I spent a lot of time last week bemoaning how I’d felt estranged from a theatrical and cultural golden age in late 90s New York City, so I wanted to show a little more gratitude this time out. For indeed, there was a period of great cultural ferment in which I did get to take part, enjoying the most professional and artistic success I have known thus far in my career. Trouble is, nobody’s anxious to revisit it.
In spring of 2001, I was underemployed, embittered by the recent election, and sitting at home with Backstage, reading an article about an Obie grant being awarded to an emerging new theatrical company called the Classical Theatre of Harlem. I was vaguely recollecting that I’d mailed them a headshot and resume when they’d begun producing a few years earlier, when at that precise moment, a phone call came in on my answering machine (it was 2001, we still had those). A sonorous baritone voice announced itself as belonging to the artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, and said that they’d like me to come in and audition for their upcoming summer production of Hamlet. I looked at the machine, then back to my paper, then incredulously back to the machine, and back to the paper (it’s a shame I was home alone, where nobody could see my perfect double take), then called back the theatre and scheduled an appointment. I was cast in the show, we were seen by large and enthusiastic audiences, reviewed widely, and all involved had a great time.
A few months later, the world ended.
And while the initial shock was difficult for the theatre – it wasn’t high on anybody’s list of worries at the time, but in the first few months after the attacks it was impossible for anybody to attract an audience – over the next few months and years it was enormously successful. And the horrifying political climate of those years – the prospect of endless war, the horror of Katrina, the sheer ineptitude – only served to galvanize the theatre and those of us working there. We produced brutal, confrontational work, confronting the realities of race in America in a hundred different ways, confronting man’s natural instincts towards war and destruction, confronting anything and everything we could find. And the audiences came. And loved us. And more than that – it was clear that, in those dark days, they needed us.
If the late 90s were the golden age of scrappy, odd-ball indie theatre in this city, the early 00s were the hey-day of smaller, non-profit off-Broadway houses – the ones with the freedom to have an agenda. Classical Theatre of Harlem. Keen Company, with their mantra of producing “sincere” plays. A surge of overtly political works at the Public, Playwrights Horizons, and more. Our audiences were so desperate for somebody to address what was going on in the world around them, and so desperate for a community of the like-minded, that they embraced all of us with a fervent zeal. If you produced a show with some sort of variation on the themes of “Bush = Dumb” and “War = Bad,” you’d be hailed as a genius. And it’s amazing how being treated as a genius, and given commensurate resources, can allow you to produce genius work as a result. It doesn’t always happen – it’s easy to coast on your reputation, to believe your own hype – but those of us who lived through those days know it is indeed possible.
In more recent years, the overall quality of playwriting has, if anything, gotten even better – I truly believe that there are more extraordinary playwrights working today than at any point in my lifetime. But the audience attention just hasn’t been the same. Major works are seen for a few weeks, get a polite pat on the head, and then are never heard from again. Transfers fail to materialize, plays get permanently stalled in the development pipeline. Economics can’t take the blame for all of it, and certainly doesn’t explain the overall audience malaise I sense. My feeling is that, in order for people to truly care about their culture, to be invested in its art and the valiant folks trying to create it, they need an outside catalyst. They need a boogeyman. George W. Bush and company provided that for the average New York theater audience, and we who worked in the arts reaped the benefit, whether we realized it at the time or not. It’s that galvanization that’s missing right now. Even if you disagree with Barack Obama’s policies, you probably don’t view him as the boogeyman – and if you do, you’re probably not going to New York theatre. (You’re probably watching right-wing documentaries and Christian-market films, two artistic markets which are experiencing boom times right now, because it isn’t just New Yorkers who need a boogeyman.) So the extraordinary work which has been happening in the last few years simply hasn’t registered.
Which brings us to the present day.
When the boogeyman has returned.
There is a terrifying possibility – maybe even likelihood – that the citizens of this great democracy are going to embrace a full-blown demagogue. That we will flirt with fascism in ways not seen in generations, only now with advanced technology, climate-destroying appetites, and nuclear weapons thrown into the mix. Even if the worst doesn’t come to pass, regardless of who’s elected, we’re looking at several years of brutal partisan strife, with crucial issues left ignored by all the infighting, and entropy’s relentless march causing all manner of world problems to get worse and worse.
To the extent that there can be a silver lining in all of this, it’s that we’re going to need the arts more than ever.
And not as a distraction – a relentless parade of comic book movies, remakes, and singing competitions has distracted far too many of us for far too long. No, we’re going to need the arts as a focal point, a place where people can come together to make sense of the chaos, to try and channel their fears and frustrations into something else. To spark the resistance. To make things better. To make us ourselves again.
I truly pray it doesn’t come to this. But if it does? Like I said, there are more extraordinary playwrights working today than at any point I can remember in my lifetime.
We’ll be ready.