A Post-Election Letter to #DCTheatre
Written on November 12, 2016
Dear fellow theatre leaders:
After several days of walking through a fog of shock, anger, depression, and sadness, I did what I do on most weekends: I went to the theatre.
On Friday, I had the pleasure of seeing Natsu Onoda Power’s Wind Me Up, Maria, the first Go-Go musical, now playing at Georgetown University. It was the first time since the election that I was able to relax, experience true joy, and I even danced.
But it was not escapist. The state and mood of the nation were firmly in my thoughts as I watched this young, diverse company of actors engage with the vibrancy and complexities of DC’s native music genre. The work made me laugh and sing all while engaging with the hard realities of our time.
On Sunday night I attended the opening of Studio Theatre’s Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee. Meridith Burkus spoke before the performance about the new significance the play has taken on in the past few months and particularly, in these past few days. She spoke of how Studio has resolved, under their new mission, to foster a “more thoughtful, more empathetic, and more connected community.” Watching the show, I can’t imagine a single audience member could avoid seeing the story through the contextual lens of an America with Donald Trump as our next President.
This has been a tremendously difficult week. I’ve struggled to make sense of the election result, questioning so many the beliefs I had in this country and in the direction I was heading. I’m sure many of you joined me in allowing yourself to dream of a positive, progressive future only to have it ripped away, leaving us with this feeling of loss. Loss for a denied hopeful future. But as I push through and emerge from my week of grieving, I find that I am left with a renewed sense of purpose:
We, the American Theatre, have never been so necessary, and perhaps never so important.
This election has presented us with a tremendous challenge but also an opportunity. The nation hasn’t faced a time of such uncertainty, of such fear, since at least the Great Depression. In terms of division amongst the electorate, we may have to go back to the pre- and post-Civil War era to find an equivalent moment. But what’s unique to our current situation is that we are facing an incoming administration that has won the election on a platform of hatred, fear, racism, bigotry, and misogyny. Our DC/MD/VA communities are worried about their future like never before. Fearing that they’ll be deported or attacked, afraid that their rights will be revoked based on who they are, what they look like, who they love. Terrified that we are entering a new America where they are no longer welcome. The list of despicable attacks occurring in our area is growing by the day. I never imagined the day when the kids who might see shows at Imagination Stage and Adventure or go to Round House’s summer camp would have to enter their Bethesda schools past swastikas painted on the exterior walls. This is our audience. Some have attended our theatres. But many have no idea that we exist. And we have to change that.
We have been battling this notion that “theatre is dying” for probably the entirety of our art form’s existence. Even Tyrone Guthrie spoke of theatre’s potential demise…in 1964. But through times of hardship, periods of war, of economic depression, of civil unrest, we have survived and sometimes even flourished. And yet, this “dying art” notion persists perhaps for good reason. Our theatres live in constant anxiety about shrinking funding sources, dwindling single ticket sales, and disappearing subscribers. We dread the ever-increasing threat of on-demand entertainment. Our talent runs to television and film for more money and better career stability. And some would argue that our audiences are increasingly turning to those mediums for their cultural relevance after not finding it on our stages.
For too long, we’ve operated from a losing position. And I’m ready to turn that around.
Our audience will depend on us to help them understand the world. Our audience will need safe spaces. Our audience will need great works of beauty and artistic excellence to turn to in times of despair and anxiety and our audience will need to be challenged out of their comfort zones so that progress can be achieved. Our audience will need a place to be heard. This is a time when theatre should stand strong with the conviction that we have an important role to play.
And so, I submit this challenge to you, DC Theatre: Let’s be bold. Let’s lean in, lean forward. Let’s make our argument for why we are vital and necessary and exactly what our region needs in this time of crisis and uncertainty.
I can’t help but think of the time when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and Americans feared that our nuclear-armed enemies now had the ability to spy on us and to target us. Our nation became paranoid and fearful for the future. But the scientific community saw this as a challenge. They seized the mood of the nation and became proactive. Already pushing for a revitalization of scientific education, they made the case that a revolution was necessary. And so began a period of innovation and energy that would affect the generations to come. The science community found a new clarity of purpose that made the case for more funding and support and engaged millions in the fight to make the world a better place.
So how can we make this OUR moment? How can we be excitingly intentional in what we produce, in how we engage? What will be our great innovations? How can we shape the field and our local community and our nation for generations to come?
With a renewed focus on the nation’s capital, we are uniquely positioned to influence the national conversation and the American theatre community in the coming years. What better time than now to make our case for the art form? Where better to stand up for morality, for progressive values, for compassion, than here? I’m hearing theatre-makers all over the country grapple with what their role in society should be in the aftermath of this election result. That familiar phrase “preaching to the choir” is making the rounds as our industry struggles to reach beyond their typically liberal audience and across the political divide. But here in DC, the thousands of people who work in and shape our government are in our “choir.” Some of the nation’s most influential organizations and institutions are just outside our lobby doors. Our work is covered by the third-most circulated newspaper in the country. This gives us a tremendous opportunity and the platform is ours to seize.
Looking at the under-siege state of “truth” in the media and in journalism, we have a role to play in the creation of spaces for discourse. Spaces for the discovery and promotion of the emotional truths that we so badly need to acknowledge as a society. Truths coming from a stage full of diverse voices and perspectives telling the entire, complex story of our American identity. It is also our job to tell the story of our nation’s greatness—a condition that, despite a certain campaign slogan, has only become truer in recent years as we have fought for the expansion of rights and liberties for LGBTQ citizens and where we have seen such a tremendous growth in our cultural diversity. Of course, we still have a tremendous amount of work to do in these and in other areas, but I’m encouraged by our theatre community’s increased focus on violence against black Americans, the inclusion of transgender characters on our stages, and on gender equity in our stories and in those who create. Collaborations like the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival showed that when we come together, we have a larger voice. News of the festival made its way around the theatre world and brought a renewed focus on representation in our season selections. Now is our chance to not just influence the national theatre community but the entire nation itself.
So what will be our response? Will we radicalize our spaces for not just performance but for civic action and social justice? Will we find new boldness in how we articulate the message and purpose of each show we produce? And will that be supported by the boldness of the work itself? Will we take a renewed interest in growing and strengthening our local theatre community, cognizant that we are an ecosystem and what affects some of us may affect us all? Will we team up to pool our resources and magnify our impact? Will we do all we can to make our buildings inviting and welcoming to everyone no matter who they are or what they can afford? Will we do the same for our rehearsals rooms? And maybe more importantly, what grand change can we make beyond all of those ideas? What great work can only be done when we all come together and collaborate?
What we can’t afford to do is operate as if nothing has changed. We are facing a time of crisis. The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency poses a threat to our very democracy, to our Constitution, and to the liberties we hold so dear. I am sickened by this victory for these forces of hatred, nationalism, misogyny, and racism. I am truly scared of what our future might hold.
We have an emergency on our hands and history will define us by how we responded. So I challenge us to find new boldness in how we operate and to seize this opportunity to be the vital institution that we’ve always dreamed we could be.
Perhaps the popularity of Hamilton has not only opened the door to a renewed relevancy for theatre in America but has given us, as a theatre community, a new mantra. To paraphrase:
“History has its eyes on us” so will we “write like we’re running out of time? Write day and night like we need it to survive?”