Enter Stage Right
I was checking the Phillies score on my phone when Eliel, the night manager at the Bowery Poetry Club, popped out and found me in my usual pre-show pace and smoke routine. “You know who I like?” he said. “Condoleezza Rice. Thatʼs who you guys should have gone with.”
Eliel means it. Heʼs told me many times that he admires Rice and thinks she would be a good President. But Elielʼs point goes beyond the horserace or even the merits of political views. In a very real way, he was saying: “Youʼre a conservative, that’s cool, letʼs talk.”
Over the previous few years, I had used my modest public platform as the host of the short play series Sticky to talk to audience members about being a Republican. On this night, my political sideshow would take a more central stage. In a version of the show we called Super PAC Sticky, we let the audience choose whether 10% of their ticket price would go to the campaign of President Obama or Governor Romney. The plan was that I would make brief remarks on behalf of the challenger, and playwright Michael Niederman would speak for the President.
When I came up with the idea for Super PAC Sticky, it seemed like a good one: smart marketing, a chance for open dialogue. But rolling another Samson downtown on that warm night, it hit me that I was about to walk into the Bowery Poetry Club, a bastion of the liberal intelligentsia, and ask an audience full of progressives to send money to Mitt Romney. What was I thinking? It was a crazy thing to do. I could have been a conservative and kept my mouth shut about it. But for me, part of making theater has always been to challenge an audience’s preconceived notions—to help them rule their ideas, rather than be ruled by them.
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A few years earlier, my conversion to the GOP had come as a bit of a shock, even to my wife and co-producer Libby. She, along with many of the artists involved in the show, assumed that this was some kind of role I was playing. Frankly, it was an effective role. By poking my audience with jabs at progressive policies, and enjoying a fair amount of heckling from them, I was able to make them feel like they were all on the same team, which is a great state for an audience to be in. Even if they are unified against me.
But this was more than a show. I was not faking it. A combination of what I viewed as a sharp left turn in the Democratic Party, and a newfound admiration for the handful of ex-Trotskyite 1930s CCNY grads led by Irving Kristol, who basically created neoconservatism, had pushed me into the GOP. I grew up in Philly, a Democrat and very into politics.
As a teenager in 1988 I volunteered for the Dukakis campaign; four years later, I cast my first vote for Bill Clinton. A decade later I helped shut down Second Avenue in an anti-war protest with Libby and our buddy and co-producer Matt Korahais. But throughout that time I had serious doubts about the progressive program. I believed that the U.S. was exceptional and that in an ideal world, every country would operate more or less as we do. I abhorred political correctness and the stifling effect it had on our discourse; I believed that the Constitution meant what it said and ought not be stretched a mile wide and an inch deep. In the early NeoCon writers I found a familiar voice. Irving Kristol said “a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” I felt that way. All the problems that seemed so easy to solve in my early twenties, if only people cared and were reasonable, had, by my early thirties, turned into intractable dilemmas—not to be wished away by the waving of a progressive wand.
The response to my politicking was, by and large, pretty positive. The conversations during intermissions and post-shows often grew heated, but rarely uncivil. Shortly after my conversion an interesting thing began to happen: someone would confide in me that they were a Libertarian, or that their husband was actually a Republican, too. In one case, the husband in question, a musician, felt that he had to keep his conservative views a secret, for both professional and social reasons. One night Libby and I went to dinner at their place. When I began to engage him in conservative discourse, it was like a well-shaken bottle of bubbly had been uncorked. His frustration at being constantly told that the government can solve all our problems was vivid, and I knew where he was coming from.
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When it comes to the actual making of theater, there are some minefields to dance through—the liberal hegemony of the art form is ever present if you do not belong to that tribe. There is a feeling among conservative cats that a kind of blacklisting happens to them in entertainment. As an actor, I havenʼt experienced that, as far as I know, but that doesn't mean itʼs not there. Itʼs not something I think too much about; after all, I’m sure there are much better reasons not to cast me than my political leanings. Iʼve found that within a cast, itʼs pretty easy to figure out who is up for serious political conversation, who is open to ideas outside of their own box and who isnʼt. But in a rehearsal process, itʼs very common for assumptions to be made about the direction of a play with a clear, liberal ideological bias.
