This is an arts blog, Constant Reader, so I try to avoid talking politics except in the broadest sense of such sentiments as “fascism is bad.” (Apparently this is something that still needs to be said; if for some reason you think that fascism is good and you’re somehow still reading the blog of a New York theater actor and playwright, I’m going to ask that you log off now and go rethink your life.) Ideally, the scripts I write and the projects I perform in would make all the political points I’d want to make, shape the general political discourse in the direction I’d want it to go, therefore allowing me to simply cast my own ballot in private when the time came. Of course, we live in a far from ideal world, and the approach I’ve just outlined felt inadequate to a great many of my peers, looking to find a more direct way to have an influence on the election just past. (We had midterm elections earlier this month, in case that wasn’t clear. It was in all the papers.)
A huge number of my New York theater friends occupied themselves in the months prior to the election with postcard writing campaigns. Indeed, it seems to have been all the rage in our arts community. These weren’t isolated missives, you see; rather, it’s become customary for organized campaigns of letter and postcard writers to send out hundreds of pieces of mail at a time, coordinating with get-out-the-vote efforts across the country. The postcards are directed to registered voters in swing states, urgent pleas from the folks in “blue America” for those crucial “purple”-staters to actually go out and be counted. Among my friends, most of these campaigns have fallen under the aegis of some non-profit organization or other, often affiliated with the arts in some way, and therefore officially neutral in their political stance, simply urging people to do their civic duty. But c’mon – these are New York theater artists we’re talking about here. The bluest of the blue, pouring their hearts out onto little five by seven cards (well, they’re usually following a script, but there’s passion in the penmanship), begging the citizens of the heartland to fight for progressive values against the rising tide of that aforementioned fascism.
Well, the election has come and gone. There’s still a Senate run-off to come in Georgia, of course, and a few races still too close to call. But the overall outcome is clear. The dreaded “red wave” (dreaded by my friends, that is – again, you’re reading a New York artists’ blog) would seem to have been thwarted, and the Senate will remain in Democratic control. But by a tiny margin, the House of Representative will flip to Republican control, with enormous ramifications for this nation’s governance over the next two years.
And the margin of that shift can be directly attributed to voters in New York. Specifically, the voters in the congressional districts on Long Island and the northern suburbs. While my friends were pleading oh so earnestly with the rest of the country to stay a progressive course, the voters who most directly rebuked them were our neighbors.
This is something we desperately need to reckon with. As much as we’d love to have a great big national megaphone with which to proclaim our lofty ideals, there’s the nitty gritty of working with the people we actually live amongst – the folks who commute into our city to work and play, the people we’re liable to perform in front of on Broadway or serve an espresso at Starbucks just before they start work – that needs to take place first. And while there’s a lot of handwringing about the state of the Democratic party in New York, and plenty of internal recriminations, and all sorts of issues of political infrastructure and what not to deal with, I’m not going to address any of them here. This is an arts blog, remember?
And as an arts blogger, the thing I think must be stressed here is that these New York suburban voters, the ones “our side” has lost and is desperately trying to understand, used to be the primary audience for New York theater.
That’s not the case anymore. Commercial theater is aimed at the tourist trade; independent theater focuses more and more on an ever shrinking pool of people who are already in the arts, already in sympathy with those theatermakers’ beliefs. Those folks out in the burbs, who once upon a time would have been the target audience for Arthur Miller, for Edward Albee, for the Golden Age Broadway composers? There’s not much aimed for them anymore, not much reaching them. And reaching those folks is absolutely crucial in getting the idea across that there’s more to life than the insular, meretricious values of the suburbs – the values that have sunk us into much of the mess we’re in. The values we’re trying to fight. We need to reach that specific audience if we’re to have any hope at all.
I know. I grew up in that audience.
And I can tell you that for the arts to have any meaningful impact at all, for theater to have any sway over the broader political currents swirling around it, it needs to meet two crucial criteria. It needs to address the concerns of its local audience, and it needs to be affordable.
We’re rebuilding everything post-pandemic anyway, we might as well rebuild the theater so it meets those two criteria again. Maybe, just maybe, that can help bring us back to the ideal condition I described at the top, where it’s the art we make that gets our ideas across, that affects the politics around us, that improves the society we live in.
I hope so. I really don’t like writing postcards.