to bring theatrical practice together with the world of policy and politics and find a kind of porousness between these two worlds that are often, you know, we have these temples of culture and we have these temples of politics. And I think the exchange between those two, the ways that theater can actually humanize and dimensionalize a political situation and move policy conversations forward. We, in Washington, have a particular opportunity to cultivate that.
GOLDMANAnd Georgetown, this particular partnership between the School of Foreign Service and the Theater and Performance Studies Program, is about really being a resource center for people on the diplomacy and policy side of things and people on the theater side of things to work and think together about theater's power to move that conversation forward.
NNAMDIBut in broader terms, and Peter I'll start with you, is all theater in some ways political?
MARKSSure. Yes. I mean, the context for almost every play is political. "Death of a Salesman," at some level is about the failure of capitalism. And you can apply that, you know, "The Glass Menagerie" is about a single mom struggling to raise a disabled child. I mean these are issues that reverberate in the culture over and over again. We don't think of those classic plays necessarily in their political context, because we tend to do them in period and sort of honor them as classics. But, yes. And to try to vacuum out the politics in any situation sort of denies an essential part of the theater.
MARKSTo talk about Robert Brustein -- Brustein's, one of his great observations was that drama is basically two ideas in opposition. And what is politics, but two sides, you know, battling over their own ideological positions? There's a lot of currency in theater that says those things are absolutely compatible.
NNAMDII've been thinking a lot about it since I started preparing for this show, and I think -- I can see where -- well, I'll ask the other panelists to weigh in on that, starting with you, Miriam. All theater political?
WEISFELDOf course. I mean, I think it depends on if you mean capital "P" Political or small "p" political.
WEISFELDBecause you could also be talking about identity politics. You could also be talking about cultural or social criticism. But I think what -- one of the reasons that we, as theater artists, all take that as a given is that when you actually look at the origins of Western theater, when you look at ancient Greece, the Dionysian Festival in Athens, where the actual craft of Western playwriting as we know it was created. It was created as an exercise for the audience to practice democracy.
WEISFELDThe very first play is written by Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides. These were parts of almost an "American Idol" style contest.
WEISFELDThe playwrights wrote three plays and then a satyr play, a comedy, that sort of satirized their work. And the audience stayed all day and watched all of these plays. And in the end they voted on which one they thought was the best. And the plays themselves almost always dealt with questions of justice and morality and, you know, how an individual dealt with the fates and the gods and choices that they had to make. And so I think, you know, it's almost impossible, when you're talking about Western-style playwriting, to separate that from its roots.
GOLDMANYeah, I mean, I think that theater is in many ways a perfect anecdote to a world of kind of partisan sound bites. That the experience of aliveness and immediacy that happens in a theatrical space, the time relationship to it, the space relationship to it, is -- the narrative dimension of it, pushes against the notion that we are certain about things. That, in fact, when political theater works, I think it is not typically just ideological or just agitprop, just there to make a point.
GOLDMANIt is creating layers and human dimensions that make the issues that people may be weighing in a political space more human, more complicated. And we, I think, need that. And I think what we've found with the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, is many people in the policy world are hungry for that. They're encountering theatrical events that are actually informing their way of engaging the issues that may be stuck in a policy setting. And that this is a way of creating some energy and motion around that.
NNAMDIFinally, you, same question, Michael. All theater in some ways political?
DOVEYeah, I think in a lot of ways. And even just to continue on with what Miriam was saying, I think, you know, you have Western theater being born in the same decade as Democracy, in the same city, in the same town. And I think what happened is, you know, it took storytelling and it became dialog. And the moment you had two people talking to one another, the audience is forced to empathize and put themselves in those shoes. And that turns into not just one point of view, but the truth being somewhere in the middle, which is the practice of Democracy in itself.
DOVEAnd I think that, as Peter was saying also that, you know, these plays sort of change over time, how we look at them. I mean think about the Henries in Shakespeare. And essentially what he was trying to do was write a series of plays about what it meant to be English for all classes who came to see these shows.
