Michael Oliver (Theatre in Community Prodcast) Transcript

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce, and we are thrilled today to both mark our 22nd interview and announce a new endeavor for the podcast, the Theater in Community project.

If you are one of our over 160 subscribers, you’re aware of our deep dive into creativity at both the practical and process levels. You’re also doubtless aware that on occasion we delve into the philosophical dimensions of creativity and discuss how it has influenced a person’s life and work. Importantly, you’ve also gathered that many of the people we’ve interviewed do not consider themselves, quote, “artists,” though many do, but they are all people who [00:01:00] live their creativity every day in their fields of expertise, their relationships, and beyond.

In other words, we approach creativity as a vital force to a healthy life. Not only does it change the world, but it changes who a person is and how they see themselves. And as our world has become more and more fractured, and as a consequence of that fracturing, has eroded communal and community bonds, leading to crueler and crueler acts of violence and contempt, the healing power of creativity to nurture empathy and compassion has never been more needed.

Creativists in Dialogue sprang out of this need to address this moment in whatever way we can. That’s why we’re happy to announce our new project, the Theater in Community podcast series that has been funded by a grant from the Community Culture and Heritage Program of Humanities DC. We’ll interview theater makers in DC who created [00:02:00] or are creating community-embedded theater in our city from the 1970s to about 2019. We’ll explore how the collective collaborative art of theater is infectious. It encourages creativity not only among its practitioners, but also among all who experience it. Clearly there are hundreds of people we could talk with, but we’re going to launch the project with only a small sampling of interviews with amazing theater artists from each of these five decades.

So, what do we mean by, quote, “community-embedded theater?” A great question. And for that, we’re going to turn to our own theater expert, Robert, Michael Oliver. In addition to being our co-host and a veteran poet, playwright, writer, director, actor, theater and cultural critic, educator, gardener, cook, father, husband, and all around [00:03:00] creativist, Michael is also a scholar with an MFA in directing from Virginia Tech and a PhD in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland. His 2005 dissertation “National Theater or Public Theater: The Theatrical Geography of Washington, D.C. circa 1970–1990,” delves deeply into this subject. So welcome, Michael, to that side of the mic.

Michael: Yes, I’m happy to be here, and it truly is a different experience being on this side of the mic.

Elizabeth: So, Michael, let’s return to this question of community-embedded theater. What is that and how is it different from other types of theater?

Michael: Community-embedded theater, it is a term of art ‘cause in some sense, all theater is community theater. All you need is an actor and an audience, and you have theater. [00:04:00] Sorry, playwrights. That audience is the community part of theater. So the real question focuses on the relationship of artists to audience or community. What is the nature of that relationship and how does it shape the art produced?

Community-embedded theater is theater that is rooted in the issues, the understanding of life, the creative forces that are in the community itself, as opposed to within the artist as maker. So, it’s similar to Augusto Boal, some of you may know, who wrote the Theater of the Oppressed, at one point, he was an activist theater artist who would go into communities and he would impose his perspective on the community. But then he realized that the community had their own world, their own reality to deal with. And so he [00:05:00] transformed his artistic approach to try to incorporate or draw out from the community itself its needs, its issues, its desires, what have you. And so at that point, his work became more community-embedded as opposed to the more traditional understanding where you are performing for a community.

All, again, all theater is community theater. And most, even our work at Sanctuary that we did in the ‘80s, we started producing plays, we started getting reaction from audiences that started to shape, sort of, the selection of choices that we would do with our productions, with the scripts that we would do. And all of that sort of helped develop an audience or a community around the theater. And the longer we existed, the more we were starting to, we started to select plays and do productions for that community [00:06:00] and based upon the needs, as we saw it, of that community.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Michael: So that’s really what community-embedded theater is. It’s theater that is derived from the aspirations of the audience or the community as opposed to the other way around.

Elizabeth: So I wanna just quickly inject here, Augusto Boal and also Paulo Freire, who they’re both Brazilians. Paulo Freire is well known in educational circles for his seminal work, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. So those two individuals are really pivotal in the theatrical community’s response to working in community, those two individuals.

Michael: Right. And it may not, you mentioned Freire, I mean his, the whole notion of student-centered education, again, it’s a similar sort of shift in perspective. Student-centered education as opposed to teacher-centered education—

Elizabeth: Right.

Michael: —is the same kind of shift that we’re talking about now. Now, obviously, all theater is that relationship between [00:07:00] artist and audience or between, to use the educational sort of analogy, between teacher and student, but it’s where you put the focus.

Elizabeth: For the teacher example, it isn’t about the teacher. It isn’t about, “I have this lesson plan.” It’s about what the student needs and how the student is dynamically engaging with the material. So, ditto with the theatrical performance.

Michael: Yes.

Elizabeth: So, Michael, you wrote an entire book about theater in DC, your dissertation, what I used to refer to as the “bloody dissertation.” I no longer need to get a PhD, ‘cause I lived with you for 10 years as you pursued this bloody dissertation. Anyway, your dissertation was entitled “National Theater or Public Theater: The Theatrical Geography of Washington, D.C. circa 1970–1990.” So, could you give us some background as to what your dissertation explored?

Michael: Obviously, as the title implies, there is a tension between theater that is [00:08:00] done for the public, which you might associate with community-embedded theater, and then this notion of a national theater.

Now, the notion of a national theater comes from, it was actually President Nixon at the time, it was Vietnam War, was going badly, America’s reputation was going badly, Ss Nixon had a desire to turn DC into an international city, a beacon of freedom, to counterbalance the imperialistic images created by the Vietnam War. So, at that point, to make DC a cultural capital of the world was a part of his ambition.

Now it’s a two-decade, three-decade long plan, but my dissertation really looks at the transformation of the theatrical geography of Washington, DC starting in the 1970s with the opening of the Kennedy Center and, just prior to that, the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and [00:09:00] Humanities. So suddenly there was an injection of funds into DC’s cultural scene and into the theater scene specifically to create a much more vibrant, quote, “professional”—it led to a professional theater environment—in DC.

