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Holding Our Tongues: Censorship in the Theatre

October 6th, 2010 No comments

I attended a fantastic Dramatist’s Guild symposium on Saturday, September 20th, at Cleveland Public Theatre.  The symposium was about Censorship in the Theatre and was arranged and coordinated by Faye Sholiton who deserves a tremendous amount of recognition and thanks for her effort in coordinating this event.  The staff of Cleveland Public Theatre are also to be much, much thanked and congratulated for this event which was not only well-attended but of significant importance.

The “headline” guest was Ozen Yula.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ozen Yula, he is a playwright from Turkey whose play was not only shut down in Istanbul; but it is entirely likely that he will be the unfortunate recipient of a death threat in his home country.  For clarification, a death threat in Yula’s part of the world is not the same as the run-of-the-mill death threat one might receive in the United States.  In the US you receive a few phone calls, voicemail messages, etc., from some impotent rage-filled couch potatoes who have nothing better to do but stew around in the mess they call their life while attempting to control other people.  In Turkey, on the other hand, your photograph appears in a fundamentalist newspaper where you are listed as being a very bad person and then a few weeks later you turn up dead and your killer is never caught.

Now, Ozen Yula did conceive of and create a fairly provocative play–by some people’s standards: Lick But Don’t Swallow.  The premise is sort of like a distorted It’s a Wonderful Life or perhaps Two of a Kind if you like John Travolta, Olivia Newton John, and screwball comedies; but I digress: an angel is sent back to Earth for 24 hours during which she must save one person.  The catch? The angel is sent back as a porn star.  (Well, no one said it would be easy…)  So, the whole of the play is a male and female porn star, a camera man, and a director.  As the porn stars fuck in various positions, she blathers on about a host of issues: from famine and hunger to violence, etc.  It is clear that Yula has a droll sense of humor and is not a little irreverent.  It is quite ironic in that, given the subject matter and the handling of the content, I don’t know that this play would have a particularly great staying power in the marketplace, funny as it is.  However, now that someone want to ban the play and possibly kill the playwright (Assassination is the extreme form of censorship–George Bernard Shaw), the play will take on a degree of interest and value that it may never have had.  Like so many things, as soon as someone wants to cover it everyone in the world wants to see what is going to be covered.

So, the play was set to go up in Istanbul, Turkey (at the Kumbaraci 50 theater in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul according to Tony Brown) and due to threats, etc., the theater notified the police and asked for some protection.  At this point, the theater was shut down (even though it had just been built) due to concerns about its compliance with fire codes.  As Yula explained, this may have been coded language to remind everyone of the Sivas Massacre in 1993: where 37 intellectuals, artists, and hotel employees were burned to death by a similar breed of fundamentalist nits that continue to infest the globe in 2010.  Yula is scheduled to return to Turkey later this month and God bless him and keep him from the deranged mob that he’s bound eventually to encounter.  This is censorship in its most overt form.

Yula was surprisingly philosophic and calm about the whole thing, saying that his intent is to “hold up a mirror” to his society/culture and hopes to “help through literature” so that the poor (economically) and brainwashed masses in Istanbul can “see their lives”.  This is now his ethic of playwriting.  Yula is clearly intent on doing the same thing here as his play Don’t Call Me Fat is up at Cleveland Public Theatre right now, and addresses the American obsession with eating, obesity, weight loss, and fame–themes that Yula identified in our society by watching television!

There are all sorts of forms of censorship, but the most disturbing sort follows on the heels of the sort described above–the violent type that Yula faces–and this most disturbing type is Self-Censorship.  This form received a great amount of attention during the day as it is the kind that most people face: for a variety of reasons.  The violence that accompanies some sorts of censorship are aimed squarely at the notion of making people shut their mouths and not to say anything in the first place.  As some of us playwrights went off to lunch we joked with each other saying things like, “I want you to just shut your mouth, as my having to censor you requires too much effort” and “the sooner you learn to censor yourself the easier it will be for me.”  Ha ha ha.  But that, of course, is the idea.  The whole of censorship and control aims at ensuring that thinking is controlled and regulated.  Once thoughts get outside of the head, then there is great effort involved in stomping out the ideas that have escaped.  Other forms of censorship include indirect means.  For instance, in 1996 in Mecklenburg County (North Carolina) the Charlotte Repertory Theater was assaulted for putting up a production of Angels in America.  A local religious nit there (we have them in America too, they just kill less frequently now than they used to) objected to the gay themes and no doubt the overtly liberal bias evinced by Kushner’s politics. Because there was no method of overtly closing the production due to these themes, the nit and the Republican mayor decided to go after the production for having nudity in it.  They were unsuccessful at stopping the production, however the Mecklenburg County Commissioners later retaliated by stripping all arts funding from arts organizations in the county ($2.5 million) and continued to retaliate until summarily voted out of office in 1996. Local playwright Eric Coble wrote a play about the events surrounding this insanity entitled Southern Rapture. Other silly forms (but no less frightening in their implications) include such things as changing the advertising for the Vagina Monolgues to the “Hoo-Haa Monologues” as clearly some American’s have no capacity to think about human sexuality or the human body in any manner beyond the level of a second grader.