NNAMDIPeter, the issue of actual politics affecting what happens on stage has been coming up a lot recently. Tell us about the play called "The Admission."
MARKSAh. Well, "The Admission" caused a lot of controversy for the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, which houses Theater J. Theater J is a theater of Jewish themes that is an arm -- a direct arm of the DCJCC. And it's artistic director, Ari Roth, is an adventurous sort. He both will do a play by Neil Simon, and he will also do a scathing play by an Israeli playwright criticizing basically the mindset of current Israeli history. And in this play by Motti Lerner, it traces back a purported massacre by Israeli soldiers during the 1948 war with the Arabs.
MARKSAnd it's an investigation by a Jewish citizen of Israel questioning his father who participated in this event. And it caused a...
MARKSYes. An organization was formed locally of concerned citizens who asked for donors to the organization that funds the DCJCC to withhold money until the play was withdrawn. And as a result, the DCJCC put pressure on Theater J to tone down the run, to make it shorter and to call it a workshop instead of a full production, which raised hackles in the theater community, which felt this was somehow a clamping down on expression at some level. Low and behold, the play was terrific. And it was done in a workshop forum.
MARKSAnd so -- respond -- audiences responded so strongly to it that it's now running in a commercial run at Studio Theater till the 18th. It's got a terrific cast of about 10 actors playing both Israelis and Palestinians. And it has really opened up a conversation even in Israel, which is now, as a result, going to produce the play in -- by the Cameri Theatre of Haifa -- is it Haifa or Tel Aviv, I can't remember -- Tel Aviv, I guess. So it's caused quite a stir.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're going to take a short break but you can call during that break. We're talking about political theater. You can also send email to email@example.com, should us a Tweet @kojoshow or you can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Has a play ever sparked a political discussion for you, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWashington is a political town. It's also a theater town. We're discussing the relationship between the two with Peter Marks, chief theater critic for the Washington Post. Miriam Weisfeld is associate artistic director at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. Michael Dove is the artistic director of Forum Theater. And Derek Goldman is professor and artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University and founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown.
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from dog and pony dc. "We believe our show Beertown is a work of political theater and exercise in democracy. Think your guests agree?" Would you agree, Michael?
DOVEOh, absolutely. Yeah, I saw the show twice and I think that -- I mean, it puts that idea that we were talking about earlier of democracy in action on stage very literally with audience members voting on certain aspects of the plot and how the play moved forward.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Ann who says, "In addition to politics what about cultural emphasis, especially exploration of African American culture through the plays of August Wilson or the Arena Stage productions about Paul Robeson or Pullman Porter Blues? Is Washington D.C. unique in that regard, Peter?
MARKSNo. In fact we need more of it. We need more stories from African American Washington. That doesn't happen enough. There are -- there is a certain amount -- there was actually a very good play about race, an adaptation of the movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" done at Arena earlier this season with Malcolm Jamal Warner, which was actually funny and amazingly relevant. But I think that there's a disconnect with certain parts of this city and the theater community.
MARKSThere is a -- there's one theater called the African Continuum Theater that rarely produces work. There is a desperate need for stories from parts of the city that we don't hear from. There are new theaters going up -- in fact, have gone up in Anacostia for example. And it's a perfect place to start a conversation with the black community.
NNAMDIMiriam, Woolly Mammoth have planned a contemporary Russian film festival for its upcoming season. Can you tell us about the idea behind that a and how it fits into what Woolly Mammoth does?
WEISFELDYeah, so we have been calling this theater festival which we had planned for this fall a festival of radical new theater from Moscow. Radical maybe overstates how badass it would've been, if I can say badass on the radio.
NNAMDIYou did twice already.
WEISFELDIt was probably more -- it was probably a little bit more artistically radical than politically radical but this had been a collaboration between Woolly Mammoth and the Center for International Theater Development and the Meyerhold Center in Moscow, which represents many smaller theaters of sort of the next generation of highly innovative theater artists.
