It would be ridiculous for a conservative to enter a production or university theater expecting it be a politically edifying experience on level with, say, a National Review cruise. The university has been a well-guarded outpost of the left since 1951 or 1964 or somewhere ’round those parts; the theater, likewise, has generally cheered left-wing causes.
It is not ridiculous to expect that theater departments (especially at publicly-funded institutions) prioritize storytelling and, well, drama ahead of the strident promotion of pet political causes and the vilification of those causes’ detractors.
From my experience, this basic expectation is often given the Vaudeville hook at the University of Georgia. This past semester, I signed up for a Theater Appreciation course to “develop a working vocabulary … of the theater” (from the syllabus) and, much more importantly, earn my degree’s requisite credit in the fine arts. The class itself was well taught and politically benign, as any introductory theater class should be. Our professor was impartial and, where his opinions shone through, he encouraged students to think for themselves on the issues. If only the rest of the department was so tolerant.
I attended four plays as part of the course. My only exposure to drama coming into college was a handful of high school plays–wholly uncontroversial musicals like “Anything Goes” and “Seussical.” College productions, I thought, would follow that formula.
Two of the plays did follow the formula, and they were far and away the best of the lot: the university production of “The 39 Steps,” a Monty Python-esque parody of a Hitchcock rendition of a genre-generating British spy novel (say that three times fast), was one of the most innovative performances I’ve seen in any medium; the production of “All My Sons”–even though it was written by a Communist fellow traveler–was thought-provoking and moving in all the right ways, and its acting was given a booster shot by the addition of professional talent in Broadway actor and alumnus Brian Reddy.
The other two were not nearly as successful, in part because both seemed hell-bent on bludgeoning their audiences with a political message.
The first of these was “This is What I Heard” (the phrase is commonly used at the beginning of Buddhist sutras), written and performed by a student group called The Justice Agents, which, disappointingly enough, has nothing to do with D.C. superheroes and everything to do with liberal politics.
The play incorporated the theater techniques of Augusto Boal, a Communist who believed that traditional forms of theater are oppressive and do not allow theatergoers to express themselves. Boal’s vision was to transform passive spectators into “spect-actors” by empowering them to take part in a play’s proceedings and change the course of events.
“This is What I Heard” used Boal’s methods to “raise awareness of various social issues” (in this case homelessness) and “encourage bystanders to engage in conversation.” As a play meant to raise awareness of homelessness–a major issue in Athens-Clarke County and a worthwhile goal for a student group–the production was a success. As a play meant to foster open-minded interaction between cast and audience, however, “This is What I Heard” was disappointing–predictably so. As written, all of the play’s antagonists were Snidely Whiplash caricatures of conservatives.
Over the course of the play, the play’s heroine was harassed by a money-crazed boyfriend, a Rand-reading rapist, a pair of racist rednecks, a coterie of profits-over-people mid-level managers, a pharisaical church organizer (who turned away the play’s ill-starred protagonist while cooing “We’ll be praying for you”), a Tom Friedman-quoting character named “Bastard Boy,” and the Great Exploiter itself, McDonald’s. It would seem that to the Justice Agents, open-mindedness does not extend as far as the political right.
But maybe I walked straight into that one–after all, student groups can promote whatever agenda they want, however self-defeating. The faculty, surely, wouldn’t stoop to such sophomoric depths. Right? Not quite.
The other production was an “updated” rendition of “Life is a Dream,” a Spanish Golden Age classic by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. “Life is A Dream” is the story of a king who locks away his son, Segismundo, in a tower at an early age because an oracle predicted he would be a violent ruler. The play raises timeless issues of free will and fate and, after reading the original translation, I do not see why the play needed to be modernized in the first place. It was, though, and the product made a mockery of the original work.
The updated play was written by George Pate, a PhD student, and Dr. Marla Carlson, a faculty member. Dr. Carlson is author of such vital and seminal–I only wish I were using the figurative meaning of that word–work as “Performative Pornography” and “Furry Cartography: Performing Species,” which was funded through a public research grant. The pair constructed a modern narrative framework to bookend the original plot: their creation tells the story of two grifters who convince a board of insecure corporateers that they have invented a machine that will fulfill its users’ wildest dreams–but only if they earned their wealth through self-sufficiency, with no help from others. Carlson and Pate use this scenario to ridicule the notion of the self-made man, for none of the fat cats (who all came from some level of privilege) could claim absolute self-sufficiency.
From there, they singled out Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan for scorn: at one point, a bewildered corporate exec extolled the Gipper (with much sarcasm) for “tearing down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands.” Needless to say, the line drew guffaws from a sympathetic audience. If you are confused by my description of the play, that’s because it made as little sense to me as it does to you. The framework was clunking and confusing, and my confusion was compounded by the fact that many of the play’s male characters were performed by female actors, in a bizarre experiment in “gender bending” (their words, not mine).
Needless to say, my exposure to university theatre is limited, at best– I have only attended one season of production, and even then I had to miss a few productions (“He Said, She Said, Ze Said: Gender Stories,” for example). So maybe I’m one hundred percent wrong in my indictment of the department, and the aforementioned performances–along with upcoming performances like the GLAAD-approved “God Sees Dog”–are anomalies, not at all indicative of a department that is really composed of impartial and dedicated scholars in the mold of Walter Cronkite and Jon Stewart.
I just won’t hold my breath waiting for a David Mamet production.