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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2016

Political Theatre Today

Wednesday, July 20, 2016   (0 Comments)
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By Lisa Drostova

The Bay Area has a wide and deep history of political theatre, but what do we mean when we use that term—especially if, as many believe, theatre is inherently political because it is an act we perform in groups that either supports or challenges the status quo? And where does political theatre stand now, in our moment of tech surge, displacement, disruption, a “sharing” economy and truly bizarre electoral politics?

Lisa Hori-Garcia, Michael Gene Sullivan, Hugo E. Carbajal and Keith Arcuragi in the San Francisco Mime
Troupe’s 2015 show,
Freedomland. Photo: Mike Melnyk

Playwright Joan Holden, who wrote for the San Francisco Mime Troupe for 30 years, says, “I want to make a distinction between political theatre and theatre that is about political things. In political theatre, you’re trying to change things, you’re trying to change behavior. You know what you want to do, there is a political intention. And it’s different. What drives you to write a political play is what drives you to any other political action, and it’s usually anger. And very specifically targeted.”

It’s important to acknowledge that many companies that don’t identify as political are still doing politically charged work, and asking pointed questions. The recent presentation and success of plays like Disgraced, Enemies: Foreign and Domestic and We Are Proud to Present… show that companies want to help audiences are understand what’s happening in the world and understand it more thoroughly. And there are companies that, while they may not identify as political theatre companies, are dedicated to work that “has a social and political undercurrent,” such as Ubuntu Theater Project, with its fantastic recent adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Ubuntu’s Colin Blattel says, “Good art is often not explicitly political or overly didactic but the end result can be. By producing shows with an aim to inspire more compassion in others for people who are different than you, you become changed. And political views change. In a world where politics is a game of trade-offs and policy platforms and negotiations create winners and losers, how we view ourselves and the people around us matters a lot.”

But bigger companies have challenges in presenting topical political material. The Mime Troupe’s Michael Gene Sullivan notes, “In a subscription-based season, if the US decides to invade Mexico or Canada, companies can’t react to that, they can’t cancel their season. We’re starting to see shows influenced by BLM, by Fruitvale Station—that happened two years ago. The audience is less involved because it doesn’t speak to the question they have right now, when the theatres have to go, ‘We’ll get back to you in two years. We have a play that we’re passionate about, we’re workshopping it now, but the grant hasn’t come through.’ I suspect that, for companies big and small, their artistic directors are more political than we think they are, they do have these ideas, but they have to take other things into consideration. They’ve got bankers on the board so they can’t say bad things about bankers. I don’t want to speak for those companies, but there is a move towards analysis. They want to do something that goes a little deeper rather than just saying Wall Street is screwing us.”

This article addresses artists and companies that are more explicitly political in intent, trying to create theatre that activates audiences, makes them do something in particular, often around a narrowly focused question—and who are finding clever workarounds to the challenge of producing political theatre in financially challenging times. Because as Holden puts it, “There is no way to minimize the effect of high rents on art”—both for companies who try to secure spaces and for the artists who need to support themselves.

Politics has been part of the Bay Area theatre scene as far back as the ‘30s, with the Federal Theatre Project, and the ‘50s, when it was all very subversive—the Actor’s Workshop doing Miller, Genet and Beckett. Holden recalls going to watch The Crucible as a teenager with her mother, during the height of McCarthy’s second Red Scare, and watching tears streaming down the cheeks of audience members. In 1959, Ronnie Davis began the group that would evolve into the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which began comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable through commedia and live music in the parks every year. Besides the Troupe—and such offshoots as Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino—there was a bunch of small, activist theatre companies; at least five in the Haight alone: Bear Flag, Haight Ashbury Theatre, San Francisco Rep, Gumption, and Lilith Theater (which is back after a hiatus of “a few decades,” according to its website). 

But things change. When Ronald Reagan killed off the Comprehensive Training and Employment Act (CETA) that let nonprofits train and retain staff, according to theatre critic emeritus Robert Hurwitt, it “kicked the administrative stuffing” out of several companies. According to Sullivan, “The CETA money meant your company could last all year, you didn’t have to work another job. At some point, that stops being really tenable, when you can get paid more for doing something much less important somewhere else.” And then there was the Eureka arson, and while the Eureka (which had been doing cutting edge work) relocated, the space it moved into proved be too much to maintain, and the company members—people like Tony Taccone and Richard Seyd—dispersed to other places. Then, in the ’90s, the first tech boom pushed a lot of artists out to the East Bay and beyond.