WEISFELDAnd they had perceived a sort of simpatico with Woolly's aesthetic because our mission is about pushing both the art form forward and the civic conversation forward. So we prioritize both innovative form and innovative content in our work. And this is sort of what the Russian artists were doing as well. So we had planned to bring four pieces by two very well known Russian directors and a couple earlier career ones in addition to a weekend of conversations and panel discussions that would really facilitate some exchange between these Russian artists and our own American artists.
NNAMDIAnd then international politics intervened. The festival ran into trouble and the situation in Ukraine escalated. What happened?
WEISFELDWell, the festival was going to be possible because there was a great deal of monetary support that had been pledged by the Moscow minister of culture who's been very supportive of these more progressive artists. And unfortunately due to the general political instability and anti-western, and particularly anti-American sentiment that accompanied actions like the invasion of Crimea, we were told that the funds coming from the federal government to the municipal government to support that festival had been frozen.
NNAMDIFrozen as in not available as opposed to frozen as in approaching Cold War again. On the Russian end, as you said, most theater companies are government funded, a very different model from arts here in the U.S. Some here might envy the amount of funding theater gets there but how does it influence what gets developed?
WEISFELDThat's exactly one of the things that we were hoping to explore with this festival because, you know, it's so interesting. The ministry of culture alone just in the City of Moscow spends over a billion dollars a year to support about 88 theaters in the City of Moscow. That's just the city. That's not even the money coming from the federal government. So in a way that's an absolutely wonderful thing.
WEISFELDHowever, that does mean that many of these artists are in a very delicate position with respect to the political, capital P or small P, content of their work. And, you know, one of the most interesting experiences that I ever had over there in Moscow was at a little theater called Theater Doc. It does documentary theater that's very explicitly political.
WEISFELDAnd they're one of the only major theaters in Moscow that is not supported by the government and they love it. Because what they say is, because we don't accept any public funds, audiences know we're not in anyone's pocket. And so that was one of the conversations that we wanted to have. You know, how does the relationship of the way you get your funding affect either intentionally or unintentionally what you put on your stage?
NNAMDIWell, I know that when you mention a billion dollars just in Moscow alone, a lot of people here go, what? Why can't we get into the -- how would you characterize the theater scene here in the U.S. when it comes to controversial or political topics?
WEISFELDWell, you know, one of the more interesting conversations I've heard among American theater artists is whether our system of funding encourages us to do a little bit of self censorship. Do we avoid really incendiary material because we know it's not necessarily going to offend the government, because unfortunately the government's probably not even paying attention to what's happening on American stages. But is it going to alienate the audiences that we have come to depend on to keep our doors open?
WEISFELDYou know, do those audiences and the expectations that they bring to a theatrical experience here in the United States, are we so afraid of confounding their expectations and placing them in a place that's a little bit outside their comfort zone, do we then censor ourselves?
NNAMDIPeter Marks, a lot of self censorship going on here. We don't want to run our donors off?
MARKSWell, you know, the most exciting theater sometimes is underground theater, is something subversive, something that's speaking to power and to use the cliché. And Derek's university very honorably gave haven to the Belarus Free Theater, which was an underground theater from Minsk that needed sanctuary in the west for its work. And very early on Derek was one of the people who championed them in this country.
MARKSAnd you could feel in their work when you saw it a kind of danger that in a live context is always exciting. It adds some dimension of challenge to authority that brings it to a special level of life. And sure, we're a little complacent. We don't have those kind of companies doing that kind of work on a regular basis in this country. Both Michael and Miriam's companies though I will say often do work that pushes the envelope in very strong ways.
NNAMDIAnd Derek, last fall you put on a production of a show by a Palestinian theater company called Freedom Theater doing a production of a South African play about apartheid. Tell us about the play and why you decided to bring it here.
GOLDMANAbsolutely. That was from the Freedom Theater from the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine. And very much, as Peter was saying about the Belarus Free Theater, I mean, this is a beautiful production of Athol Fugard's "The Island," this play about apartheid. And -- but the context, you know, I think on the surface there was the controversy of bringing that work. But that is ultimately entirely separate from what the art does in the space.