Other items of note.  During the opening discussion with Ozen Yula, Tony Brown moderated the interview and later a panel, which included Michael Mauldin, Head of the Dramatic Arts Program at Cleveland State University.  Gary Garrison, Executive Director of Creative Affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America talked a bit about how the DGA handles censorship issues.  Later in the afternoon, Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director for Cleveland Public Theatre gave an update on the Gordon Square Arts District planning/activities.  Later, later in the afternoon there was a panel discussion which included David Faux, Director of Business Affairs at the Dramatists Guild; Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J; and Betty Shamieh, a playwright whose plays have been highly successful in Europe and translated into many languages, but have not been staged in the US, as she sees it, because of their representation of Palestinian families and issues of concern to Arab-Americans.

On the whole, this was an invigorating and exhausting day, and much glory and honor is due to those who arranged for it to happen.

State of the Theatre

February 21st, 2008 1 comment

Recently, on the Neohiopal listserve, an article was circulating, which, I’m sure, has made its way around everywhere else as well. The article, by Mike Daisey, is about “How Theater Failed America.”

First, I thought I would comment on it just because the language, the passion, the intensity of the article was so powerful and convincing that I was just impressed…overcome by it. Then, of course, the diatribe against the failure of regional theatres to serve the artists in the theatres, a reality with which I’m not so familiar (in terms of personal investment and time) but am seeing now first hand has convinced me to throw my own two cents into the mix.

First, as I mentioned, there is the writing: “I abandoned the garage theaters and local arts scene and friends and colleagues—because I was a coward;” or “We survive because we’re nimble, we break rules, and when simple dumb luck happens upon us, we’re ready for it.” There is no hedging in this piece. There is no tip-toeing around the subject. Daisey is angry, and so brutal. Blunt. “Their [actor–Equity, no less] reward is years of being paid as close to nothing as possible in a career with no job security whatsoever, performing for overwhelmingly wealthy audiences whose rounding errors exceed the weekly pittance that trickles down to them.”

Ouch. This is a pissed off fellow. And after reading his article a few times, I agree: he should be.

I guess the reason that this article moved me so much has to do with where I’m at now: working with a young, small theatre driven by a visionary artistic director who flatly wishes to have two things: a successful theatre; a troupe of actors, technicians, and playwrights who can make a living doing what they love. This is what regional theatres were supposed to do. According to Daisey “The movement that gave birth to [the theatres in Seattle] tried to establish theaters around the country to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance. In return, the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year—the building blocks of community. The regional theater movement tried to create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish.” But, as Daisey continues, “That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show.”

In Cleveland, I know from general conversations that the above matches what was happening at the Cleveland Play House. Conversations among actors always turned to the fact that they had post-office boxes in New York to handle their resumes because they got a response from auditions that way–that is to say, they got no response as actors from Cleveland: despite a mission statement dedicated to “our community.” I think this is less true of Cleveland Public Theatre–which is truly the theatre of Cleveland. The Play House may as well be on another planet. But the facts that Daisey outlines remain, the theatres stand, but the people (who make the theatres work) are constantly changing–and not out of choice.

I am also more acutely aware of the problem as I am switching from an MBA program to an MNO program (Master of Nonprofit Organization). This educational emphasis places me directly in line with the practices of modern regional theatres: namely, the professionalization of things unrelated to the activities of theatre itself: that is, putting up plays by company actors. Perhaps Daisey’s article is just this, a bemoaning of the professionalization of how theatres are run. Afterall, virtually all organizations today have undergone something similar to this: colleges and universities can’t run in old models, they’ve had to hire marketing departments and development departments and masses of people dedicated solely to making the school succeed in the community financially and socially. The same is true of hospitals, sports organizations, museums, and other non-profits. But does this make it right? Daisey writes, “Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew.” And this is precisely what I have described, and what I fear about my own role in modern theatre is–that is, beyond the playwriting I hope to do.’

