And we thought New York had a problem with political theatre.
Washington Post's Peter Marks surveys the scene in the nation's capitol and finds a surprisingly spotty interest.
Then again, should it surprise us that such a square, "company town" (especially when dominated in all three branches by a philistine Republican administration) isn't chomping at the bit for public performances that challenge the orthodoxy of the talking points of the day. And certainly there is an "alternative" theatre scene in DC (with Wooly Mammoth and Studio Theatre heading the pack). But of the two major nonprofit institutions, The Shakespeare Theatre only does classics (albeit sometimes in a politically slanted production) and Arena seems to be settling into a Roundabout-style complacency. David Hare's story about Stuff Happens being passed on certainly sounds like Arena: "I've had responses from certain unnamed Washington theaters that said, 'Oh, we're always asked to do these kinds of plays.' "
(No matter what you think of Stuff Happens, shouldn't the ultimate Washington insider play be done there??? Or is everyone there all too familiar with the material now and can't face being faced with their own failure.)
Interesting that Marks also focuses on Ari Roth's Theatre J (J for Jewish). Roth was a panelist at the New York Theatre Workshop "Corrie" damage control events back in April, where he displayed a welcome honesty and engagement with controversy. However, Marks leads with how Roth passed on "Corrie" the play because "it wasn't right for a Jewish theatre." Fair enough, I suppose. The only Jewish characters are offstage enemies. And Roth expressed reservations about the play's one-sidedness at NYTW. But clearly it addresses one of the Jewish issues of the day, no? Also, the article later recounts how successful Roth was co-producing the DC premiere of "Homebody/Kabul." Where are the Jews in that??? (Unless you count Kushner.) The difference, of course, is that "Homebody" actually makes audiences feel good about fighting bad Arabs like the Taliban. "Corrie"prompts Jews to ask more difficult questions.
What's especially good about the article is that Marks does not take the Isherwood approach and muse all Jerry Seinfeld-esque about "What's the deal with political theatre???" His tone takes for granted that social engagement in the theatre is important, and so why don't we have more of it, especially at the very seat of power.
Interesting case studies abound. Here's just one:
"Most people have a subconscious threshold for their overtly political intake," observes Jeremy Skidmore, artistic director of Theater Alliance and one of a cadre of young directors making an ever deeper impression on Washington's theater scene. In the spring, he booked two political plays back to back: Lee Blessing's "Two Rooms," about hostage-taking in Beirut, and Colleen Wagner's "The Monument," a Canadian play about a victim of war crimes who turns the tables on her tormentor.
Skidmore says he will never make that mistake again.
Ticket sales dropped for the second play, despite good reviews. "By the time 'The Monument' opened, I was getting e-mails from regulars saying, 'Sorry we can't come see this, because we have had enough.' " Some of the correspondents were people involved in humanitarian causes.
"They spend all their days on human rights issues," Skidmore explains. "Spending their nights was really hard for them."
Not many people enjoy taking their work home with them. It's been said that Washingtonians don't like taking it to the theater either.
Just that first line should give us all pause.