GOLDMANYou have this play that grew out of Freedom Theater's training program, their work with young people to develop the expressive potential of artistry. And this is one of the things I think we often take for granted in a context like Washington, is how many parts of the world theater and the opportunity to tell your story freely and to explore your own expressive potential is dangerous, is charged. Is its own -- that is part of the politics of theater is actually just being given the space to tell your story.
GOLDMANSo this is a beautiful production of Fugard's play. People, of course, were able to draw connections to the degree they wanted to. And we had really rich policy panels and conversations.
NNAMDIYeah, because I've seen that play at the Kennedy Center. And with the idea of a Palestinian company talking about apartheid, that's a slightly different -- what kind of pushback did you get?
GOLDMANYou know, the interesting thing is all the pushback came from people who didn't come to the production. It came from the idea of it as having been programmed but the production itself answered those questions. Art wins in that case because the production is not a one dimensional ideological argument about a political situation. It's a human story being told in the full expressive potential by young people in a layered dimensional way.
GOLDMANAnd so wherever people sat on the political spectrum receiving it, their ideas were complicated and dimensionalized by the experience of seeing the play. You know, good art does more than make up a singular political argument I think.
NNAMDII love it when the most outraged people are the ones who didn't see the play.
GOLDMANIt's always the way.
NNAMDIHere's James in Washington, D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESThank you. I'm very fortunate to be able to call Derek Goldman a friend going back to our college days. And I bring that up because he's been -- some of his more recent productions that even days after college was producing a story about the Holocaust that makes the point -- or adds the point that I wanted to ask the panel.
JAMESWhich was essentially the -- is theater potentially more powerful even than the other arts for making -- raising political questions, perhaps making statements in that, you know, writing television, radio, any of the other media, the audience can pretty easily walk away. You can turn off the TV, turn off the radio, put down the magazine. But in theater you've got, in a very real sense, a captive audience.
JAMESAnd, you know, with a -- you know, probably not going to get out of their seat. They may squirm a little and there's also that immediacy of theater that's unlike any other medium. And I wonder, to the panel, do you use -- am I right, I guess first, and then do you use that knowing that perhaps you have a little bit more leverage with the audience to push the boundaries?
NNAMDIWell, first you Derek, since this is your college friend.
GOLDMANThere's nothing like coming onto the radio to reconnect with old friends. You know, I think that of course we're biased on this panel because theater's what we traffic in. And the different art forms have -- do different work. I do think it's more and more of a radical choice in our society and culture to spend your time in a room with your phones off, your devices off, held in thrall by somebody else's story, somebody else's voice.
GOLDMANBut just the act of participation, the democratic empathic act of doing that is its own somewhat radical act. And then I think when you add the kind of narrative dimensions of theater, it's power to tell a story, to testify to bear witness to things that you might in other context get distracted from, turn the channel off. I do think it holds a singular power. I'm not going to say greater, but I think it has its own dimensions.
DOVEYeah, I think that's something that really -- I absolutely agree with. And I think it does have a special sort of ability to start a dialogue. And, you know, whether that be just for the type of energy that happens when you bring people into a room and that they have to watch this thing together. And they're thinking collectively and noticing the people around them and the reactions around them.
DOVEAt Forum we actually do discussions after almost every performance. And it's about audience talking to one another. I mean, even going back to that -- the Greek and Roman example we were talking about earlier, you know, of the first theaters architecturally the back wall was your city. And so every play you saw was about your community.
DOVEAnd so that's something we really try to do with not just the content of the work we do but making sure that audiences can talk to one another and respond to one another so that they learn a little bit about how to live better with one another.
WEISFELDYeah, it's funny that the caller mentions a captive audience because theatrical audiences are never captive. You can always get up and walk out if you're so moved. And in fact, it's very often most exciting to the artists when the audience really does respond in a passionate way. I mean, you know, there were famously riots after "The Rite of Spring" premiered and the famous director Bertolt Brecht who created "Mother Courage."