Sticky produced a short play by Rehana Mirza called “The River Gives,” about a white American guy and a Latina American woman on a sinking South Indian island trying to save the indigenous people. I played the white guy. He simply wanted to move these people, regardless of their attachment to their home, land and lifestyle. The Latina woman worked for Habitat for Humanity and wanted to build new housing even though the island was sinking. Mariana Carreno King, my very talented director, would say, “So this guy is kind of a dick,” and Iʼd say “Not really, he just doesnʼt want them to drown.” In fact, the guy was kind of a dick. He was written that way, and I played him that way. But what made him a dick wasnʼt that he wanted to impose his white male values on the rest of the world—what made him a dick was that the way he talked to the other characters wasnʼt very nice.
Our rehearsal discussions about the purity of his motives and the morality of his impositions broadened our ideas for the play. The interplay between two ideas that both carried weight made a more interesting story than one in which one character is obviously just wrong from the beginning. Both American characters were clowns, but while the liberal clown was operating out of kindness, the conservative character was operating out of a desire to control. We eventually compromised on a take that was less “father knows best” and more “the world is a dangerous place and we need to accept that reality.”
Rehanaʼs words were Rehanaʼs words, and the overall point of the play—that we shouldnʼt treat third world people as helpless children—still shone through. But by refusing to make the white guy a malicious clown, by declining to present the conservative as one-dimensional, the point was driven home harder.
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When Mike Niederman, my liberal counterpart, got to the Poetry Club on the night of Super PAC Sticky, the vibe was convivial as always. On the surface, Niederman had a huge advantage: everybody he was trying to convince already agreed with him. But in another sense, I had the advantage: nobody could reasonably expect me to win. In crafting the rules, and with a nod to contemporary U.S. election history, I had given myself a slim chance. Everyone in the audience had a ballot on the back of their program, on which they could punch a box next to Obama or Romney. But there was also a 50-50 box, where they could vote for half of their contribution to go to each campaign. This third option allowed me to appeal to the audience’s sense of fairness and the exchange of ideas, rather than trying to make them believe that Obamacare is an awful policy (which it is). It was fun jumping up on stage to open the show that night—I mean, it always is, but as I explained what was going on to the audience, I knew it was going to be a fun game. I think they felt that too.
I used to write reviews for New York Theater Review, a great outfit that gives a lot of leeway to their critics in terms of approach. I once reviewed a play called “Home/Sick” put on by the Assembly, a wonderful young theater company. The play was about ‘60s radicals the Weather Underground. My review was positive—it’s a great play—but I questioned the decision to portray this murderous left wing group as a complicated antihero. There was a celebratory aspect to the treatment of the WU, perhaps more so off-stage than on. The marketing, including talkbacks with members of the group, made the production as a whole feel apologetic, even though the on-stage action managed to skirt that line. In my review, I wondered whether, say, Timothy McVeigh could be presented on stage this way. My guess was that he couldnʼt, because the cultural elite do not view McVeigh as part of an overall positive movement. (To be clear, I find nothing positive in McVeigh or the Weather Underground.)
A while after the review came out, Ben Beckley, one of the actors-and a friend-sent me a Facebook message about an argument he had with a conservative uncle about “Home/Sick.” He told me he referenced my review to show that his play was not just a celebration of this terrorist group. It meant a lot, not just because Ben was dealing with my conservative ideas rather than dismissing them, but because the ideas were useful to him. They provided the chance, maybe just a small chance, of reaching ears that otherwise might remain deaf to his work.
The most challenging waters to navigate in my coming out as a conservative have been, without question, social media. Over the past ten years, these platforms have transformed many aspects of theater. Instead of fundraisers, we have Kickstarters. Instead of mailing postcards, we make Facebook events. Because of this, theater artists are all on each others’ feeds. Some of the exchanges have been flat-out ugly. Iʼve been mocked, blocked, told that I am either duped or stupid. And even though I make a very conscious effort not to attack people personally or in mean ways, I have not always succeeded. There are some people, who I guess I still consider friends, but who I am now not sure to how to deal with in the non-virtual world.