The Bay Area is currently in another tech boom, and obviously a big theme in our area is the resulting displacement. According to Sullivan, “so much of [the Mime Troupe’s] audience has been forced out of San Francisco and out of Berkeley that we’re not going to play Dolores as much this year. When I started with the Troupe, we would do two shows in Dolores—opening and closing. Then we started spreading it out more, and doing more stuff in Dolores, and we got up to doing six shows [there]. It was really our home base. Now,” he says, “we’re backing off of it as the Mission has become more and more gentrified. I don’t even like being [at Dolores] on the weekends because it is a din of sound, of people who are so desperate to be out of their cubicles they get drunk, and they scream happiness at each other until they pass out. And it’s frightening and depressing, simultaneously.”

“And they cannot relate,” Sullivan adds. “We’re talking about housing, we’re talking about racism, we’re talking about the evils and dangers of corporate capitalism, the importance of democracy—these people don’t understand any of these issues. They are not their issues. Now, whether the political theatre companies in the Bay Area are going to be able to last until these people actually grow a worker soul, is a question.” 

So where is political theatre happening now? On college campuses; in flash, one-minute and 10-minute playfests; or sometimes hidden in plain sight. Although Holden is no longer with the Mime Troupe—her main reason for leaving, she says, is that, after 30 years, she no longer felt she could surprise that audience—she’s still writing for the stage. Last year, Holden’s holiday pastorela for Sacramento’s La Raza Galeria Posada gave the traditional form a decidedly political bent by casting the holy family as undocumented immigrants.

“All arts money in Sacramento goes downtown—to the ballet, the symphony,” Holden says. “There’s a huge population there’s nothing for. So the Galeria’s director, Marie Acosta, said, ‘We’re going to rent the biggest theatre in downtown’—which they did with the support of Estrella TV—and filled it with audience at $15 a head. There were loads of people who had never gone to the theatre before.” The event succeeded, according to Holden, not only tickets-wise but as a political and community-building action claiming a space for Chicanos.

Agile Rascal Traveling Bike Theatre Company’s touring production, Sunlight on the Brink.
Photo: Courtesy of Agile Rascal


In the tradition of Teatro Campesino, where Luiz Valdez took theatre to Central Valley farmworkers on the back of a flatbed truck, some companies are rigorously taking theatre to the people. Last year, Agile Rascal Bike Theatre created a play, called Sunlight on the Brink, about the impact of climate change. They then took it cross country, going from San Francisco to New York strictly on bicycles, performing for free anywhere they could find a space. And the spaces were educational.

“It was so different in every different place that we went,” says Fenner, ensemble member of Agile Rascal. “Not just geography, but the venue we were in. If we were in a yoga studio, the climate for conversation after the show was very much ‘Yeah, I’m right with you on the climate changing and water scarcity,’ versus when we performed in a grocery store parking lot in Ithaca, everyone disappeared after seeing this really weird piece about all the water running out—and then Arizona, where scarcity of that nature is on everyone’s mind because of the intense heat and the desert everywhere. In the Bay, we performed at the OmniCommons, which is a very radical space, and attracted portions of the already-radical crowd; they were very receptive and willing to engage with those ideas after we presented them. Which is the biggest indicator that these ideas are understood, or even heard: when people stay and chat.”

But the most prevalent reaction was that people felt empowered in the way they could get around. We gave them more confidence in cycling and the ability to travel in that way, not only recreationally or as a commuter, but big trips—I feel like it made people see the potential for our own movement that has less impact. There’s a way to be less impactful. In the way our current systems create, our movement is very selfish to the earth. I think that we’ve empowered people to feel more capable  of movement, primarily on bikes but just in general, and that feeling as dorky as it sounds that ‘you can make it.’” The company is planning another tour in 2017, during which members and collaborators will develop an original show and bring it to local communities in the state of Montana; they plan to cover 1,000 miles. 