WEISFELDAnd a lot of the really important thinking about political theater used to imagine an ideal theater that was like a boxing match, where the audience took sides and very vocally got in on the action because the plays teed up moral questions that people really had a point of view about.
NNAMDIYou know, Peter, "Mother Courage" ran at Arena Stage earlier this year.
NNAMDIIf that had run say during the run up to the Iraq war, would the reception have been different do you think?
MARKSIt would've been by me. I think, yes. I think -- and Brecht is a particularly -- he's a difficult guy to stage these days I think particularly hard challenging. Yes, of course. A play about a camp follower of a war that nobody can figure out who's on what side -- on which side would have -- has tremendous resonance at certain moments. And the closer you get to the war zone the more powerful I think it gets. You know, we're a little removed in this country from actual warfare even if we get it over the air.
MARKSI wanted to just say something about this idea of what James brought up, which is that, you know, the audience -- it's a two-way street and that is the difference in a sense. The conversation is happening in the room but the audience has to be willing to listen. And sometimes what happens in D.C. is that the message that's being -- if you want to use the word message -- being shouted at the audience puts off an audience.
MARKSI remember several years ago a show called "The Exonerated" came to Washington. And it was the story of people who had been unfairly convicted and sentenced to die and ultimately were proven to be innocent. And it was an audience largely of people from the justice -- it's a city of lawyers. A lot of the people in the audience were lawyers. And they were kind of furious, a lot of them, at being sort of told by actors what to think about -- or that's how they, I think, felt it about an issue they knew so much more intimately.
MARKSSo it has to -- it can't be, you know, on that on-the-nose way that makes people -- that alienates them and makes them think theater is all about people screaming at them, sermonizing, and they know better than -- because they're artists, they know better.
WEISFELDYou know, I will say I love that point that you just made, Peter, because I will say one particular power that all theater has and all art forms have really is metaphor. And the idea that even if you don't want to say something explicitly or you can't say something explicitly because you're living in a repressive regime, you can say something implicitly through not what you say but the way that you say it.
WEISFELDAnd that was one of the great things that we really wanted to highlight with the Russian festival that we were hoping to put on was that these are artists who are pushing the art form forward and finding new ways that actors and directors and designers can manipulate the how of the storytelling so that you can say a lot more than if you were just limited to the what.
NNAMDIJames, thank you for your call. We move on to Bob in Springfield, Va. Bob, your turn.
BOBI have to respond to a previous comments, that the truth lies somewhere in between two opposing points of view in a drama. I strongly disagree. For example, in a debate between a KGB agent and a Russian dissident, the truth does not lie in between the two. In a debate between Adolph Eichmann and George Duckwitz who single-handedly rescued over 7,000 people from the Nazi occupation, that truth does not lie in between the man who followed orders and the man who defied orders. The truth is the truth. I strongly object to the laurel equivalency that is underlying that statement.
NNAMDII'll start with you for response, Michael Dove.
DOVEYeah, I think that when I say truth, if I could sort of even take some of those examples, I mean, I think even the act of putting those characters -- I've never seen a play with Eichmann on stage. I know they exist.
MARKS"The Man in the Glass Booth."
DOVEThere you go. That's right. That's not so much the truth of what is right and what is wrong, but by the act of putting this character on stage, we force ourselves to think about their perspective. I mean, you know, Miriam talked about the Persians. And that was a play written eight years after the war between the Greeks and Persians. And what that did was took the audience and made them watch the perspective of the enemy, watch the perspective of their most-hated enemies.
DOVEAnd put those characters on stage and made them just think through that process. Again, I'm -- it's not about changing minds and giving sort of audience or giving a sort of microphone to those perspectives, but it is about saying we are humans and we exist in this place and we have to sort of deal with that and struggle with that, knowing that we do have different perspectives.