Now, it took about 20 years before DC’s, quote, “professional theater” scene fully came to fruition. In the ‘70s, it was only, there was Arena Stage, one of the original regional theaters—

Elizabeth: Right, founded in, what, 1950?

Michael: Yes, 1950, and then it had its own building by the ‘60s, and then its legacy has continued to grow. But, but in the ‘70s, it was only Arena Stage and then traveling, sort of, Broadway shows. There were the, quote, “professional”—

Elizabeth: Washington Theater Club I think was around—

Michael: And they, they—

Elizabeth: Studio campaign, right? In ‘78.

Michael: Yeah. And yeah, they, yeah, they started doing in, in ’78. In the ‘70s. But a lot of that was because of the public funds and the injection of funds, even corporate money, [00:10:00] through foundations into DC in order to make it much more culturally attractive. So the dissertation really looks at the transformation of that geography, specifically within what I call the public sphere.

So I’m not looking spec– I’m not looking at the performances or the activities that are behind the closed doors of the theater, i.e. the doors you gotta pay to get into. I’m looking at how theater plays to the broader public, what it means to the broader public.

Prior, in the, in 1970, prior to Kennedy Center and that other activity, theater was dominated by academic theater like at Catholic University. There was a little theater, a lobby theater. There were lots of community theaters, small theater movement, but it was an amateur movement.

Elizabeth: Little theaters.

Michael: Yeah, little, some little theaters. And, but there was basically, it was an amateur theater by, an amateur theater at some level, [00:11:00] by its nature, is much more community driven. It’s much more community-embedded. It might not be challenging the communities, but it is embedded in the desires and wants of the community. And so, as soon as you wanna make it into a cultural capital and you inject all these funds into it, then there starts to be this shift that takes place. And so then the question is, does theater still remain for the local Washington audience? Or does it become a theater that is more focused on pleasing the leadership, the national leadership that is so much a part of the city and has only grown strong since 1970. The federal presence in the, in DC has only gotten stronger over the last 50 years.

Elizabeth: I wanna just inject here, the term community theater in theater circles is something that refers to theater whereby all the participants are volunteers. No one is, has an expectation of being paid and, and it is decidedly so. So [00:12:00] there’s a difference between, quote, “community theater” and, quote, “professional theater” or semi-professional theater. And then there’s a big difference between those theaters and, quote, “commercial theater” which would be, like, Broadway is a commercial operation, so there’s just some, that’s some nomenclature.

Michael: Sure. Right. And there’s a huge spectrum there. Very few theaters don’t have any volunteers, and very few theaters don’t have anyone being paid anything. That’s a matter of the degree to which you’re paying people, giving them a stipend versus paying livable wage.

Elizabeth: And, yeah, and the, you go through the timetable of Washington, DC there’s the introduction of the actors’ union and all of these, sort of, details about professionalizing the theater.

But let’s move on and talk a little bit more about your scholarship and your many years as a theater artist and a theater and cultural critic. You used to write theater reviews and kind of theater cultural [00:13:00] critiques or commentary. I think you’ve maybe written 500 either reviews or columns about the theater community in, in Washington, DC and a little bit beyond. But how would you describe the broad landscape of theater in DC and the metro area, and what are some of the factors shaping this landscape since, as you talked about the founding of the Kennedy Center and the National Endowment for the Arts in 1970?

Michael: Since I’ve been in DC—and I came to DC in ‘81, end of ’81—DC has always been, as far as I can tell, it continues to be—although maybe less so today ‘cause most of the poor people have been pushed out, they simply can’t afford to live here any longer—but when I first came to DC it was extremely polarized economically. And that economic polarization was reflected in the racial dynamics of the city as well.

Theater on the other hand, [00:14:00] historically, and I think still today remains an art form for the more well off, the more economically prosperous. It’s expensive to run a theater. It’s expensive to produce theater. So its contributors tend to be from the upper classes. Its audiences, its communities tend to be from the upper classes.

So, like, the number of lawyers in DC is astronomically larger than any other place on the planet because they tend to be the lobbyists, they tend to be in the government, they tend to, this is a large class and they’re a monied class. So a lot of the theater, as the theater became more professionalized and established, more of that monied class became its community or its audience.

As opposed to in the ‘70s when it was, when public money was first injected into it, there were a number of [00:15:00] theaters that could play toward what you might call the middle classes, or even the poor people, right? Because there was money available.

Elizabeth: This was public dollars.

Michael: Public dollars that could—

Elizabeth: Through CITA and other grants.

Michael: Right. And they could help fund some theater that was actually done for, quote, “the people” or “the public.” As opposed to this monied elite that was running the city and the nation.

Elizabeth: Let’s move on and talk about how, prior to the Kennedy Center, as you were saying, amateur theater dominated the landscape. This is from even the 19th century into the 20th century. Of course, in DC there was Arena Stage, which as you mentioned, was founded in 1950 and was one of the very first examples of quote, “regional theater,” professional regional theaters. But the local theater generally was amateur or community or little theater, or as you mentioned, academic theater in universities.

And then you’ve talked about how Nixon wanted to turn DC into an international city primarily [00:16:00] as a, quote, “propaganda tool” to repair the international damage done to America’s image by the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and how Nixon saw culture as a primary weapon in that sort of image repair work.

So, culture and theater in those terms were economic engines to beautify the city.

In all your research for your doctorate and your dissertation, could you give a brief summary of these observations? From the Kennedy Center to the 1990s, you saw the professionalization of the theater scene in DC. So, amateur theaters of various kinds still operated, but they no longer had a space in the public sphere. The larger theatrical institution, the larger the theatrical institution, the more money the institution, the louder the voice in the public sphere. So tell us more about the organizing principles of theater produced in community. How did these organizing principles align with [00:17:00] other kinds of social organizations and cultural characteristics?

