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The Unofficial Version

Stages of Resistance

Michael Gene Sullivan Headshot against a splash of bright green color
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." 
The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, 
wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and April 2017!

148 million dollars. That’s the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. 148 million. Per year.

183 million per year, our tax dollars per year to guard Trump Tower.

Seriously, what more is there to say?

A significant minority of Americans voted for a rapacious gameshow tangerine whose only goals are to enrich himself and his friends by making the lives of the hard-working people who elected him worse. His genius was not in buying low and selling high, but in keeping the rest of us so hypnotized with hype that Americans failed to do the obvious - which was hunt he and his Ponzi-scheming friends down, drag them into the streets, and redistribute their wealth and internal organs across this great country.

And who wouldn't want to do a play about that? Sounds better than another remount of Wind in the Willows! Who wouldn’t want to do a play about the people of this country actually waking up and demanding the wealth of America be spent on those who created it? You know, a fantasy play. But wouldn’t that be great?

Well, if you want to produce that revolutionary assault on The Man you’d better do it soon, because with all the tax-cutting and military spending, times are about to get tough, and there is going to be a lot of pressure on our elected spine donors to cut spending on everything. Except the military.

Why would they want to give money to us, when we might point out how messed up things really are? Speaking truth to power -  that’s why you are still doing this! It sure isn’t for the money! And respect? Did you know there was a time in Ireland when somebody could collect a bounty if they turned in the head of a snake, a wolf, or an actor? So forget respect.

We do this to challenge ourselves, our audience, our society. If theater doesn’t do that, if it doesn’t challenge us to be braver, and teach us about each other - if we don’t leave a show more human than before, then what we saw was not theater.

It was television. The box in the corner, re-enforcing stereotypes while selling microwavable male enhancement.

But Theater, without the pressure to deliver consumer’s eyes to commercials, has the power to tell the truth. No matter how ripped-from-the-headlines it is, “Law and Order” is never going to actually get people off their couches and into the street protesting real life injustice. That is not its job. That is our job.

So, unencumbered with corporate commissars, and supported with our public money, we are free to enrage and inspire. But, where are we going to go for dough when the government funding dries up?

If this were a film, this would be the point when all the lights go down, as if illumination was forced out of the room by the sheer weight of impending evil. Because as we stand on at the edge of this gulf of funding, all of us will be pushed to moderate our message and defang our bite so we can get more money from... Corporations! Moo hoo ha ha!

I’ve heard grant administrators insist in these desperate times the first responsibility of a theater is survival. Any mission statement or philosophy your theater was founded on must be jettisoned, buried, forgotten if it gets in the way. Better for a theater to live on its knees than die on its feet.

I humbly disagree, and believe anyone who tells you that is an agent of oppression, and should be thrown into a deep pool of warm vomit.

At this point I’d like to speak directly to any Board Members.

Hiya. Howzit goin'? First of all, let me thank you for the years of service you’ve given your respective theaters. I’m sure they appreciate your support almost as much as they fear you’ll withdraw it. And I’m sure none of you require your theaters to read your scripts, cast your relatives, or jump through hoops. You are all on the Board of your particular theater because you want to help that theater accomplish its special mission, and we applaud you for that.

We also know it would never occur to any of you to ask any us to cut the scene with the bastard banker so we can get that B of A grant, or soften up the image of the businessman in A Christmas Carol. You wouldn’t do that, because that would destroy our trust, and destroy the very reason you fell in love with us - our wacky, iconoclastic rebelliousness, our tousled mania for meaning, our smoldering love of costumes. No, you wouldn’t do that. Because you know, like we know, what theater can do.

A reporter once asked me, “Could I name a play that really made, you know, a real difference.” It was a gotcha question. His editors wanted to show the irrelevance of theater. So what was my answer? Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book did kick abolition into high gear. But in a country where a bunch of folks still didn’t read, 10 times as many people saw the play as read the book. Before the Civil War the play showed people the horrors of slavery, the play was the condemnation that thundered across the nation. It was the play that lit the fire of Emancipation. That is our legacy as American Theater Artists. We can inspire people to fight for Freedom. If we have the funding.

So back to my question: What are we going to do if government money drops off?

Moo hoo ha ha! Mwah ha - NO! We cannot allow ourselves to become corporate theater! And make no mistake, that is what will happen. Corporations are known for one thing, and that is making a profit. And as theaters feel forced to turn to these oligarchs to underwrite our culture, if you don’t think they are going to expect a little more consideration than a logo on your program, if you think they are going to let slip through their fingers any opportunity for some Free Market propaganda, if you think that... I’ve got a 700 billion dollar bailout to sell you.

