by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
The LA STAGE Alliance Ovations Awards on January 17 at the Ahmanson Theatre, hosted by actor, professor, and transgender activist Alexandra Billings, was as much a celebration of local professional theater as it was an impromptu political rally — urging a kind of pre-emptive resistance against incursions onto First Amendment rights, and onto policies of national inclusiveness and diversity. These views were expressed in a slew of comments from awards recipients, as well as an overt call by Billings to resist exclusionary policies on both political and theatrical stages. Billings urged the crowd to try to persuade people on the other side of the partisan wall. The event was a bit like one of the amiable-unified-defiant Women’s Marches held in all 50 states last week, but without the pink hats.
There was considerable praise for the evening, that it was “of the moment” in history, but I won’t dwell on that. Allow me to accentuate the negative: two letters of dissent — one written and mailed to the LA STAGE Alliance office anonymously. The closing line was “Keep politics out of art!” and it was signed “Disgusted.”
The other letter was more muted in its tone, expressing concern about the direction of LA STAGE Alliance. The author, who claimed not to be a Trump supporter, was offended by the “preaching” by the awards recipients, by some presenters, and by me — regardless of the positions stated by the various preachers.
The author then explained that the purpose of going to the theater was “to be entertained,” and asked me to explain LA STAGE Alliance’s position on the relationship between art and politics, and whether or not we intended to promote speech against the Trump administration in the future, rather than simply promoting Los Angeles theater. And finally, the author excoriated Hollywood celebs who mock Trump for the unwarranted antagonism they will inevitably draw from (in the author’s words) the demonstrably thin-skinned and impulsive president. If the arts community would just keep its head down, the letter’s author suggested, there’s reason to believe that the new president has no interest in the arts whatsoever, and that the arts will therefore remain under his radar and able to function largely as before.
I’m grateful for the letter because it has compelled me to draft a kind of policy statement for LA STAGE Alliance on the intersection of art and politics.
I’ll address the final point first. It has two parts: keeping our heads down versus speaking up. But that’s not the only dichotomy. There’s also the tone of resistance.
If we indulge in the kinds of cruelty exhibited by Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich for her Twitter attack on the president’s 10-year-old son, Barron Trump (“Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter”) — for which she apologized before being suspended by the show — progressives are not going to gain any traction with people who may feel that the president’s cabinet choices and policies are not so dire, and that the ideological needle in Washington, D.C. doesn’t sway quickly in any direction when it comes to the practical implementation of policies.
Civility does not equal acquiescence.
If we make the case for compassion with gratuitous insults, we end up like a character of one of Tom Lehrer’s parodies — “There are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!” — a dubious argument for the values of inclusivity and diversity that progressives claim to cherish.
In defense of the political preaching at the Ovations, I saw no evidence of ad hominem attacks. Perhaps the most strident performance came from Luis Alfaro, who used his award acceptance speech to urge practitioners and audiences to use art for the purpose of resisting values that crush the hopes of the marginalized. First he called on writers, then on directors, then on producers and then on audiences, to “rise.” By the end of sermon, the crowd of over 1,200 was on its feet.
On every level, our theater community is under siege — one of the marginalized populations whose hopes have been largely crushed. The Trump administration’s policy of de-funding federal support of the arts and humanities, a policy proposal coming directly from the Heritage Foundation, will only further its marginalization.
With its own endowed magazine, LA STAGE Alliance is an organ of both the theater and of journalism — both of which are protected by the First Amendment, which, with caveats, forbids the government from preventing individuals to speak their mind, i.e. to criticize. It’s one of several Constitutional Amendments in the line-of-fire by a president now infamous for his withering attacks on anybody who criticizes him. He’s now actively demonstrating that he intends on fulfilling many of the promises/threats he made on the campaign trail. Most of our community both anticipated and dreaded this outcome.
What happened during Alfaro’s sermon was the spectacle of our community reacting — literally standing up for itself, though being provoked to do so. Such stridency in normal times can be annoying, I grant. But these are not normal times.
Which brings us to the “keep our heads down” argument.
Last week, we received news that the Trump administration intends to defund both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities — in their entirety, as in: close-‘em-down.
Keep in mind that (according to MSNBC) the annual budget of the NEA is 1/10 the cost of a single B-2 bomber ($1 billion), and that the U.S. Air Force has twenty B-2 bombers in its fleet. (Mostly, they sit idle.) And this $20 billion budget for the B-2s is about 1/8 of the $170 billion annual budget for the Air Force, which is a mere 1/5 of the $825 billion budget for the U.S. military (Army, Navy Marine Corps and Air force).
Also, keep in mind that with their comparatively microscopic budgets, both the NEA and the NEH have a decades-long tradition of public support for theaters, symphony orchestras, universities, documentary films, museums, historical research, and the like; neither of them has anything to do with Hollywood; the arts did nothing to Mr. Trump to antagonize him. His attack on the arts was pre-emptive.
Now, it’s true that some conservatives in Congress have tried to pillage the NEA before, and it never worked out the way they intended, largely because of executive protection. But this new mandate is coming from the executive branch, and the stars are now aligned so differently from the past that arts service organizations across the nation are now working in harmony to carve a strategy for dealing with the Trump administration’s hostile policies towards the arts — Theatre Bay Area, Arts Boston, The Greater Philadelphia Arts Alliance, the League of Chicago Theatres, The Theatre Fund (New York) among others, and, yes, LA STAGE Alliance. Because our shared mission is to support our theaters, ignoring these political repercussions under such circumstances would not only be a disservice to our members, it would be negligent.
Arts funding per capita in California is fourth from the bottom in the nation. When the government threatens to further impoverish the people who create theater by withdrawing long-established support, it gets political. So in terms of the question of whether LA STAGE Alliance is an organ of political advocacy, or is it here to help the theater community?… Sometimes the two are linked. Among our purposes is to promote vigorous discussion, and that discussion may well include politics. But there is a core distinction between being an “organ of political advocacy” and fostering discussion in an attempt to support the fiscal health and morale of our theater companies. The latter is what unfolded at the Ovation Awards.
The Ovation Awards became a forum for immediate anxieties to be expressed by our community of artists. Neither our presenters nor the awards recipients were chosen for their political views, but for their artistic accomplishments, and these sentiments coming from the stage were obviously as deeply felt as they were pervasive. Even if I were able, I have no desire to muzzle such sentiments under the arbitrary and even oppressive rubric of “Keep politics out of art!”
Going to the theater for mere entertainment is an entirely valid aesthetic. But not everybody shares it to the exclusion of political or social discourse.
A political vein runs through the history of our theater — from Aristophanes to Molière to Bertolt Brecht to Arthur Miller to Clifford Odets to Luis Valdez to Karen Finley to August Wilson, to Culture Clash and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, to Caryl Churchill to Vaclav Havel to David Hare to Tony Kushner and even, yes, to David Mamet. Sometimes these artists speak through satire, sometimes through stridency.
Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica has thrived for decades largely by presenting performance-lectures to its very appreciative audiences, often with a righteous indignation that I have found annoying at times, but less so in times like these.
There are theaters that stage revivals of American musicals for reasons of diversion and nostalgia. We welcome them into our fold. But there are experimental theaters that traffic in the esoteric and perplexing. We welcome them, too. And there are theaters that come from the agitprop tradition. They believe that art is a means to change the world. We’re not going to turn them away, either, or tell them to keep their political thoughts to themselves, on their own stages or on ours. They are a part of our community, and they deserve their seats at our table. To me, that’s ultimately what diversity and inclusivity mean — the liberty to exchange and debate ideas of all colors and stripes.