Michael: The best way to go about discussing this is that in the ‘70s when money started being injected into the DC theatrical landscape through the NEA and through foundations and corporate giving—also at this point, there was, as we well know, there was the whole cultural, counter-cultural movement going on, right? Starting in the ‘50s with the Civil Rights Movement and becoming very, and then becoming very charged and, and nationally engaged through the anti-war movement. And then that led to the Native American movement, to the women’s movement, et cetera. So the large numbers of groups of people. And the whole birth of identity politics began to occur at this point.

And so, the various community theaters that began to [00:18:00] emerge in the ‘70s, there was a sort of a growing consciousness around the counter-cultural sort of issues. There was growing desire for an African-American theater and theater that would represent the African-American community. ‘Cause the amateur theater prior to the ‘70s was predominantly in the white communities. Now there, there were Black churches that would do theater, but that was basically the extent of it as far as I, my memory, if my memory serves me correctly. But in the ‘70s, there was definitely a churning of that. There was, the wars in Central America had caused a large influx of Latinos coming from Central America and so there, there was an emergence of a central American community, a Latino community, and then they started producing theater.

So basically you had these pockets of community [00:19:00] that were creating theater, and this theater was definitely embedded in that community and they were creating plays, et cetera, that were addressing the needs and desires and aspirations of those various communities, be they women, be they Jewish, be they African-American, Latino, et cetera.

Now, in terms of the public sphere, they found space in the public sphere in various small, smaller rags, if you will. Underground newspapers. ‘Cause, again, during the ‘60s, a lot of underground newspapers started to emerge. And so they had their own ways of communicating and spreading the word within their more, these marginalized communities.

Okay, and so the, in the early ‘70s, money was going to these groups and these groups could have access to some of that money. Now they couldn’t create fully professional theaters, but they had enough money to give some compensation to the artists that were doing [00:20:00] the theater, right? And thus, they could generate communities of artists that would then serve the communities, their audiences.

Now, as you move outta the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, into the Reagan years and into just a more, the movement towards a more conservative policy, if you will, on arts funding and et cetera, the money for those smaller theaters began to dry up, right? Which stifled or at least limited their growth. And it made, and they became much increasingly dependent on, I guess, audience contributions, foundations that were still welcoming or still desiring to have diverse voices, theatrical voices. But the—and during the ‘80s when the theater community began to mature and began to realize that it was one of the larger theater markets in the country, right? Because it only took about 20 [00:21:00] years to turn DC into a very vibrant national theater market. Some people say the third largest in the country.

Elizabeth: Some people say the second largest.

Michael: Some people say the second largest in the country. But it definitely began to attract artists from outside the area. So, again, the, a part of the nationalization of theater is suddenly you have artists who aren’t even, who don’t even really know DC coming to DC to basically perform plays that are really for an audience that is much more temporal in nature. ‘Cause the federal government, people that work in the federal government are not DC residents. A lot of them don’t even, don’t even have their official residence in DC. They’re here on a much more temporary status. So a lot of the theater that is for those people is clearly not theater that’s for the public at large and whatever the issues are of the people who live here.

Elizabeth: Just to digress for a moment, what you’re saying is in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a lot of theater was happening. It was part of what [00:22:00] used to be called the movement, all of these movements of empowerment, and as you said, the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement and women’s and Chicano and Latino rights and disability rights that were starting to come out. And so there was this fusion of the political and the theatrical, and there was support for that through certain public funding channels. I mentioned CITA which was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1974 or something like that, which was a piece of federal money that you could get to employ people in cultural endeavors, including theater. So people in the ‘70s could have a full-time job doing theater. You weren’t making more than maybe minimum wage, but that was a far cry better than making nothing. So, just to contextualize that within this, like, spectrum of the political environment and how theater really was, was just a parallel dimension of a lot of movement politics.

To talk a [00:23:00] little bit more about the organizing principles, though, of producing theater, quote “in community,” how do these organizing principles align with other kinds of social organizations and cultural characteristics? So this preposition of “in community” is really important.

Michael: When you’re doing theater in community, it’s crucial that you get to know your audience, the community through whom or with whom you are creating theater. The creativity of the artist is also the creativity of the community and vice versa. So there is this intimate dialogue created between the two. The audience no longer becomes simply spectators to what you’re performing. If the goal of your theater is ultimately to engage your audience in critical discourse, then you’re hoping to emotionally engage that audience [00:24:00] in whatever the issues are that are embedded in the play.

And so theater that’s embedded in community is theater that is trying to tap into the emotional currents in the community. And those emotional currents change from month to month, they’re, they can be very fluid. And what was maybe important to a community a year ago is not necessarily important to the community today. So the closer that relationship is between artists and community, the more likely it is that the artist will construct art. i.e., theater, that is rooted in the emotional struggles of the audience. And that way something will occur in the production that will tap into that emotion and suddenly you’ll have auditory responses from the audience, for example, about [00:25:00] alliance with a character or cheering a particular choice.

Boal, in his theater, going back to Augusto Boal—and again, this is, most theater doesn’t, can go in the complete direction of Augusto Boal—but he would actually have audiences to make decisions about what the next action of the protagonist should be so that they in a sense were actually onstage through the actors, enacting the scenes. But that’s the level of engagement that you’re looking for. So the process is this sort of intimate relationship. So obviously you are, as an artist, you are making yourself vulnerable to what the community wants and needs. And at some level you have to understand your own maybe naivete, right? That just because you are concerned about X doesn’t mean that your community is concerned about X. Now, obviously, the more you live in that community, then the more I think your concerns become [00:26:00] embedded or one with the community. But that’s a process that you have to follow if you’re gonna become embedded in a community. And it is you have to become part of the community that you’re performing for.

Elizabeth: Yeah, so that I think really illuminates some of what you’re talking about, what we’re talking about, is that the theater makers are in relationship to their audience community in a give and take. It isn’t theater makers create art that the theater makers want to create for their own artistic satisfaction or creative jollies, if you will. There’s a, a symbiotic, is that the right word? A relationship between what the community is hungering for, what the issues and desires and heartbreaks of the community are, and what the theater makers are creating. So there’s a, a fusion there.