WEISFELDI also think there's a crucial difference between political art and propaganda. Because I think anybody who has lived under a repressive regime recognizes that very often the so-called art that artists were sort of pressured to make under repressive regimes, was actually not very good because it did not provoke questions on the part of the audience.
WEISFELDAnd I think all of us probably agree that the strongest pieces of art that we've ever seen are the ones that act more like a prism, than an arrow. The ones that you can put a lot of different perspectives into and you see a lot of different perspectives come out. That's the strength of art, is the multiplicity of interpretations that it invites.
NNAMDIAnd, Derek, you made the point that tackling difficult political subjects doesn't necessarily have to be polarizing.
GOLDMANAbsolutely. I mean I would even go further than that and say that it's inclination, to use Miriam's prism metaphor, which I think is just right, is away from polarization and is towards a kind of layering or what I would say a kind of humanizing, rather than demonizing or polarizing. It makes it more complicated. I think we see examples of this, you know, in an international context you see examples of this over and over.
NNAMDIBob, thank you very much for your call. We're going to have to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Or you can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking about the relationship between politics and theater, political theater. Has a play ever sparked a political discussion for you? Are you a theatergoer in D.C.? Have you gone to any political themed productions here? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation about political theater with Derek Goldman. He is professor and artistic director of the Davis Performing Art Center at Georgetown University. He's founding director of the laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown. Michael Dove is the artistic director of Forum Theatre. Miriam Weisfeld is associate artistic director at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. And Peter Marks is chief theater critic for The Washington Post.
NNAMDIPeter, it seems there's also a great deal of overtly political content in place there in D.C. But what's going on in New York? You have been recently writing about a play that's in New York, called, "The City of Conversation," a play that seems to me that should be opening in Washington, but go ahead.
MARKSI agree completely. Washington is kind of a star right now in narrative art. We're seeing a lot of it, from "House of Cards," to "All the Way," on Broadway. Bryan Cranston starring as LBJ in basically a play about legislation for God's sakes. It's one of the frontrunners for the Tony. Cranston is going to probably walk away with a Tony, good old Walter White, you know, doing it again.
MARKS"City of Conversation," again, is one of these plays -- it's a wonderful example of how Washington can be a great setting for a play. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes they can be a little sketchy, if they get a little too didactic or issue-laden. But this play is about a Washington hostess. It takes place in three administrations over a course of like 30 years. It's first set in the Carter administration. It goes onto the Reagan administration.
MARKSAnd then into the beginnings of the Obama administration. And it's set in a Georgetown house. A woman is basically either modeled on Perle Mesta or Evangeline Bruce or Kay Graham, possibly, and it's the story of her advocacy, her life as an advocate and as a person who brings together both sides into her home, as a way of both furthering her own agenda and also sort of fostering conversation. And it's wonderfully entertaining.
MARKSJan Maxwell, who played Phyllis in the Kennedy Center revival of "Follies," plays this woman. Her name's Hester Farris. And it's sort of traced the -- sort of the thematic arc is the shutting down of conversation in Washington. It starts from this point where there's a tremendous amount of give and take, and by the end of the play you see isolated she is because the Reagan years have happened and the two sides have become intractably divided.
MARKSAnd it's a wonderfully moving piece of theater. And I think one of the best plays about Washington to come along in a long while. It's at Lincoln Center Theater.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of overtly political content, here in Washington we got an email from Sam in D.C. "The play, 'Camp David,' was fascinating. D.C. is a great town for theater or about politics, although what happens in the local politics is nearly as entertaining as anything you can see on stage." Talk about Camp David.
MARKSYeah, did any of you see "Camp David?" Aha, my other panelists are all -- oh, Derek Goldman saw it, thank goodness. "Camp David" is sent in a short period of time in 1978 when Jimmy Carter got Sadat and Begin, the leaders of Egypt and Israel, to come to Camp David and try to hammer out the basis for what would become the most durable treaty in the history of -- in modern Middle East history. And it takes you through -- it took you through the process and the painstaking, sometimes really painstaking process, of having that happen.
