Marissa Skudlarek says “no thank you” to the gilded cage.
I don’t know about you, but ever since the Supreme Court ruled on McCutcheon vs. FEC earlier this month, I’ve been getting about an email a day from liberal groups asking me to protest the ruling, which strikes down limitations on campaign donations and therefore, further opens our political process to the influence of super-wealthy donors.
Lately, I’ve also been reading article after article about the rise of income inequality and the increasing corporatization of all facets of our life. The prediction seems to be that we are entering a new Gilded Age, where life is easy for the privileged few but becomes increasingly miserable for average folks.
In the face of all this, an anti-corporate sentiment is starting to take root among liberal-leaning young people. There has always been an anti-corporate strain among leftists, but it used to seem like a scary, fringe movement (e.g. the anarchists smashing windows at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999). I am not a radical or an anarchist. I probably come off as a nice girl who likes to have nice things. But I would like those nice things to be produced and distributed equitably, and for there to be competition in the marketplace rather than corporate monopolies, and for the money I spend to go to small-business owners rather than corporate coffers. Laugh if you want to at the hipster subculture that fetishizes anything “artisanal” or “handcrafted,” but also acknowledge that buying from independent producers is, in a way, an act of political protest.
So what does this have to do with theater? Well, in this political climate, it strikes me that one of the best arguments we independent theater-makers have for our work is just that: we are independent. We talk a lot these days about how to distinguish theater from other entertainment options that are perhaps cheaper or more convenient. Such discussions often focus on the fact that theater is a live event rather than a recorded one, but I don’t know if this argument actually has much traction with audiences. It seems to me that a stronger argument would be that independent theater is not beholden to any corporate overlord; no marketing executives or focus groups influence the work we present; the money you give us goes directly to artists in your community.
This is not a plea for independent theater to present more plays with an overtly anti-corporate agenda. I do have a soft spot for ’30s-style agitprop, but one San Francisco Mime Troupe per city is enough. I tend to prefer plays about complex characters and situations, not plays that shout out their support for a particular political viewpoint. Instead, I am arguing that the mere fact of independent theater’s existence — the fact that we are making art outside of the corporate media who control so much of the conversation — should be used to our advantage.
Think of all of the slogans we could build around this marketing angle. “We tell the stories that The Man doesn’t want you to hear.” “100% locally grown and crafted.” “Netflix wants your personal data. We want your personal well-being.” “You hate Amazon, you hate Wal-Mart, you hate Monsanto — so why do you love Broadway?”
Again, you can laugh at the artisanal-hipster movement, but it’s increased the dignity and the visibility of such formerly humble trades as farming, bartending, and woodcarving. And you can joke that hipsters want to move us toward an idealized version of the 1890s, but this “new gilded age” talk suggests that all of the worst aspects of the 1890s are coming back. If we have to retrogress to the late nineteenth century, in other words, let’s not bring back the parts of it that have to do with racism, sexism, and inequality. Instead, bring on the small-batch distilleries, hand-knitted scarves, and widespread theatergoing.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She doesn’t really consider herself a hipster, but she did grow up in Portland, Oregon. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.