Michael: I might also add, today we think of community as issue-oriented communities. So if you have a [00:27:00] community that is issue-oriented, they tend to be in agreement about that issue. But if you’re embedding yourself in a community, then you’re also embedding yourself into the arguments and disagreements within that community, and the theater is touching on those disagreements and thus it is entering the emotionally charged environment of those disagreements that are within their community.

If you were doing something about some policy issue about whether or not a rent strike should happen. Rent strikes are happening now. Now obviously the community is made up of both the landlord and the renter, and a rent strike could end up hurting a decent landlord who’s just trying to keep the building livable and needs the rent in order to keep the building going. Other landlords might be exploiting the renters, and so you end up entering a very nuanced and difficult terrain about—you can’t [00:28:00] just come down on one side or the other. You have to produce theater that allows for a discussion of those issues, a presentation of those issues that heals the community. ‘Cause you’re not just speaking to an issue-created community. And that’s one of the central differences between theaters embedded in the community and other kinds of theater where you build an audience around, an audience or a community of agreement around a particular ideological perspective.

Elizabeth: I’m reminded, in California there was El Teatro Campesino, which was doing what I think is considered agit-prop or agitation propaganda theater, but they were really embedded in the farm worker community, and they were doing plays about union organizing and they were doing plays about worker rights. And it was not in a theater. It was out in the fields and it was out where the workers were. And so it was a really pristine example of [00:29:00] deeply embedded theater that was deeply embedded in a community.

And I, I think of Living Stage, which was part of Arena Stage for many years, and they would go into communities and do improvisationally-informed theater and that the audience would be invited, not just invited, but would be compelled to, as you say, to solve the solution to provide solutions to the dramatic situations that would be set up in the drama itself that was coming directly out of that issue of those communities.

Michael: Right.

Elizabeth: So let me ask a few more questions here. Just talk some more about these areas in which community-embedded theater activities have focused. You’ve mentioned women, you’ve mentioned different racial and ethnic and cultural groups, and also about artistic philosophy. What are some of those communities that have different aesthetic and artistic objectives?

Michael: For example, there were community-embedded theaters [00:30:00] that were focused on healing the riff between various races and ethnicities, so they became much more multi—you might call them multiracial or multicultural theater. And so they may have practiced more of colorblind casting during the day, colorblind casting, where they were looking beyond the immediate racial identification in their casting of their productions in order to present a vision of the world in which various races, various ethnicities, could actually engage on stage in roles that were outside of their specific racial or ethnic background.

So that that kind of theatrical practice was specifically organized in order to promote this much more racially diverse audience. So you could do a Shakespeare, casting it from, with a diverse array of [00:31:00] races and ethnicities without really worrying, worrying about it. I think a wise director would always be aware of and understand the implications of casting a White person in that role, or a Black person in that role or what have you. Because ultimately the connotative associations of those things are still playing out in your community. So you have to be aware that you can’t really—colorblind casting that could lead to basically connotative meanings that you don’t really want to create. So you have to be aware of the cultural landscape within which you are performing. So that’s just one example of a theatrical practice that would be associated with this theater that’s embedded in community.

Now obviously there were also practices where. You might have discussions after the show. ‘Cause ultimately you’re doing performances not simply for the entertainment value. You are doing performances in order to have an impact or an influence [00:32:00] on the community beyond the show. And so to have discussions that take place either after a performance or that take place like on a Sunday afternoon that have with audience members that have been to the performance, this is a way of extending the issues, getting audience members a chance to participate directly and into what they witnessed, into the ideas or emotions that were generated by what they witnessed in terms of ultimately sending those members that saw the play out into their communities to talk about the play. That wasn’t simply a means of generating a larger audience, but ultimately a way of having the issues raised by your theater to percolate through the community. I remember seeing, and this was in ‘81 or ‘82, I remember going to the, the Shakespeare Theatre.

Elizabeth: Oh, it would’ve been Folger probably in those days.

Michael: I think this was early Shakespeare. JoAnne Akalaitis had done—

Elizabeth: Oh, yes.

Michael: [00:33:00] The Trojan Women and it was very powerful production. We had just invaded Iraq, and so this place picked up on just the horror of war. And I just remember afterwards going, “I wonder if people are just going home after that, or are they, when they’re going out to dinner, are they going, ‘It’s hard for me to even eat this meal now because of the horror that I witnessed on stage?’” In other words, it was meant to not be just an entertainment. It was meant to provoke and stimulate discourse so that you would actually begin to think about the implications of, ultimately, the war that was taking place in Iraq and then the war that was happening to the women and the children and the civilian population.

Now, Shakespeare Theatre did not have forums to discuss that. At least I didn’t attend any of them, maybe they did occasionally have forums where the audience could actually talk about those things. But clearly that was the intent of the show, was for there [00:34:00] to be these impromptu forums after they people saw the show. But theaters can, as I’m saying, they can actually organize a forum so that people that do want to discuss are in an environment that is welcoming to that kind of experience.

Elizabeth: And another good example of that would be in the 1990s when the AIDS crisis was just sweeping the country and the theater community was devastated, thousands of people died, and there was a great deal of theater being produced about the horrors of AIDS and the need for greater research. And that was activist theater in a sense, but it was activist theater in humanizing and really dramatizing the real human suffering that was happening as a result of this scourge of AIDS. So that’s just a particular example.

So it seems to me that some theater activities that begin focused on working with their target [00:35:00] audience, their target community, subsequently grow and professionalize and become much more like professional theater institutions in which ultimately the strength and preservation of the institution becomes the primary goal. That just seems to be the nature of institutions, to perpetuate themselves. So we saw a lot of that during the pandemic in which cultural institutions or universities or other mega-institutions concentrated on preserving the physical plants and the funding streams and the workforce of the administrative apparatus. Obviously, there are many factors involved in this evolution of community-embedded theater work, from the increasingly polished aesthetic values of the directors and actors and designers, and the production values and the comfortableness, for example, of the physical space itself for the audience, all the sleek lobbies and comfy seats and banks and bathrooms and all of these more comfortable [00:36:00] characteristics. So, Michael, can you speak about these patterns of evolution from community-embeddedness to professional institution?

