Not that Washington has ever been a hot bed for political theatre—Hair didn’t even come to the National until 1970, two years after its Broadway premiere in 1968—but in Fall 2012 there is a decided lack of almost anything political resembling a play. Sure, Molly Ivins and an utterly sanitized Janis Joplin entertain us at Arena and a little Government Inspector at Shakespeare makes us laugh our heads off, and Signature even claimed a bit of the political with its Whorehouse (no kidding, it did). Other than those token expressions, however, our theatre avoids political content almost as fiercely as Republicans and Democrats avoid each other.
And I’m happy about that. For in America today the political has become nothing more than theatre on a grand scale, played out daily in the world of pundits and competing 24-hour news outlets. So I’m happy for the respite that local theatre can offer. Yes, I’m thankful for a Jekyll and Hyde, for aDracula and Joseph and even a little Rocky Horror, for they provide a break from the constant barrage of political theatre swarming around Washington, DC, these days.
…it is a good thing that Washington’s theatre has decided to leave the political theatre to the politicians and their master strategists.
Now, I’ll admit to yearning once for more political content in plays, to hoping for an American canon that addressed the intense struggle in this country between the Right and the Left or the Federalists and the States’ Righters. After all, there is a place for theatre in the world of politics. Theatre during the French Revolution—and during our own 1960s—proved that the stage could play a role in the forming of public opinion. Even the imports that have come to town this Fall, Black Watch and theFamine, showed that when theatre does politics it could do a first class job.
This election cycle has, however, enlightened me to a greater truth. Theatre creates a world of illusion and mystery, which can temporarily suspend our disbelief and allow us to observe and emotionally engage in fictional people and events. Politics, on the other hand, creates a totally different kind of theatre; it creates a theatre that suspends our beliefs and allows us to fictionalize real people and events. In other words, within the theatre of politics, beliefs become truths and people and events become fictions. This inversion of fact and fiction allows the theatre of politics to trump anything the real theatres might produce.
So it is a good thing that Washington’s theatre has decided to leave the political theatre to the politicians and their master strategists.
Now, saying that, doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few criticisms of the drama that these political players have produced. However this script ends, I think we can all admit that it is a good thing that it is finally coming to an end—I’m also sure we can agree that this play was way too long and needed the last 10 acts cut. We’re all happy too that the climax has arrived, if not tonight, then hopefully early tomorrow. And we can only pray that this bit of politics-does-theatre doesn’t have a sequel, entitled “Supreme Court Decision II” playing for the next few months on stages everywhere.
Though not quite standing room only, the Strathmore was packed from its crowded orchestra to its fourth tier balcony; even some of the throwback box seats elevated along the sides of this enormous structure had audience peaking over the rails. The stage was empty, however. The chorus had not yet arrived. The orchestra was nowhere in sight. “Where were the instruments?” the audience might have asked. “The piano and the big bass drum?” Were the two performers going to sing a cappella?
As it turned out, poet Wallace Stevens’ famous line, “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” was more than apropos for this occasion, as our two performers were not singers, but poets; and the thousand plus eager ears in the audience were yearning not for the sonorous chords of an oboe or a lute, but for the small wonders of two of America’s most famous bards: Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (who is, by the way, of no relation to this critic).
As a poet and performer myself, I have long bemoaned most poets’ inability to engage a live audience, almost as if years of academia had trapped their voices within the books they are constantly reading. To be sure, with the emergence of performance poetry—slam and spoken word—that lack of a live voice is disappearing. With the gain, however, comes a countering decline in poetry’s essential solitude—its ability to question the rawness of experience. Oh, how I hoped that Collins and Oliver would strike a balance or bridge a synthesis between those paradoxical necessities!
And did they ever, bringing to life on the Strathmore stage the sublime solitary of poetic expression while at the same time embodying its desire for community. By the end of the event, Collins and Oliver stood before satisfied ears to a thundering ovation.
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Michael is the director and founder of The Performing Knowledge Project: where performance and education meet, which is a project of The Sanctuary Theatre, co-founded by Michael, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre. For more about The Sanctuary Theatre.
Every person has his or her story to tell: every community, every family, every institution, every issue, every piece of ground, every thing. When we remember the country of our birth, when we stand in the middle of a parking lot and consider what once was there, when we walk with aging parents and listen to the tales of their youth, we are made new by the recollections: because each person, each place, each moment possesses a history, and that history provokes a sense of who we are. When we make sense of those stories and the worlds that inspire them, we rediscover ourselves. These stories are all around us; they are deep inside us as well. We hear these stories everyday.
At The Performing Knowledge Project we care about the stories and the communities they inhabit. The story might be about Edgar Allan Poe’s poetic persona, or it might be about a senior citizens’ home, or it might be about technology and how it affects who we are. We at Performing Knowledge explore these stories, what they look like in line and color, what they sound like with melody and chord. We want to know how they feel, both to the storyteller and to those to whom the story is told, and how they make sense of the world around us.
Stories exist within a context, however; they inhabit a community, to be sure; but they also happen at a particular time and place. At Performing Knowledge we seek to advance the relationships between those stories and the way in which they are told. We synthesize the goals of performance with those of education, and by doing so the two disciplines work in harmony. By orchestrating their relationship with one another, we elevate the “felt-thought” making it all the more palpable, transforming it into an experience.
The story of The Performing Knowledge Project begins with poetry workshops and the production of Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance. The Sanctuary Theatre, the Project’s parent institution, dates back to 1983 and its inaugural production of Jesse and the Bandit Queen. Its story then weaves through over two decades and dozens of productions, workshops, staged-readings, and educational programs, in collaboration with numerous organizations and communities. The Performing Knowledge Project is the theatre’s new story and announces a decidedly different direction for the Sanctuary organization.
The Performing Knowledge Project seeks to build a collaborative of artists and scholars of all kinds: theatre artists; historians, musicians; poets, literary critics, writers and playwrights; sociologists; technologists and visual artists; dancers and beyond. We seek to create original works in collaboration with communities and individuals, crafting the tales that make worlds come alive.
Our next projects include MotherStory and Song of Myself: the Whitman Project.
For more about The Performing Knowledge Project…