The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution. I often have to remind myself that “institution” is a nice word for “nonprofit corporation,” and the primary goal of any corporation is to grow. The best way to grow a nonprofit corporation is to raise money, use the money to market for more donors, and to build bigger and bigger buildings and fill them with more staff.

One of the more troubling things that Daisey brings up (as if the whole thing isn’t troubling enough to begin with) for playwrights is the following: “Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work.” It is almost an off-hand comment. But the implication for playwrights is this: more workshops, more staged readings, less real productions. Further, works like “On Golden Pond” find “revivals” at the Play House, while new, vital work relevant to our time and our psyche right now (by vital new playwrights) is left out. As Daisey drolly points out, “It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater.”

Daisey’s cynicism hits rock bottom when he writes, “Better to invest in another “educational” youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.” For me, there is a big NO SHIT here. How many “educational” and “youth programs” do you see now? But really, who is to blame for this? The arts organizations or the funders? My bitterness on this subject is acute, as a relatively new technology award program for which my university program just applied was rejected in favor of dozens of awards for “educational” and “youth programs.” What a sham. It’s hard to tell nowadays whether the organization’s started the programs to make money or made money because of the programs; but I think the reality is the former. And where does the cycle end?

Every time a regional theater produces Nickel and Dimed, the play based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about the working poor in America, I keep hoping the irony will reach up and bitch-slap the staff members as they put actors, the working poor they’re directly responsible for creating, in an agitprop shuck-and-jive dance about that very problem. I keep hoping it will pierce their mantle of smug invulnerability and their specious whining about how television, iPods, Reagan, the NEA, short attention spans, the folly of youth, and a million other things have destroyed American theater.

The solutions are somewhat obvious, though not easy: if a regional theatre appeals to and raises a good portion of its budget from “grey hairs” and appeals to and raises the rest of its money from children, the overtly apparent question is “what happens to all the people in the middle?” After all, a bell curve is a bell curve for a reason: the middle is where it’s at, not the ends. Strange that theatres uniformally run against logic. But, as Daisey points out, moving toward this middle means several things, the most daunting of which is change. No more hobknobbing with wealthy white greys or controllable drooling puppet-lovers. Further, you’ll actually have to work and think about what you put up: no more standard musicals, or “on golden ponds,” or “midsummer night dreaming.” Now you’ll have to move toward interactivity, multimedia, content that is aggressive and that challenges the audience. Theatres will have to enter the uncomfortable realm of questioning their communities, their society, their culture–and not just leeching off it. You’ll have to ditch the old standards and take risks, something that artistic directors beholden to boards and ticket sales are afraid to do–after all, look what happens in modern sports. Two bad seasons and you’re done.

There are clear steps theaters could take. For example, they could radically reduce ticket prices across the board. Most regional theaters make less than half of their budget from ticket sales—they have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season. It would not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Of course, that would also require making theater less of a “luxury” item—which raises secret fears that the oldest, whitest, richest donors will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manners start coming through the door. These people might even demand different kinds of plays, which would be annoying and troublesome. The current audience, while small and shrinking, demands almost nothing—they’re practically comatose, which makes them docile and easy to handle.

Better to revive another August Wilson play and claim to be speaking about race right now. Better to do whatever was off Broadway 18 months ago and pretend that it’s relevant to this community at this time. Better to talk and wish for change, but when the rubber hits the road, sit on your hands and think about the security of your office, the pleasure of a small, constant paycheck, the relief of being cared for if you get sick: the things you will lose if you stop working at this corporation.

So what does this mean? It means that you need to support what is new, what is original, what is alive: not the lumbering death that is the proscenium stage and tired old plays. Don’t settle for what the corporate theatres dish out for you–seek out what is new, what is alive, vital. Find theatres like convergence-continuum and support them. Hold on to them for dear life. For as Daisey writes:

Corporations make shitty theater. This is because theater, the ineffable part of the experience that comes in rare and random bursts, is not a commodity, and corporations suck at understanding the noncommodifiable. Corporations don’t understand theater. Only people, real people, understand theater. Audiences, technicians, actors, playwrights, costumers, designers—all of them give their time and energy to this thing for a reason, and that dream is not quantifiable on any spreadsheet.

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