Michael: You’re right to say that the pattern seems to be eternal, right? The longer a theater is around and the more it evolves, then the more money it generates, the larger contributions it generates. And as those larger contributions come in and the more money, the audience come in, I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that, that you start doing theater that will reflect your new audience or your new contributors. There’s just no way to avoid that. It seems to be just a part of the process that if all these audience members are giving you money so that you can pay your people, it’s not some kind of sinister ploy that you wanna do plays that make them happy or make them want to come to [00:37:00] see your theater and give you more money.

I think it was Upton Sinclair that said you can’t convince a person who’s being paid their salary by X, you can’t convince them that X is wrong because they’re being paid, their salary is being paid by X.

Elizabeth: Right, their livelihood depends upon it.

Michael: Theater is no different. If your livelihood depends upon a lot of oil executives, you’re not gonna do a show about sort of oil destroying the land, or you’re not gonna, if you’re getting lots of money from somebody who’s exploiting workers by not giving them decent healthcare, you’re not gonna do a show about companies that don’t give decent healthcare to their workers. You’re just not gonna do that. You’d be cutting off your own face. It’s, it’s, obviously, it’s not really a point of contention.

And so, going back to your original question, if you’re gonna do more plays that are challenging of the, sort of, the monied values or whatever those monied values are, or the values of a more prosperous audience, the perspective [00:38:00] of a more prosperous audience, if you’re gonna push them so outside their comfort zone that they are going to not come to your theater as much, not contribute as much—maybe they, “Oh, we gave them a thousand dollars last year. I only want to give ’em a hundred this year,” right, because they’re no longer feeling as warm and fuzzy about your theater because of the shows that they’ve seen there—then your theater as an institution is not going to be as financially secure. So the professionalization of theater brings with it a stronger allegiance to the monied class, to a more economically privileged class.

Elizabeth: To play devil’s advocate for a moment, I would dare say that a theater maker, an individual, or a group of individuals, would—you have the same issue in the nonprofit and activist world—the purist who wants to stay true to their anti-poverty work by being in solidarity with the poor and living [00:39:00] in poverty themselves there is a strong argument to be made that’s all fine and good, but people have to make a living. People have to have stability in their lives. People want families, they want to be able to have some security in their lives. So it is that tension, I think, between wanting to, quote, “professionalize” so that the theater makers themselves can have some kind of stability in their lives and not have to work two day jobs and such.

Michael: And, and I agree with you 100%. And that’s why I’m not speaking as some moralist or as some virtue signaler. This is just a reality. In this sense, I’m much more of a realist about this is how things operate. So you can only push your audience so hard.

I remember when I was more closely aligned, they were part of the educational community, I read this very interesting article about pushing your students and it played on that, where, “Oh God, that’s horrible. You shouldn’t push your [00:40:00] students.” And it was physically you should never push them. But intellectually you were pushing them. But then it’s a question of how hard should you push them.  And this is, goes back to this notion of comfort zone. ‘cause when you’re pushing somebody, you’re nudging them. At the very least, you’re nudging them outta their comfort zone a little bit. Now you can just hold off and just smash them outside their comfort zone. But then they might become traumatized.

So it, so you as a theater artist, when you’re working with a community, embedded or not embedded, you have to understand how much you can nudge somebody. How far can you push your audience? Challenging their understanding of the world. ‘Cause ultimately you’re dealing with people’s understanding of the world. And so that your audience, your community, has a particular understanding of the world. And again, I’m not judging that understanding X is correct and understanding Y is incorrect. Ultimately, all understandings of the world are based upon the experiences of that community. And [00:41:00] because all communities have different experiences of the world, they’ll have different understandings of the world. But it is that understanding of the world that gives them comfort. We all like to feel like we understand our world.

And so, if you go to the theater and it challenges that understanding, right, you can either just get up and leave the theater, you can sit there in discomfort, right, and then go up and then argue with other people that saw it about, “What’s going on with this show? What are they saying?” But ultimately, one would hope, and most theater artists will say this, “Oh, our job is to push people outside their comfort zone.” As someone who reviewed 500 plays in five years, most theater does not push people outside their comfort zone. Most theater that I saw during those five years at big name theaters and small theaters basically endorsed the understanding of the world that the audience had. So they felt perfectly comfortable with what they were seeing on stage because it was an [00:42:00] endorsement of their understanding of the world.

Elizabeth: Yeah. There’s a term for it in politics or in policy.

Michael: Is it the Overton window?

Elizabeth: Overton window, where there’s a certain continuum, slice of the continuum of concepts and ideas. I remember, for example, just to speak about that, when you were teaching high school, you would often have your students read Howard Zinn’s, The People’s History of The United States.

Michael: When it wasn’t popular. Now it’s popular.

Elizabeth: Well, this was back—

Michael: This was back in the ‘80s when I would just get a lot of—

Elizabeth: But it was an, it would definitely shake your students who came from relatively comfortable lives, not all of them, but out of their comfort zone that there were these aspects of US history—

Michael: Right. It would shake more their parents than them. Students were remarkably open to ideas because their perspectives on the world have not yet solidified.

Elizabeth: So let’s, Michael, let’s talk about, just to elaborate, let’s talk about how and why creating theater that is embedded in community life is a [00:43:00] good thing. So, why do people gather together to make theater that speaks to the realities of their lives? And how does that influence or strengthen or otherwise change community life?

Michael: I have loved theater since I got involved in it late in high school and, but I will admit that I love theater for the process more than I love it for the product. For me, the creative process—‘cause it is communal creation, theater is communal, creation. I do a lot of writing now and that’s solitary creation. Now, sure, I can have writers’ groups and I can talk to people and I can commune with them at that level, but the actual process of creating is done in private.