Tierra Allen, Sonia Decker and Maurice André San-Chez
in the Bonfire Makers’ production of
Place to Land, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Bonfire Makers

Sango Tajima of East Bay-based political theatre company the Bonfire Makers says, “We call ourselves a political theatre ensemble that does devised work based on community interviews and, for [our current] project, historical research. The topic we’ve been grappling with since last year is tech moving into Oakland and how that’s affecting our communities. Last year we did We Go Boom before Uptown Station [the old Sears building on Broadway] was even an idea, and now Uptown Station is going to be Uber.” [T]he techies said it was really beneficial. We heard, ‘This should be an orientation play for Google!’”

Naked Empire Bouffon Company is making waves with its monthly show, Too Soon!, where a clutch of overstuffed bouffons spend a very full day building a piece based on the headlines, and then present it in a late-night performance at PianoFight. According to its website, these clowns “fart on your apathy,” “celebrate difficult truths with gratuitous abandon” and “distill the complexity of societal dysfunction into grotesque physical comedy.” 

Fenner, who also works with Naked Empire, says, “There’s this really sad frustration. ‘All this stuff is happening and I can’t do anything about it.’ That can turn into depression. As an artist, I struggle with that. What am I actually doing? We cried together because the story is so sad but is it going to keep happening? The last image of our last Too Soon! was this “24-Hour News Cycle,” where all the bouffons are in spin class and pretend-biking through all these tragedies and then posting on Facebook and reliving the horrors, and then at the end of the class we’re all going to get off our bikes and we’re all warmed up. Can we do something real with this? Something really physical? Can you go donate something, part of your house, some of your time, can you donate money, can you help me carry a box to my car? It’s super intense to face that question and then to leave the theatre and be like, ‘I’m still just going to take the bus and go home and wake up and go to my bougie part-time job.’”

Gabriel Montoya and artistic director Eric Reid in Theater MadCap’s TBA Award-nominated production
of Sam Shepard’s
True West. Photo: Courtesy of Theater MadCap


Eric Reid says that he created Theater MadCap “under the idea of deliberately diverse theatre, making sure that every story we put up spoke to people of color and gave people of color leadership opportunities in theatre. I’ve been dedicated to lifting up these stories. We live in a political time right now that’s unlike any other. Where before the Civil Rights Movement was kind of contained, it didn’t have the reach it has now with the internet, with everyone having social media. So we have a unique time, we have people who can have their voices heard immediately. With the issues that are going on in the city, we thought here’s the perfect opportunity to take a play [You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores, about gentrification in the Mission in the 90’s] that’s specifically about the Mission. We always say that we don’t want our theatre to be taken passively, we want you to go out and do something after you see these stories. So we decided to invite community leaders, artists, activists, and people who have actually been displaced to tell their stories after the play so we can put a real face on this.”

Theatre Madcap’s choice to broaden You’re Gonna Cry this way got intense. SF Board of Supervisors candidate Edwin Lindo had agreed to be one of these special guests; this was before he and four other people began a hunger strike protesting police brutality in San Francisco and demanding the resignation of either Mayor Lee or Police Chief Suhr. Considering that the “Frisco 5” were camped outside the Mission police station taking nothing but fluids, Reid felt that asking Lindo to come to the theatre to speak was inappropriate, and instead decided to bring the performance to Lindo. So Madcap did a free pop-up performance outside the station on May 4. Two weeks later, Mayor Lee announced Suhr’s resignation after police shot and killed a woman they suspected was driving a stolen car. “How can we support the people who are really lifting us up?” Reid asks. “These hunger strikers really have the city on their backs right now. They’re doing something special. I don’t want to look back at this time in history and feel like I wasn’t part of it, especially if I have a theatre voice.”

All of which is in keeping with the answer Holden gave when asked for her advice for people making political theatre. “If you are in tune with your time,” she says, “you will feel and express things people will understand, that they will wish they had said. To be in tune with your time, you have to do things in the world, be active in the life of your community, know what’s going on, work with people on other things.”


Lisa Drostova is the public engagement manager for Ragged Wing Ensemble and the Flight Deck, and a member of Ragged Wing’s Performance Core.