Interview: In Los Angeles, social activism on stage, with a personal approach

The Los Angeles Times Culture Monster blog, 5/18/11

When California voters banned gay marriage in 2008, Brian Shnipper didn't take to the streets in protest; he called his playwright friends. It was the beginning of what would become "Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays," a collection of nine one-act plays by writers such as Neil LaBute, Paul Rudnick and Wendy MacLeod. 2½ years and a couple of benefit performances later, the show, directed by Shnipper, is running at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and with a rotating cast of celebrity performers.

Q: When you first asked these playwrights to do this, did you give them any guidelines?

The only thing I told them was that I didn't need 10 love letters to gay marriage.

Q: Some of the plays were written by straight, married-with-children playwrights. Were you surprised by their insights?

In terms of somebody like Neil LaBute, whose characters tend to be misogynistic and definitely come from a heterosexual world, you don't think he's going to write with such tenderness and such beauty about these two men who love each other as much as they do.

Q: Is this social activism on a stage?

Yes it is. But I try to make it as personal as possible, because I don't think you reach people through politics; you reach people through the personal. I really set out to create an evening that -- sorry to be cliché -- made people laugh, made people cry, made people think, because that's how you change people's ideas.


Commentary: On Broadway, bringing activist theater to a mainstream forum

Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator, 5/17/11

Seeing the Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's landmark AIDS play, The Normal Heart, prompted me to think again about activist theatre and how it might effectively communicate its consciousness-changing intent in popular mainstream forums. Kramer's autobiographical narrative clearly reaches contemporary audiences. I saw the production with an audience predominated by those who looked like white gay men, mixed with obviously straight couples, women, people of color, and people whose ages seemed to span generations. Much of the audience sobbed openly through the play.  The Normal Heart might be mainstream political theatre -- yes, Broadway tickets aren't cheap; indeed, casting familiar television and film actors ensures audience attention; and sure, the number of Tony nominations the production has received (five) gives it credibility in ways that community-based political theatre struggles to achieve. But this production's extensive media coverage also refocuses attention on HIV/AIDS. And Kramer's activism outside the theatre hammers home the on-going crisis.  Continuing his storied attempt to inspire people to action and not just to feel emotion, Kramer stood outside the theatre, handing spectators a personal letter.  Distributing this letter after performances is savvy activism, since the powerful production inspires in spectators a desire to know more. Our emotions raw from what we've witnessed, our hearts (hopefully) opened to the suffering we've just seen, we leave the theatre sharing Kramer's outrage.


Interview: The right-wing conversion of playwright David Mamet

The Weekly Standard, issue dated 5/23/11

David Mamet's new book of brief, punchy essays, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, marks the terminal point of a years-long conversion from Left to Right.  [It] begins with a verbal throat-slitting of the leftwing playwright Bertolt Brecht, father to three generations of dramatists. For most of his career Mamet revered Brecht too: It was the thing to do. The reverence came to an end when he finally noticed an incongruity between Brecht's politics and his life. Although a cold-blooded advocate for public ownership of the means of production and state confiscation of private wealth, [Brecht] always took care to copyright his plays. More, he made sure the royalties were deposited in a Swiss bank account far from the clutches of East Germany.  "His protestations [against capitalism] were not borne out by his actions, nor could they be," Mamet writes. "Why, then, did he profess Communism?  Because it sold... The public's endorsement of his plays kept him alive."  Mamet says he hasn't thought about what it might cost him professionally.  "Forcing yourself into a new way of thinking about things is a wrenching experience. But first you have to look back and atone. You think, 'Oh my god, what have I done? What was I thinking?' You realize you've been a co-dependent with the herd. And then, when you decide to say what you've discovered, out loud, you take the risk that everyone you know will look on you as a fool."  Sitting on an overstuffed sofa in his office, he threw up his hands.  "But what the hell," he said. "I'm the troublemaker. That's my role in life. I'm the class clown."


Commentary: What does politics have to do with modern classical music?

David T. Little, The New York Times' Opinionator blog, 5/18/11

I was 19 years old when I first heard the Kronos Quartet's "Howl, U.S.A."  Although I'd grown up listening to Woodstock-era protest music, it had never occurred to me until this moment that classical music, loosely defined, could be political. The course of my artistic output was suddenly and drastically changed.  Questions began to arise, both from others and myself.  Some wanted to know how a piece of instrumental music could be political, or why I thought classical music was especially suited for this purpose.  Art is pure, right?  Celestial.  To soil it with base, terrestrial politics feels improper, even rude, especially when one considers just how awful politics really is.  "Politics is about winning," the political composer and activist Bob Ostertag says, "a concept meaningless to art." So how are these things expected to mix, if at all, without the supposed purity and nobility of art being compromised?  For me, the art has always had to come first.  I'm an artist, not a politician. While I want my work to engage in the political, I have no interest in creating work that serves only as a vessel for delivering a political message. The world has enough pundits.  [But] historically, political composers believed that, since politics was going to concern itself with the arts -- (as rulers like Hitler and Stalin proved) -- art had better concern itself with politics.

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