Sure, actors can go and they can learn their lines and they can even come up with readings of the lines, which I hate, they can do all this stuff in private, but ultimately it is a communal creation. For me, the best theater is theater that comes about because of the [00:44:00] collective creative impulses of that community of people that are inside the theater, making the theater.

And so, theater’s power and magic comes from it being the creative center of a community. And I think there are definitely theories where theater originated by tribes enact the hunt, right, and they would perform the hunt before they’d actually go out and do the hunt. And I don’t know if those theories are still in vogue or not now, but basically it was definitely a communal act. It was called sympathetic magic, where you would enact the hunt in order to make the hunt happen and when it was really happening in life, that would be more successful. Obviously, you’re practicing and it obviously would become more successful. Because you practiced the hunt through performance.

But theater for me is that act of communal creation. And when a community creates together, they are stronger [00:45:00] together and they actually, they’re able to, in that sacred space of theater and of communal creation where people are vulnerable, where people are forgiven for whatever choices they might make that maybe are inappropriate—in any other space they probably would be inappropriate, for me to get into someone’s face and just yell at them, risk spitting, having slobber fling off my face into their face. In real life, I would be ostracized. But if that’s called for in the scene and I do that, it’s, “Okay, good job.” Or whatever. Or, “You went too far with that.” But you would, at least when I was director, I would always, I would encourage actors to make choices.

Because that’s what communal creation demands. It demands making choices. And you have to trust your instincts, trust your creative understanding of the world or what have you. So if theater’s goal is to create this sacred communal space for a community, right, then community-embedded theater is, like, vital to the health [00:46:00] and wellbeing of a, of a community.

Now, you could say that churches fulfill that role, but church is at some level is theater. It is the accepted theater of that community. Now, if the church is simply a form, a ritual that is done, that has lost its creative magic, then it’s just a habit. And it’s not artistic. It’s not metaphysical, if you will. It’s like bad theater is just ritualistic theater. And I’ve definitely seen some bad theater where it’s not, it’s not creative. The energy isn’t there.

So I would say that community-embedded theater is essential. I’ve always thought of theater as an essential skill. When you’re thinking about it as, just as human beings working collectively, working creatively and collectively to solve a problem, to realize a goal, it is truly essential. And then even at the actor level, human [00:47:00] beings who understand the roles that they play in life and that the roles that they play in life have certain objectives. And if they understand those objectives, then they understand, well, certain choices will help them reach those objectives, as opposed other choices might feel good in the moment, but it’s only gonna take them away from those objectives. And they’re gonna, and, and they have to engage with other people in the achieving of those objectives.

So for me, theater is very much that essential element of life. And you’ve gotta get it from somewhere, whether it’s the church, whether it’s your local theater, but it’s not just going in there and watching a spectacle. Ultimately, the best theater, just like the best church service, is one in which you are emotionally engaged. And you are participating in the manifestation of the human or the divine, whatever one you want to talk about.

Elizabeth: No, I think that’s a great explanation. I’m [00:48:00] struck particularly about the quality of vulnerability that the performers and the technicians and the designers bring into this sacred space, as you say. And that includes making, quote, “a fool of yourself.” Things that one would be incredibly uncomfortable doing in the shopping center, you can do on stage.

Elizabeth: And there’s a trust factor in there. Lots of layers of trust building that happen in performance rehearsals, et cetera.

Michael: Right. Which is not to say that I haven’t, I’ve seen some—At another level, theater’s goal is to create memory. Theater’s goal or art’s goal is to create memory in those people that are witnessing it. And the creation of memory does require emotional engagement, and that can be positive or negative. I still remember, and I devoted a whole chapter to the American National Theater—

Elizabeth: Under, yeah, Peter Sellars.

Michael: Peter Sellars, National Theater, and he did [00:49:00] a, I can’t remember the title right off the top of my head, but he did a show about Central America and the war, America’s involvement in the wars in Central America, and he had the famous Deaf actor—

Elizabeth: Oh, Huey… Howie, Howie Sewell. Was that his name?

Michael: I think that’s his name.

Elizabeth: This was Ajax, I think.

Michael: Yeah, it was Ajax. And I don’t remember much of the dialogue or any of it, but I do remember Ajax, this very large and imposing figure, inside this glass cubicle—

Elizabeth: Oh, the plexiglass box.

Michael: —plexiglass box and the blood—

Elizabeth: Filled with—

Michael: —started to start to fill with blood.

Elizabeth: Oh, such a good—

Michael: And it is a memory that I had 30, it was experience I had 30 years ago, but I still have a very vivid memory of that moment. So that play, as a result, and the issues of that play, have remained with me because of that singular moment in time and the emotional connection that it, that I had with it. And I dare say, I would assume other people in the audience had a similar—‘cause again, live theater, you’re hearing it, [00:50:00] you’re seeing it, you’re feeling the audience around you, and so the experiences that you have in those spaces are not individual experiences, they’re collective experiences. And when that plexiglass cube began to fill with blood, I’m certain, I can just feel the whole audience having this experience of the horror of that, of being surrounded or drowning in your own blood or drowning in blood, not necessarily your own blood, but drowning in blood. And so that collective emotional engagement that theater can provide, that movies, they can also provide it. And surround sound is much more likely to do that than—

Elizabeth: But in live theater, it is live. There, some things could go wrong. It’s like watching a, a horse race or it’s like watching—

Michael: Well, but ultimately, again, when the actors and the technicians and all of those people are creating it right there in front of you, film, it’s they created at some point and now you’re seeing [00:51:00] what they created, it’s a past tense thing. But in live theater, the act of creation is right there in front of you. One of the goals of theater is that it inspires more creation. As a creativist, I think of myself as a creativist, and so you’re always trying to inspire creativity in others. And so live theater has a potential for inspiring creativity in others like maybe no other art form has.

