Theater Pub Gets Political?

“Personal Politics” director Stuart Bousel talks about the next Theater Pub, hitting the boards on Presidents’ Day.

Since the very early days of Theater Pub we have tossed around the idea of doing dramatic readings of a number of political speeches, but for one reason or another it’s never seemed like the right time- either for us, or for our audience. For one thing, we were trying to build an audience through most of 2010 and while politics are a subject that theater shouldn’t shy away from, there was a fear that maybe it was “too serious” for the jovial and somewhat drunken atmosphere of theater pub. For another, there is always a fear (especially for me) that “political theater” or “issue theater” will be self-limiting and ultimately alienating- or just dull- for anyone who isn’t interested in the subject at hand. Perhaps most importantly, we also couldn’t come up with a hook: some kind of unifying vision or theme that would make it a dramatic performance and not just a bunch of disconnected speeches being rattled off. The political theater that is out there works because it’s good theater first, good political discussion second, and while we didn’t feel we had to tell a story, per se, we did want to make sure we were offering something theatrical.

One Eastern European tragicomedy, a slew of Greek theater, and an evening of Walt Whitman poetry later, it’s become pretty clear that the Theater Pub audience has a pretty broad pallet and as long as it’s stimulating they’re game.  And besides- what is more appropriate to a bar full of drunken intellectuals and artists than some discursive, perhaps argument-inducing, political statements- especially if they didn’t all necessarily agree with each other and we were careful to not take an obvious side? Additionally, current political rhetoric has gotten so heated that rhetoric itself, and how we express ourselves in the political and public forums, has become a political issue in and of itself. The decision to make that issue the political issue we dealt with helped to coalesce the idea into something more concrete, broad and timely.

Much current press has been given to the discussion of if speakers today are more vindictive, inflammatory, passionate, etc., but the truth is most of the great speeches we remember today are anything but dry, “just the facts” declarations. Good speakers have been using drama, comedy and every trick in the actor trade to get their point across for centuries and like good actors, the best speakers have always worked from the heart and gone for the throat. As I looked at different speeches from different time periods and English speaking countries (I wanted to reproduce these speeches as accurately as possible while still making them dramatically compelling, so by not having to go with translations I figured I was reducing at least one level of distortion) what I found drew me the most were those which circled or found their root in personal stories. Sometimes those stories were relayed in the speeches and sometimes they were only hinted at, but each of the six that I finally settled on were sourced in a decisive moment in the speaker’s life- whether that was one of triumph or one of sorrow or one of anger. Each was also a plea of some kind- a demand to be heard, to be valued, to be celebrated, to be accepted. Just as a director would say to a struggling actor, “What does your character want?” I found myself asking each of these speakers- most long dead- “What did you want?” and realizing that each of them wanted something that put them in both juxtaposition and opposition with the political policies of their moment in history. In short, each of these people represented the principal social tension of their times, as that tension began to push against- and ultimately change- the politics of that time.

When I was in college I tended to be of the Oscar Wilde school of art for art’s sake, and tended to staunchly defend the viewpoint that one could separate the personal from the political. I still see the value of both of those viewpoints, but the older I get the more I see the other side of the argument: that no good art (including Wilde’s) is ever created for its own sake alone, and that the personal only remains so until it runs afoul of the political, and then what used to be between you and your immediate circle is suddenly subject to debate and legislation.

Thinking back on college and school in general (and can any American hear names like Ann Hutchinson and Patrick Henry and not think back on their first American history books?) provided the final piece of my puzzle as I built this little theatricality. Hence, the decision to present each of the speeches in the context of a sort of short history lesson, similar to the kind of quick biography or cultural factoid they would put in a blue or yellow box on the side of your text-book page, complete with discussion questions at the end, rather than tidy dramatic conclusions. And I must say, while it may not be a play, I do think this sort of dramatized lesson plan tells a story. Some people believe that all art is a political statement and while I can’t say I agree with that- and certainly all political statements are not art-  I will concede that sometimes the motives and execution are hauntingly similar and undeniably moving because of it.