An Essay by Michael Dove
I had the pleasure of traveling to Romania this past May to attend the
TESZT Festival (Euroregional Theatre Festival Timișoara). My first time
in Eastern Europe, I can say without hyperbole that this experience
will forever change my work as a theatre maker. A real catalyst for
growth, I feel.
The trip came at the perfect time for me in my artistic life.
As a director and curator in America who is focused on political and
socially-conscious work, these last few years have been difficult. In
just a short amount of time, the political discoursein the States has
become so polarized and calcified and at such a rapid rate that I’ve
struggled to find a nuanced voice in the midst of it all. On the pre-
cipice of what should seem to be a glorious new dawn—one of extra-
ordinary diversity, technological achievement, historical knowledge, and ever-faster change, people fight people over distinctions so fine as to be incomprehensible from one place to another, technology proliferates without the necessary wisdom to use it wisely, connections seem harder, dysfunction and disconnection in myriad forms seem the order of the day.
In the United States, amidst a plethora of impersonal, digital, agreeable inputs, we need more than ever an outlet for connection, for substance, for the tools to understand the points of view of the growing diversity of voices that surrounds each of us.
But an increasing frustration has plagued me: that American theatre has not responded to these times, furthering its decline in relevance in contemporary society.
It has lost its drive to be that essential tool for societal change that our New Deal and regional theatre era leaders dreamt of. Even as I write this, I think of the loss our one our great theatre pioneers, Zelda Fichandler, and fear that the fire she started when she asked “Why couldn't what theater has to give be integrated into community life?" has only died down in the last 60-plus years.
Have absurd ticket prices and the marginalization of diverse perspectives and identities driven the American theatre to an irrelevant status in modern society? A place of great buildings of stature but of little significance in the national conversation? Did we fail in creating a true American theatrical voice and instead create a farm system for television and film, the true giants of our culture and relevancy? I’ve even been entertaining the concept that in a “free” society, American artists struggle to find a political voice where speech is protected and no oppression, in the way it exists elsewhere in the world, stands as a barrier. And perhaps my deepest personal fear is that amidst this polarized political climate and within the structure of a nonprofit theatre, how possible is it to have a true political voice of clarity?
(Side note: in multiple conversation held in between performances in Timișoara on this very subject, a few proposed that, from their perspectives, television and film have actually become not only the home of our best creative talent but the more effective platform for societal conversations and progressive thought in the US. Further making our output from the stage less relevant to the lives of Americans. And while I applaud recent trends in diversity and a focus on pertinent issues in these mediums, I can’t help but be saddened that the zeitgeist lives in a form divorced of the very act that makes theatre so vital to my life—a gathering of similarly curious people to share in the experience and to collectively wrestle with the issues in a conversation that a great piece of art can unlock like nothing else.
This theory has been working in my brain and haunting me ever since.)
Adding to this, America has just entered uncharted territory. A time of uncertainty and collective anxiety. With the election of Donald Trump, theatre artists in the United States are facing a challenge that we have never encountered in our lifetimes. We are being forced to reflect on how our work speaks to the larger themes and issues of the nation and to decide how we will respond to this threat to our democracy, our freedoms, and to decency itself.
Perhaps this is the galvanizing incident our field needs to find new relevancy? The provocation that none of us would have wished for but the era that our art form will be forever judged by?
Essentially, if not now, when?
At TESZT, for one glorious week, I found a place that felt like home. A place where high artistry coupled with topical relevance was met and engaged with in an unabashed spirit of curiosity and inquiry. A place where questions were asked. A forum where audiences were unafraid to challenge what they had just seen, to demand more, and artists were prepared and conditioned to stand up for choices and articulate decisions because the work mattered. And I found some possible templates as to how we might shape the new American theatre movement.
The festival atmosphere had a weight and an importance that demanded to be reckoned with. In the post-show discussions, I often thought to myself that these were the most in-depth and penetrating theatrical conversations I had ever experienced with fellow audience members. It has given me a hunger for more and led me down a path of inquiry as to why this level of discourse is so absent from my experiences in my own DC community and in the theatres I visit around the country.
When thinking about the themes within the work, itself, I found myself oscillating between a few thoughts and questions. Acknowledging the difficulty of making a cohesive and comprehensive judgement or assessment while engaging with body of work outside of my cultural context, I’ll share a few:
I was very conscious to resist the human urge for these pieces of theatre to confirm or fully define a culture and a community. Fighting my desire to see every performance as some intellectual wrestling match with the aftermath of Communism, I challenged myself to note my contextual blind spots for future research and questioning.
Several pieces in the festival addressed or alluded to the rise of right-wing political government takeovers, nationalist populist movements emboldened by a resistance to the influx of refugees (Dogville), as well as ruminations on (and from) the generation of citizens born near or after the 1989 revolutions and on how they see the future of the region (Mad Forest, The Word Father). I have thought of these performances often in the context of today’s headlines in America.
Outside of the political/social issues lens, I thought often of the lack of presented international work in Washington DC---the nation’s capital, home of a rich diversity of immigrants and international organizations (with international employees) as well as the array of embassies. Outside of the Kennedy Center (which only presents work of a certain scale), there are very few theatre organizations thinking about work from outside of the US. This feels like a missed opportunity given the audience base and institutional resources.
I found myself challenged and energized, artistically, by the new theatrical forms on display. Forms that have inspired me to look at my own work with different approaches. From the audience-driven formats of the second time and The State to the marriage of devised adaptation of existing text with imaginative physical and performative style of We Are Kings, Not Humans, to the non-linear (yet dramaturgically sound) technology-driven collage of Parental Ctrl that brought a new level of intimacy to performance that I will not soon forget.
The experience has given me new fuel and inspiration as both a director and as a producer/curator. I had a glimpse into what could be possible for a more politically and socially engaged American Theatre. There was a theatre on display that demanded to be seen as strictly theatre and not the form we are too accustomed to in the States that apologizes while it apes other, more popular, artistic forms.
And as the US joins this world-wide movement towards political and social uncertainty, I yearn for more context, shorter bridges, and a fuller picture of who we are as a global community.