Elizabeth: Yeah, no, I agree. There have been times in my life when I was working on a creative project and I would just immerse myself in live theater and film as well, and museums and just immerse myself in a, just a surround of creative inventions.

Let me digress a bit and go back to your dissertation and your other research and ask you to give us a broad picture of the evolution of theater, be it community-embedded or drawn from national and professional circles in the nation’s capital. [00:52:00] So a zoom camera lens out and look at the trajectory or, kind of, timeline of theater development in DC itself.

Michael: Okay. First of all, the dissertation goes up to 1990, okay, it ends around that time, which is the emergence of a, a recognizable professional theater in DC. So I, I reviewed a lot of plays in the aughts from I guess 2010 to 2015 or ‘16 or something like that. And obviously I, I did theater and saw theater at other times, but, and I followed theater since my dissertation, but the actual scholarship was just that earlier period. I, and I’ve been more involved in the creation of theater, the creation of other kinds of artistic expression than studying theater since 2005.

And so the, as soon as you get sort of the, [00:53:00] as soon as there’s a recognizable professional theater in Washington, DC and that begins to dominate the public sphere, if you will, those larger institutions, those larger professional institutions start to become the, the manifestation of theater in people’s imaginations and in their minds. So theater becomes this more, you start, it’s more like you, you go to the theater to see something, you go as a spectator. Right? And I think, and in terms of the evolution of theater, the, these larger institutions have gotten stronger since 1990. Again, I, since the pandemic, everything is up in the air. Who knows what’s gonna, how things are gonna land in the post-pandemic world, you know. how strongly audiences will come back and all this other thing. But up until the pandemic, right, these larger institutions [00:54:00] were only growing in strength. They were growing in market share, if you will. And I use market intentionally. ‘Cause even the funding agencies became more and more concerned with, are you generating money through your art?

Elizabeth: As in—

Michael: The local economy—

Elizabeth: The economic engine for the local.

Michael: A part of the whole evolution of theater in DC was this idea that theater could be the engine of economic growth. And indeed, if you bring people downtown, for example, to see theater, they will go to restaurants.

Elizabeth: They’ll pay for parking.

Michael: When they go into restaurants, they’ll pay for parking. They may shop and buy something. And so it is a way of bringing people from the wealthier suburbs downtown. So they’ll, they’ll spend their money. So it is an engine of economic growth. But the funding agencies are interested in theater that is doing that. [00:55:00] And so a part of the evolution of theater is that theater has become more for the consumer, the people with lots of excess income to spend. And again, this goes back to what I was discussing earlier about pushing people outside their comfort zone. If the goal is to have consumers come downtown and spend their money, you don’t want them going to a show and going, “Let’s just go home.”

Elizabeth: There’s a play called Offending the Audience by Peter Handke where the actors actually just offend the audience.

Michael: So you want ’em in a positive mood so that they’ll have a nice dinner and they have a nice dinner, they get an extra bottle of wine. They’re real, they really are a good economic engine. And, again, I’m not judging this and some sort of ethical or moral issue. I understand. It’s like gentrification. You want this apartment building not to have decrepit plumbing or plaster peeling or whatever, you’re gonna have [00:56:00] to pour money into it. If you pour money, that’s gonna raise the rent. That’s just, that’s a part of what’s gonna happen. And so we can get into this moralizing argument about it, but I, you made the point earlier. You played devil’s, you had the devil’s argument, and I’m, again, I’m just saying this is what happens.

Elizabeth: There was a, a statistic floating around in Washington theater circles pre-pandemic, that there were more theater goers in metro DC than there were people who went to sporting events. And then there were statistics rolling around about how much income is generated, how many jobs are connected, be they full-time or part-time or gig work, generated by live theater. So it is a significant chunk of the, quote, “the creative economy” that was quite, quite the thing. Developed cities through creating creative economies.

Let me ask you, just elaborate on that. What are some of the theaters or theater activities in the last [00:57:00] 40 plus years in your view that percolate to the top of your research?

Michael: I’m not making any ethical judgment here, but the Kennedy Center was like a atomic bomb hitting DC, culturally. ‘Cause it’s, it was suddenly this mega institution plopped down in the center of the monumental core. Before it was created, there was a lot of debate about whether or not it—one of the downtown movie theaters, large movie theaters downtown, they were no longer commercially viable—so there was a lot of discussion about why not place the Kennedy Center, rehabilitate one of these buildings and make that the Kennedy Center? But there was a clear choice made, we wanted it to be on national property. We wanted it to be a national theater. Okay, and so Kennedy Center definitely draws this mega distinction between this huge multi-million-dollar institution [00:58:00] plopped down on, on federal property versus the smaller theaters. Arena was still there in Southwest, but it’s relatively isolated in Southwest in terms of just the public understanding of what’s going on, in terms of theatrical geography.

And then within that, there were the four or five years, I can’t remember how, maybe it was only three years that Peter Sellars ran the American National Theater out of the Kennedy Center. ‘Cause that was a dramatic shift, an earthquake. And the Kennedy Center as the landscape. ‘Cause he ultimately, he started bringing in these very provocative plays. He tried to create a national theater, true national theater within this national monument to culture that was the Kennedy Center. And so those are definitely two very significant moments.

Now, ultimately Sellars is driven out of the Kennedy Center ‘cause it’s just too provocative, again, going back to this notion of [00:59:00] comfort zone. The wealth that is required to keep the Kennedy Center running did not want a Peter Sellars having this American general drowned in a plexiglass, drowned in the blood of Salvadorans being killed by the American imperialist machine. They didn’t want to see that. I’m speculating, I don’t know, maybe they loved that and this, there were other reasons. I doubt it. But you have to definitely say those two things.

I, there’s no question that the creation of the League of Washington Theaters was a significant development within the landscape. Now it’s no longer a vital force now.

Elizabeth: No, the League is gone.

