Huffpost Arts
Michael Gene Sullivan Headshot

Political Theater in a Box

Posted: Updated:
Print

This letter is in response to an article in The New York Times, by Ben Brantley: "When Political Theater Feels Truly Dangerous," in which he asked for examples of engaging political theater in America.

"(Posibilidad, or Death of the Worker) ... is a brilliant work, combining tragedy and humor to make a very pointed argument for thinking outside the box on the state of Labor and jobs today."
-- The Huffington Post, Sept 6, 2010

"As entertaining as it is didactic. (The Troupe) is disarmingly open about (its) intentions, but doesn't pretend to have all the answers. (They"re more intent on getting us to question the fundamentals of a system dependent on citizens 'living and dying in debt.'"
-- San Francisco Chronicle, July 7, 2009

"...Combines red and blue, truth and unreality, political commentary and incisive wit. The results are delicious. "Red State" is the ideal election fare - sharp and funny, with just enoiugh bite."
-- 
Examiner.com, July 7, 2008

"Part savagely acute political satire, part living newspaper and all broad, tuneful and timely musical comedy, 'Making a Killing' is the Mime Troupe's most direct grapple yet with the war in Iraq. It's very funny and equally politically engaged...in the best tradition of agitprop theater."
-- San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 2007

"Brazenly funny and tuneful... (The Mime Troupe's) "GodFellas" goes on a ruthless topical tear that seldom slackens."
-- The Los Angeles Times, Sept 22, 2006

Awkward. That's how I feel about writing this answer to Mr. Brantley's question about seeing politically heroic theaters. On the one hand I can honestly say I've witnessed hundreds of thousands of people alternately enthralled, outraged, and emboldened by a theater that is speaking Truth to Power, exposing the lies of the Ruling Class, and throwing those lies back into the smug faces of our would-be Corporate Overlords.

On the other hand, I'm the Resident Playwright of that theater.

I'm a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and as you can see from these recent notices about our shows, we are very much committed to creating work that challenges both the audience and the Powers that Be. We use hard truths when talking the ongoing crimes of Capital which reward the owners first and the Workers - who actually create the wealth of the this nation - last, if at all. A bitter pill to swallow, which means it has to be pretty damn funny, too. As Wilde said, "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." And no, we don't just play in liberal San Francisco (and don't even ask me about if we wear tights!) We perform our shows - musical comedies and dramas - where ever we can, Red state or Blue, performing free whenever we can, getting our message revolutionary change to as many people however possible.

And we are not alone. There are thousands of theaters across the country that enthrall and educate their audiences with stories of the struggle against injustice. From The Actor's Gang to the Working Theater, where ever there is an audience looking for answers there is a theater dramatizing the problems, and demanding change.

So the problem isn't that theaters don't want to speak out, or that people don't come to see them, or that those audiences don't feel outraged at the injustices they've seen enacted. The problem is in a society where a greater and greater percentage of arts funding comes from, and the media is directly controlled by, the very corporations that a company like the Mime Troupe attack the message becomes difficult to get out. We don't take money from the corporations: you won't see "This production brought to you be Bank of America" at one of our shows. But that comes at a steep price. No theater survives on ticket sales alone, and with government grants becoming scarce more and more theaters must turn to the very corporations they want to skewer in order to survive. The inequalities in our society have grown blazingly obvious, economic and environmental crimes threaten our present and our children's future, and our political leaders seem to simply be bidding their time before they can cash in their governmental connections to the highest Wall Street bidder. How can theater not try to shake citizens from their slumber? But then - how can you create fierce political drama when it requires biting the Corporate hand that gives you money and steers your Board?

Another great problem is the ownership of the Media. The fact is the Corporate Media and Political Theater are necessarily at odds much of the time: Corporate Media's job is to distract us with fear unrelated to any real underlying threat to our lives and Liberty, uphold and reinforce the Status Quo (in the case of America that being that Capitalism's periodic collapses are part of an inevitable economic cycle rather than the evidence of it being an antiquated, destructive scheme to enrich owners with the wealth of the workers), and to discourage anyone from questioning the fundamental lie - that this is fair and just, and the best we can have.

(to audience) "The Dream Of Riches!
This system only woks as long as the workers buy it,
It's why the Rich can bankrupt your country and you all keep so quiet!
They close your factories, steal your money, and still you don't riot!
Oh, some talk of Revolution! But you'll never try it.
They tell you - "You're not workers. You're in the "Middle Class."
Middle Class is just worker with a big debt, who is frightened into kissing the boss's ass.
Dazzled by luxuries as your lives go for bad to worse
Buying into Capitalism is the working class's curse."

From "Too Big To Fail," 2009.

The job of Political Theater, however, is just the opposite: discuss the major events that effect the greatest number of people, undermine the foundations of Power, and encourage people to rebel against injustice and oppression. But again, how to get the word out? The Troupe may have audiences of tens of thousands each summer, but when the Paper of Record did an article on the 50th Anniversary of the Troupe it didn't even send a reporter to review the critically acclaimed summer production. How do you inspire people to question the ruling class paradigm when you seem to be at odds with the very media you need to let people know you are fighting the good fight?

So perhaps that essential difference in mission- and that there is a whole wide country beyond Manhattan full of people creating theater in general - is why a reporter for The New York Times hasn't heard much about political theater in America. How would he - if he relies on his own paper for that information?