Recently, after Pope Benedict XVI stepped down, the playwright John Patrick Shanley took the occasion to pen a vitriolic attack on him and the Catholic Church in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. When my former editor at New York Theater Review, Jody Christopherson, shared the article with a note of glowing approval, I commented. I told Jody that as a Catholic, I found the article offensive, as it called for the demise of my faith, and that I was quite certain no similar attack on any other religion would ever have been published or tolerated by the Grey Lady.
The thread blew up and I found myself arguing with a dozen people at once. Now thatʼs not a problem, I enjoy that actually, but several times in the exchange I felt like it was teetering toward bruised feelings that might linger offline. It was at one of these points that Jody suggested if I felt so strongly I should write about it to Shanley and not on her thread. At first this struck me as a snarky remark, but as I thought about it, I realized she was right. I took to my blog to write an open letter to Shanley. Then I found Shanleyʼs Facebook page and shared it with him. Much to my surprise, he replied to me later that night. It was a thoughtful response. Not one that changed my mind—nor had mine changed his—but one which convinced me that he was writing in good faith.
When I posted his reply to Jodyʼs thread the next day, it calmed things down, and on the whole I think it was a better discussion of the issue than any of us could have had on any insular platform of acolytes.
Where Facebook causes trouble, it also provides opportunity. Just as in Sticky, conservative theater artists started to message me and comment on my updates. There were more of us than I thought. I found out about and participated in the Republican Theater Festival last year in Philly and met many more playwrights and actors who shared some of my views. This year my blog will publish its first eBook, “to keep and bear: Five Short Plays in Support of the 2nd Amendment,” with plays by five conservatives. Two years ago I would have thought even that modest an effort impossible; I just didn’t know there were right wing playwrights out there.
These days I have been shifting my focus away from acting and more towards producing, using Sticky and my blog as a platform for conservative content creators. In large part, I made this shift because conservative voices have been woefully underdeveloped, but I was also getting frustrated. I’m tired of performing in productions that take for granted a worldview I do not share.
The poet Yeats wrote, “Irish poets learn your trade, sing whatever is well made.” It’s a lesson that conservative playwrights can understand. So much of theater views our Western, American, Judeo-Christian culture (of which it is a part) more as a problem than a solution. The emerging conservative voices look at American culture and society in a much more positive light, something to be celebrated, not eroded by self-flagellation. The simplest reason that I am a conservative is that I love the United States and its embodiment of Western values.
The irony is that time and again, the progressive theater itself is guilty of the sins that it identifies in America. The income gap among theater artists is enormous, the struggle for diversity is going badly, and tax-exempt dollars fund shows that only the wealthy can afford to see. With neither faith in G-d or society, the shows on our stages too often resemble a couple of Park Slope liberals discussing how awesome some TED talk was. As more conservative voices emerge, theater will cease to be an echo chamber, and once again provide us a platform to honestly and openly explore each other’s ideas.
I donʼt remember much about the speeches that Mike and I gave that night; honestly, about halfway through most Stickies a lot of the participants are more than a little intoxicated. When we counted the ballots, there were no big surprises. The President won the vast majority of the votes. By vast majority I mean that Romney got none. But there were a few for 50-50, which made me happy. One of them had a hanging chad, but we counted it anyway. I left with, and still have, very high hopes for the emergence of conservative voices in theater. The greatest challenge we face as a community of artists is the erosion of our relevance. Most people just donʼt care about theater, and those who do are so liberal themselves that it is often impossible to shock them, or to be transgressive by presenting a panoply of progressive ideals on stage. Conservative voices can help change that. And maybe, at some point, provide the opportunity for all of us to shock each other.
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Dave Marcus is a Brooklyn based theater maker and co-producer of Blue Box World, a small boutique theater company best known for its long running show Sticky. He is also the author of the blog Spotlightright.com, which provides a conservative take on the contemporary American stage.
Carlos Detres is a photographer based in New York City who entwines fashion, fine art and documentary photography to create images that appear spontaneous and bold.