Michael: The League is gone. It’s disappeared. But for a while, as they were trying to, again, in this struggle, public theater or national theater, there was this struggle going on to have more prominence given to the regional [01:00:00] little semi-professional theaters that were developing in DC and that whole community. As opposed to the Broadway shows coming to the National Theater. As opposed to the Kennedy Center. Because, again, you’re struggling for how theater is configured in the public imagination. And so the League allowed these smaller institutions—some of them are very large, the Arena is a large—but it allowed them to compete with the larger space given to the Kennedy Center, for example. The Kennedy Center, when it opened, for weeks on end, it was front page news. So suddenly you had front page news of this national monument to theater and culture and performance. And so, most people, they knew the Kennedy Center. They wanted to go see a show, “What’s playing at the Kennedy Center?” “What are you gonna see?” “What’s playing at the National?” But the League allowed these smaller theaters to compete in the public imagination.

Elizabeth: I would add, too, to that, that there were a couple of key things. There was the Actors’ Equity came in with a small theater contract, which was [01:01:00] a five-year plan. A theater could enter into a contract with Equity and over the course of five years, you would gradually move the theater, you would gradually reach the equity scale of what you paid your actors and stage managers. And then there was the Helen Hayes Awards, which had a big impact ‘cause in order to compete for a Helen Hayes Award, you had to have 16 consecutive performances of the same play. And so there are various, various factors, I think, that really pushed the Washington theater community more and more toward a professionalization and a model that really aligned.

Michael: The Equity thing—again, obviously most of the public is oblivious to the Equity changes—but in order for the theaters to become professionalized, they needed that change, in order for them to accomplish their goal. The Helen Hayes, I think comes in with the same, in the same sort of breath as the League. There’s, it’s a similar mentality.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah.

Michael: You [01:02:00] have the League, which is, again, operating more behind the scenes, but then you have the Helen Hayes Award which is what the public loves and it defines theater for the public. And definitely the rules around the Helen Hayes Awards, that’s, then you have the large, the whole battle between larger theater institutions that are professional, semiprofessional versus the smaller institutions which are semiprofessional to amateur. And you have that one group wanting to give itself space.

Elizabeth: Let us, our conversation here about the theatrical geography of Washington, DC—I understand and I, in this podcast project Theater in Community, we’ll also be compiling a database of theater work and communities in DC from the 1970s to about 2019. So, what kinds of information are you gathering and what will you do with it? What will we do with it? And, to our audience out there, how would a person share information with creative and [01:03:00] dialogue for this database? We can’t clearly talk to everybody involved in community-embedded theater, but we’d like to at least gather names and contact information for people who are intimately involved in those kinds of activities in the last five decades.

Michael: I think the goal of the database, for me anyway—and this was in many levels part of my secret desire with my dissertation and my study and my love of theater—is really to get at the ubiquitousness of theater as a vital force to a healthy community. I truly do believe that none of these big boys, none of the—performance itself, the Josephine the Mouse Singer kind of performance—Josephine the Mouse Singer is this professional singer that, when she sings, all the mice show up. And of course they get eaten by the cat when they do that, but that’s the downside. But, the professional artist, artist who performs for the [01:04:00] community, the only reason that professional mouse can have that job is because all these other mice are singing in the shower, they’re singing at dinners, they’re singing at birthday parties. They are in engaging in the creative act of singing that suddenly makes them look to Josephine and want to pay her to do her singing. That if they are not doing their singing in the shower and around birthday, at birthday parties, and around the table, then nobody gives a damn about Josephine anymore.

So the widespread theatrical activity of people in the community is what ultimately gives meaning to theater. It ultimately gives life to theater. It ultimately gives the emotional connection that people have to the superlative performance. But we don’t acknowledge just how important that everyday activity [01:05:00] is. As a society, we’re always looking for the person who gives the superlative performance, but that superlative performance is nothing without this quilt, if you will, this quilt of embedded activity that is the ground from which that superlative performance sprouts.

So the database gives a chance to show how deep this quilt is in Washington, DC. How, since, even if we go back prior to 1970, that’d be great, but definitely from 1970 on that quilt has only gotten deeper and deeper. And I, again, I’m talking about at the high school level, university level at the, and now they are elementary school performances, there are junior high performances, there are church perform—performances are everywhere. And the whole notion of taking on the persona of another person, of a character, and living that out and telling the story of that person or, and then listening to [01:06:00] other people tell stories or participate in the stories of other people, all those things are crucial to theater’s life. And so the database allows people to truly appreciate just how ubiquitous theater is. How vital it is to—

Elizabeth: And how interconnected it is. In the same way that you look at the artistic movements and you have the Modernists and the Pre-Raphaelites, and you have all these people in visual art who are hanging out in Paris cafes talking to each other. People are still hanging out in—

Michael: Right.

Elizabeth: —theater bars talking to each other.

So, this has been fabulous, Michael. So let me just quickly tell our audience that if you have information about this ubiquitous quilt of theater makers from the last 50 decades, our email is creativists—with an S—[email protected].

So that’s [01:07:00] [email protected]. And you can check out our podcast at https://creativists.substack.com. We look forward to hearing from you as we take this historical journey into theater, creativity, and community in the greater Washington area. We hope that it serves not only as a reminder of just how powerful the creative act is, but also how inspiring creativity can be when it is performed communally and in service to that community.

Once again, Robert Michael Oliver, PhD, thank you so much. I’m Elizabeth Bruce, and thanks to everyone for listening. And thanks especially to Humanities DC for its incredible funding of this Theater in Community Podcast project.

Tremendous thanks to all our listeners. To those of you who are free [01:08:00] subscribers, please consider becoming paid subscribers so that Creativists in Dialogue can continue bringing you insightful conversations about creativity from Washington, DC and beyond. Thanks.

Special shout out to Creativists in Dialogue’s production team, audio engineer Elliot Lanes, social media manager Erinn Dumas of Dumas 83, and transcription editor Morgan Musselman. Thank you all.

For more information about Creativists in Dialogue, please visit https://creativists.substack.com or our Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn pages. To learn more about our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or rmichaeloliver.com. Thanks.

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