MARKSAnd it did very well for Arena Stage. I thought it was -- it needed a little more about the people and a little less about the process, to be really successful, but it did very well for them. And I think -- the night I saw it the Carters were sitting in the audience beaming. And it was one of the few times I've seen official Washington collectively gather at a play and watch and have it speak to them.
MARKSThat's very rare in Washington. You know, you get the occasional Supreme Court justice at the Shakespeare Theater or maybe even more than occasional, but you rarely see -- I saw Nancy Pelosi that night, Chuck Schumer. I mean you rarely -- I rarely see those people in the theaters of Washington.
NNAMDIYou know you've been doing this too long when you were broadcasting during those Camp David talks and you're still broadcasting today.
MARKSOh, my gosh.
NNAMDIAs yours truly is doing.
NNAMDIThat's right. Miriam, Woolly Mammoth recently staged a play called, "Arguendo," about a Supreme Court case. Can you describe the premise of that?
WEISFELDYeah, this is actually a piece by Elevator Repair Service, that Woolly co-commissioned with the Public Theater New York, in Wexner Center. And this was a piece of theater based on verbatim transcripts of a Supreme Court case about whether nude dancing at a strip club is protected under the First Amendment. And the piece itself is fascinating because it involves not just the verbatim transcripts, but dance. The actors playing Supreme Court justices danced in their wheeled desk chairs and nudity.
WEISFELDAnd really, you know, challenged the audiences to think about what dance is and what self-expression is. And, of course, it was just a field day for the Supreme Court wonks that we have all over Washington, including two of the justices. Justice Ginsberg and Justice Sotomayor came out to see it and participated in some discussions with us, which is wonderful.
NNAMDICould that kind of play, with that really nerdy political content, fly anywhere besides Washington, D.C., Peter?
MARKSWell, you know, it was actually done in New York. And I think it's being done all over the country.
NNAMDIThere you go.
MARKSIt's, you know, it attempts to be entertaining, at the same time that it attempts to lay out the perimeters of this case. In fact, one of the most fascinating things about that show was the backdrop that had a -- this amazing database searching capacity. Where you could actually -- the citations that were being made on stage, would immediately be identified in the text on the screen.
WEISFELDIn the video design, yeah.
MARKSAnd it was, I thought it was a great teaching tool for any, you know, for law students anywhere in the country, among other people, and even for lay people like myself. I mean, that was a great element, a great sort of technical element of the show.
NNAMDIWell, "House of Cards," was mentioned earlier. And I think that's what Mary, in Dale City, Va., wants to talk about. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYHi. Yeah, I just -- I've been watching "House of Cards," recently. And it's so Shakespearian. Not just, Frank, who's always, like, speaking to the camera, but I'm trying to figure out is this Hamlet that they're dealing with or what, but it's very Shakespearian.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Michael?
DOVEYeah, I think that I -- I actually listened to -- here's my public radio nerd showing. There's a Studio 360 piece this past weekend about Kevin Spacey actually having done "Richard III" just before doing "House of Cards," and basing it on that and talking about the idea of, you know, looking right at the camera was invented by -- I think the quote was, "invented by Shakespeare, not Ferris Bueller."
NNAMDIAnyone else care to comment? You, Derek?
GOLDMANYeah, I think Shakespeare's all over "House of Cards," for sure. It's "Richard III," I think. Also, I don't know if it's bad luck to say Macbeth on the radio, but I've just done it.
GOLDMANBut absolutely you can't help but see all of the ways that this -- but just even individual plot lines and individual series, sort of, you can -- I think Shakespeare nerds are having a field day with it.
WEISFELDAnd I think that's a wonderful example of the connection between politics and art. Right?
NNAMDII was about to say, which brings us to another approach to political theater, is a classical play, Shakespeare with a contemporary, political themes. How has that worked out in a place like D.C. with "Richard III," for instance, Miriam?
