Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Renaissance

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace--and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock"
-Orson Wells, THE THIRD MAN
The last time I was in Italy, I was out to dinner with the late Larry Sacharow and our entire group (it was an abroad program hosted by Fordam which brought theatre students to train with Thomas Richards at the Jerzy Grotowski Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy...sadly, they no longer offer it!) was still quite devastated by the 2000 election--for many it was our first electoral experience. Someone, I think it was Anthony Cerrato, was asking Larry about how artists were going to survive the conservative wave (note: this is pre-9-11 and Iraq War). Larry prophesied a great renaissance in the New York theatre, likening the political climate to Reagan and Nixon era antecedents.

While Stolen Chair is certainly in no position to assess whether or not New York theatre has experienced a renaissance in the past 6 years, I think many of us in the indie/off-off world have felt something palpable in the air; I've heard many artists claim that downtown theatre has grown more consistently "watchable" in recent years (whatever that means). Is this because of a dozen years of Republican rule? Who can say? Will artists lose their steam after last week's Democratic coup? That sounds awfully silly, doesn't it?

And yet, as Kiran and I sit here hammering out rewrites of the last few scenes of Kill Me Like You Mean It, I worry that our electoral elation might siphon some of the vitriol from our approach to the play. Stolen Chair has always avoided creating explicitly "political theatre," and has instead tried to weave our ever-insightful (to us, at least!) sociopolitical commentary into the fabric of a "well-made play," allowing our ideas to insidiously crawl into the audience's brains while they're sucked into the world of the play. That said, Kill Me... is much more "aggressive" than our prior works, if only because there are fewer layers of theatricalized distance between 2006 America and the playworld's setting in 1946 America and the dialogue, though borrowing heavily from early Ionesco and early Film Noir, is much more realistic than our last 3 productions (in reverse order: Elizabethan blank-verse, silent film intertitles inspired by Victor Hugo, and Moliere-ian rhyming couplets).

And if we're worried that our subtle jibes and allusions may seem dated or irrelevant, what about those theatre artists putting the finishing touches on their latest Bush-parodies? What about Subjective Theatre's Party Discipline, a mock Republican convention? How are New York theatre-goers going to react when artists try to preach to the same choirs who have been of late, so vocal in their enthusiasm for liberal solidarity? Will this push artists to challenge their audiences a little bit more, or to altogether give up on the very idea that theatre can be socially engaged/relevant?

Put simply: do artists need "warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed" (or in the very least, political frustration and ennui) to create great art?

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