The People of Personal Politics

San Francisco Theater Pub’s PERSONAL POLITICS – performing once only on Monday, February 21 -has been built from the real life words of Katherine of Aragon, Ann Hutchinson, Patrick Henry, Ned Kelly, Nelson Mandela and Diane Savino.

In each case, these were people who found themselves, due to their personal convictions, thrust into the center of a debate that threatened to tear their communities apart. Forced to take a side, each of them expounded themselves in a speech that not only got their point of view across, but defined their image on the tapestry of history.

Katherine of Aragon was a Spanish Princess who had become Queen Consort of King Henry VIII of England, but found herself, after many years of devoted marriage, being moved aside for Henry’s mistress, Anne Boleyn. In an era where divorce was unheard of and the Catholic church ruled England, this matter between husband and wife engulfed an entire country where the Protestant faith was becoming more prevalent and the king’s decision would result in national excommunication by the Pope. Additionally, Katherine had failed to produce a male heir, which worried the court and the general population. Despite this, the common people loved Katherine, and so her refusal to cooperate with the King’s advisors created questions of loyalty to the crown, as well as to God, that reverberated throughout every level of the kingdom.

Ann Hutchinson was a devout but free-thinking woman living in Puritan New England. Given to holding Bible study groups in her living room- largely attended by women- her natural leadership skills and outspoken personality began to rile the local magistrates, who saw her unconventional interpretations of the Bible and friendliness with local natives as thwarting their authority. She was excommunicated from the colony on the grounds of being a heretic and in her exile helped to settle the Rhode Island colony before being murdered, along with most of her family, by native tribes. Her refusal to have her relationship with God dictated by others became an iconic moment in the battle to separate Church and State.

Patrick Henry was a failed businessman and farmer living in the Virginia Colony shortly before the War of Independence. He eventually found his calling as an orator and lawyer. A staunch believer in the American Colonies breaking away from England, he is considered a founding father of the American Revolution and was the most prominent thinker of his time to advocate using military force to finish the movement towards American independence. Interestingly enough, he later opposed the Constitution, feeling it would take away the state and individual rights so recently won by the colonists. Though he remained prominent in politics, he repeatedly turned down government positions when offered, including Secretary of State to George Washington and emissary to France. His declaration of the importance of freedom is perhaps the most famous statement on personal liberty ever made.

Ned Kelly was an Australian rancher of Irish descent living in the Victoria province of Australia before its independence from Britain. Inclined towards passionate actions and known for having run-ins with the law, he became a sort of Australian Robin Hood after he refused arrest for a crime he claimed he was falsely accused of.  Believing that local English authorities were targeting himself and his family, he escaped into the bush with his brother and a few friends and in the process of eluding authorities killed a number of local law enforcers. Laws were passed enabling Ned to be shot on sight, without arrest or trial, but he in turn never killed hostages and successfully robbed two banks without spilling a drop of blood. When his friends and families were imprisoned by the Crown in an attempt to lure him out of hiding it caused a national outrage at the abuse of power and he became a lasting symbol of Australian resistance.

Nelson Mandela was the first South African president to be elected to office in a democratic election that included voters of all races. An activist who had led armed resistance movements, he had been arrested and convicted of sabotage after bombs he’d helped plant in what were supposed to be empty buildings resulted in casualties. He served almost three decades in prison before leading his party to the negotiations that led to a multi-racial democracy in South Africa, and became so well known for his unflinching acceptance of his responsibility in the bombings, and repentant in his efforts to find peaceful solutions, that he became a symbol of redemption not only in people, but in nations. And this was before he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Diane Savino continues to be an active New York senator. Though she was known prior to her now legendary floor statement about gay marriage, this speech, delivered in a friendly and conversational manner, became an instant YouTube hit, with over 400,000 views and growing. In the time since the speech first hit the air, Gay Marriage continues to be a hot topic in the United States, with reverberations reaching into the religious, business and legal communities, and reminding us that personal choices and lives are still the stuff of great political debate. With its echoes of Katherine’s plaintive assertion of her right to love her husband, Savino’s speech also brings PERSONAL POLITICS full circle.

PERSONAL POLITICS performs one night only on Monday, February 21 at 8pm at the Cafe Royale (800 Post, at Leavenworth, San Francisco). Please arrive early to grab a seat and a beer. Admission, as always, is free.

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.