And then there’s the other danger - if you’re not going to shill for Big Brother, could you at least be sparklingly innocuous? Can’t you, please, say... nothing? Well, that is not our job, either. Entertainment for the sake of entertainment is the job of, and this time it’s not television...

I’d like to talk for a moment about Internet Porn.

Internet Porn is not out to change the world, it’s not looking to show the injustice inherent in our society. It is the perfect example of entertainment for the sake of entertainment.

And you know what you never hear about with internet porn? A lack of funding. No silent auctions to raise money to make Porn. A cut to the NEA doesn’t mean the porn industry will have to cut back on fluffers. Because despite the howls of outrage and damnation, unless the hunky pizza delivery guy shows up with a revolutionary dissection of Capitalist inequality along with his extra sausage, porn remains entertainment for entertainment's sake, and it will be allowed by the outraged  - and titillated - powers that be.

We cannot allow ourselves, in our quest for funding, to become entertainment for the sake of entertainment. There to amuse but never challenge. And we wouldn’t even get fluffers! 

So what is the answer? How do we find funding to produce the work vital to rousing the masses to not only demand a better world, but to make a better world over the objections of those who profit on the messed up way things are? How do we support ourselves without sacrificing our mission?

I have no idea.

But I do know we are the inheritors of a great tradition. Ever since Thespis first stepped out of the chorus and said “These guys are lying - let me tell you what really happened!” theater has been there to tell the unofficial version, the popular analysis of the Zeitgeist. The reason we struggle for funding is the same reason there was a bounty on our heads all those years ago. Because we are uncontrollable truthtellers. We are dangerous people. Each of us has the power and talent to undermine institutional stupidity and crime. We will not only say the Emperor is wearing no clothes, but also that his testicles look a little funny.

And speaking of testicles, I remember the first time a play really affected me. I was about ten, and my parents took me to the Orpheum Theater to see the Broadway tour of the musical Hair. I don’t remember much about it - yes, they all got naked, but I hadn’t hit puberty yet, so things were still theoretical for me. But what I do remember - the actors are on the stage, singing about sex and drugs and how the war in Vietnam is wrong, when suddenly the doors of the theater are kicked open, and riot cops come running down the aisles. They have billy clubs, and those reflective face shields on their helmets, and they’re screaming, and they’re just like the cops that chased us through the streets at every antiwar protest or civil rights march my parents took me to. They chased the actors away, beating them, then they lined up in front of the empty stage, clubs in hand, facing us, silent, daring us to do something, to speak up. And then... intermission!

That feeling of immediacy, of danger, of theater being not a refuge from the real world, but a starker version of my experience of the hope and engagement in a time of injustice - that’s what I want to create, and that is what all of us can give our audience. Hope.

And who will give us money to do that? Our audiences! Sometimes we get so caught up in grant applications and new seats and berber aisle rugs we forget all the audience wants is a moving story. They support us not based on how many Baywatch veterans we stuff into the Malibu Macbeth - they support us based on how well we touch their hearts and minds, how well we examine, understand, and show their experience and circumstances, or circumstances they want to know more about. They want to be challenged. If they didn’t want to learn something true they’d stay home and watch the news.

I think we have to turn to our actual supporters - our audiences. We have to show them we are also part of their community. We have to remind them of that, and not just with a thank you card stapled to the next donation request.

Until Americans demand the Arts be treated as an essential part of their lives, until they, until we demand our tax dollars support the creative and not just destructive spirit of this country, until more money is spent on script development than weapons development -  we will have to use some of our creativity figuring out how to not starve to death.

To be clear - there is plenty of money in the United States to fund the arts. But ventriloquist dummies on Capital Hill speak pure Wall Street when they say our country doesn’t benefit from the arts. What they mean is they don’t. We are swimming in a sea of art, but Wall Street can’t figure out how to immediately profit from it, so they can’t see it. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as the “theater community.” We have to train ourselves and others to think of us as a beloved and necessary part of the larger community - a part that is vital to telling their stories, vital to helping us all understand ourselves better, vital to ennuciating and being a part of the fight to make this life fairer, more equitable and just ... If they see us as their fearless truthtellers. That will inspire them to make sure we survive to tell their stories.

That is what will save us.

That, and some fluffers.