Trish and Harold's Weblog

News, information, and random thoughts from the busy lives of Trish Egan and Harold Phillips.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Producing Theatre in a Polarized America

Got this month's edition of American Theatre in my mailbox yesterday... as I was perusing its pages this morning over my wake-up cup of coffee, I was struck by this report of TCG's annual conference in Seattle. The title of the article was "Unto the Breach: Conferencegoers debate art's role in a divided culture."

The topic of the article (and indeed, of the conference in general) really resonated with me. As I'm sure you've read in other areas of my Blog, attendance at Mt. Hood Rep's American Classics Theatre Festival was way down this year. We're still tabulating the numbers, but at least anecdotally everyone involved with the Festival agrees that the crowds were significantly less than in previous years.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for attendance to have lessened. The chief among them is the high cost of gas and the continued economic uncertainty that the Pacific Northwest is living in (the economy may be "improving," if you believe the numbers, but that doesn't mean that people aren't still worried about their finances and watching their pennies).

One thing that really stood out this year, however, were some of the complaints that we got on The Front Page. We got two letters from audience members who were offended by the language in this nearly-80 year old play. To be sure, for its day The Front Page was pretty racy; the script is peppered with "Goddamns," "Hells," and a few "Bastards" for good measure (the audience may be surprised, however, at the things that the director decided to cut out of the script: several very racist terms - yeah, the ones beginning with "N" - were removed from our production); by contemporary standards, however, the language is pretty tame. I haven't found the current list of "bad words that get you an 'R' rating" for the MPAA, but know I've seen worse language on basic cable.

The play is about hard-drinking reporters and government corruption; it only seems natural to me that gritty reporters and corrupt politicians wouldn't be quite so worried about keeping their mouths lilly-white.

This didn't seem to matter to the people who complained, however... which brings me back to the article in this month's American Theatre. Is it possible that the "culture wars" the news media so loves to talk about (a phrase which makes me groan, incidentally) are playing themselves out on local stages? According to PATA President, A.R.T. Marketing Director and Front Page Director Trisha Armour theatre attendance is down across our region. While the Portland Area is, in many ways, a "Liberal" bastion in these conservative times, I see plenty of "W" stickers on cars driving down our PDX roads.

One of the constant refrains heard from the neo-conservative right is that artists (and anything you might consider to be part of "the arts") are nothing but a bunch of elitist liberals who are trying to tell the American public what's good for them, no matter what "community standards" may hold. We saw this argument brought forth in the late eighties when they tried to abolish the NEA, in the mid-nineties when they tried to do away with PBS, and earlier this year when another putsch against PBS nearly succeeded. Right-wing mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity bring it up time and time again in such a way as to make their listeners assume this "liberal elitism in the arts" is a proven, researched fact. No one in their echo chamber bothers to challenge the assumption, but rather moves on from there fore-armed with the divinely imparted knowledge that artists are out to subvert America.

And it just may be that our audiences are marching to the beat of their drums.

Sure, there are die-hard theatre lovers... but that pool seems to be shrinking. Many are advancing in years, and there aren't nearly as many young theatre lovers stepping into the seats these supporters inevitably vacate. Many want to see theatre, but are being forced to choose their ticket purchases carefully because of the uncertain economy. Some are just tired - it's much easier to stay at home and watch a DVD or television or surf the internet. And some, sadly, may just be in agreement with the prevailing conservative mind-set in the country that the arts are a waste of time and resources. "If it can't make money commercially," many people who identify themselves as conservative would say, "it must not be any good."

So, where does that leave us as we continue to produce live theatre in the 21st century? Do we need to try and find plays that people drinking George Bush and Karl Rove's right-wing kook-aid (oops, that must have been a typo :) ) would find appealing? Do we soldier bravely on telling the stories WE want to tell whether the audiences want to hear them or not? Do we try to foster dialog through our work, trying to heal the scism which demands Americans to identify themselves as "Red" or "Blue?"

I don't know... obviously, there's no easy answer. As we at The Rep plan our next season, however, we're certainly going to be asking ourselves these questions.

Inquiringly yours...