WEISFELDWell, I think our, you know, our wonderful neighbors across the street, the Shakespeare Theater, do a lot of beautiful examples of this, as does the Folger. Yeah, I mean, I -- this is also a great example of the way that more visionary -- we call them sort of auteur directors -- can, again, make meaning out of the how instead of the what. I think everybody's familiar with these examples of, you know, Shakespeare that's staged in a totally contemporary way to reference a specific conflict around the world, a specific contemporary administration.
WEISFELDAnd all of those other choices around the text, where you sit a play, what the costumes are, how the actors move, you know, are they occupying a period world, a historical world or are they clearly, clearly your contemporaries? All of that can speak very, very powerfully. And again, sometimes more powerfully than a very literal, you know, (unintelligible) or retelling of what's actually happening.
NNAMDIHere's Janice, in Arlington, Va. Janice, your turn.
JANICEThank you. I'm glad someone finally mentioned the word entertainment, because in (unintelligible), politics and education the entertainment value is incredibly important to broaden the audience or this conversation. As a child I was lucky enough to have been taken to see "South Pacific," at the age of 10 and followed by, "The Sound of Music." And the conversations afterwards were, you know, not about the hula skirts, but about race, prejudice and war.
JANICEAnd -- but these topics, you know, are the genius of Rogers and Hammerstein and those writers. And I don't think entertainment should be ignored. I think it's a magnificent by-product. It's not modus operandi to get these vital messages across. And I do want to put in a plug for my very favorite show, which is "A Chorus Line," dealing with somewhat different, but not no less important issues of homosexuality and differences, which of course are very critical issues.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up, Janice. We didn't mention it, but, of course, it was the conversation that is underlining this conversation that we're having here. It's the only reason people go in the first place, because they expect to be entertained in theater. Peter, you covered a production at Georgetown that engaged audiences in a political process a few years back called, "The Race."
NNAMDIDo you believe theater can have an impact on the political process itself?
MARKSThat's a good question. Maybe locally. I mean, you know, we don't have national conversations about the plays that we -- that are done, almost ever. There are very few plays that ever get into the mainstream. Sometimes when they're adapted into movies, for example, "The Normal Heart," is about to be a movie. Larry Kramer's play about the AIDS crisis, at the height of the AIDS crisis and how government really failed the AIDS sufferers.
MARKSThe problem is it's 25 years or something, or 30 years after the play was originally produced that it's finally being made into a movie. And so often topicality is a problem because things don't get produced right at the moment they need to be in a conversation. However, I'm sure there are examples that -- Derek looks like he wants to…
GOLDMANNo. I was just going to say I think what was important about that example, which was from Sojourn Theater and Michael Rohd, and like Dog and Pony, here in D.C., their work engages participatory democracy in the very form of the work. So that the whole idea that, you know, the actors are doing one thing and that the audience is doing another thing.
GOLDMANThe dialog is part of it. So I think that work -- and we're seeing more and more of this kind of work, where the line is blurred between artist and spectator. And spectators are engaging in the performance. And Dog and Pony certainly are primary examples of that here in D.C. And I think that is an important part of the function of theater in relationship to democracy that Miriam was talking about, as the form of storytelling is changing and we're in a world of reality television. In our agency we're finding, you know, we're engaging in telling our own stories and that has political…
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, Michael, but your upcoming season at Forum Theatre touches on the topic of political theater. And in about 30 seconds or so, can you talk about that?
DOVEOh, sure. Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of the shows that we've chosen, like "The Shipment," by Young Jean Lee, sort of also dealing with sort of a race identity -- but to close our season next year we're going to do a festival symposium, convening, whatever, one of those big words we want to use -- about political theater and how political theater and activist theater works for a new generation of theater makers and theatergoers, sort of examining that idea of what does it mean to do political theater in this context, in this time.
NNAMDIMichael Dove is the artistic director of Forum Theatre. Miriam Weisfeld is associate artistic director at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. Derek Goldman is professor and artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University and founding director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown. And Peter Marks, he's chief theater critic for The Washington Post. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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