Representation, Advocacy, and Tolerance in Theatre.

Upon my return to college this quarter after a two year hiatus I began to enroll in classes for my intended major and minor, theatre and linguistics, respectively. I was excited to see that one of my first classes to take was a course titled “Understanding Plays”. Entering this course I had no idea the focus that was to be placed on what my instructor referred to as “‘other’/advocacy performance”, an overarching term for works written by playwrights from under represented demographics. This course was interesting, emotionally draining at times, and a great way to improve my analytical skills. A week or two into this course I came across a video on Facebook that had been shared by a friend of mine that I had met through local community theatre. This video came from a page for a group called Stage Right Theatrics, Inc., a conservative theatre festival based in Ohio that is dedicated to producing original works writer by conservative playwrights. The works they produce cover topics such as gun control, political correctness, and many other topics addressed from a far right perspective. The company’s most recent production, Stonewall Jackson’s House, is a story of a young African American woman who asks a wealthy family if she can come home with them as their slave. The script synopsis describes the show as “a sophisticated, yet unrestrained rampage through the well-intentioned, but agenda-laden forces of the politically correct.” And here’s the kicker- it’s a comedy.

I was shook.

This was a stark contrast to everything I’d known the theatre community to be. Having grown up as an only child with parents who were heavily involved in theatre I certainly had a set idea of where the theatre community generally sat on the political spectrum. The founder of Stage Right states on the festival’s about page that he sees plenty of room in the theatre community for left leaning voices, voices of people of color, and people from the LGBTQ+ community but he wants to make room for conservative voices. This begs the question, is this theatre company a group participating in “other” performance? Furthermore, are they an advocacy group? Can “other” performance exist without advocacy?

The main statement made by Stage Right Theatrics is “disagreement does not equal hate”. As a blanket statement, this is true, disagreement does not inherently equal hate, but what is it we are disagreeing about? Are we disagreeing about pineapple on pizza or are we disagreeing about human rights? Even many political and controversial issues can be disagreed on without being hatful, but with Stage Right’s most recent production we are seeing a blanket disregard towards the experiences of African Americans, both throughout history and in the present. Unfortunately, when asked for more information on the production I did not receive a reply, although they are in the middle of their season, so hopfully I will be able to post later on giving more detail from the perspective of the company. From what I have been able to gleam from this play based on reviews, synopses, and the group’s Facebook page this show is a rather insensitive and narrow look into race relations in contemporary society. It is worth noting that the playwright, Jonathan Reynolds, is an older white man who has also written controversial plays about abortion and women in politics.

After researching Reynolds further it would seem that he is a clear image of what companies such as Stage Right are looking for in theatre and television- someone who writes stories that speak to them and their beliefs. As I previously stated, it is true that disagreement doesn’t automatically equal hate. After all, aren’t all artists trying to share their truth with the world and help others to understand their perspectives? Keeping all of this in mind, are Stage Right Theatrics and other rightwing theatre groups “other” performance? My answer is, as gross as some of their themes often are, yes. Conservative voices have been underrepresented in the arts, at least in recent years. Generally this is due to the theatre community’s rejection of intolerance, something that I am proud of this community that I am a part of. So the next question- is this advocacy? Again, my answer is yes. However, in most cases, it isn’t advocacy for a group who needs it. To better explain why I believe this is still a form of advocacy I’d like to talk a little bit about the word itself. Advocacy is defined as the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal. When I think “cause” I tend to think of things such as racial equality, feminism, etc., not so much about making sure more white conservative voices are heard. That said, the arts are about sharing ideas and understanding perspectives and experiences you yourself will never have. By dictionary definition, I see conservative theatre as advocacy. That said, I believe there are stories and views represented in conservative theatre that should be rejected by the theatre community. Plays such as those written by Jonathan Reynolds, certain works by David Mamot, and many others have vile themes that there is no room for in not just the theatre community, but in a healthy and responsible society. Give me a play about why we disagree on the interpretation of the second amendment or about why you believe in states’ rights over federal law, but you best not be about to give me some bullshit about why minorities should be thankful that they have more than they used to or that I don’t deserve the right to bodily autonomy.

Conservative theatre is a prime example of why I believe “other” performance and advocacy cannot exist without the other; if a script is advocating against certain human rights it is still advocating for these conservative voices in theatre. For conservatives in theatre when it comes to subject matter of a script it is a fine line between what is just someone who is right leaning sharing their perspective and beliefs and something that is riddled with internalized hatred. More often than not conservative theatre is used as a way to push against liberalism in the arts, which has become more apparent than ever since the 2016 presidential election, particularly in Hollywood. For this reason when we see art that is celebrating the right wing it tends to be more extreme and often will feel as though it is taking as many jabs as possible at the left. Karl Popper proposed the Paradox of Tolerance, which states that unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of tolerance. Because of this paradox we often hear conservatives refer to the left as being intolerant, but that is because to maintain tolerance we must reserve the right to be intolerant to intolerance. It is important to acknowledge conservatives in the arts, but, just as is necessary with any artist regardless of political or personal affiliation, problematic ideas need to be called out and rejected.

There will always be people who are liberal and people who are conservative, art, as it reflects the human experience, should reflect these differences as well, but human rights are non-negotiable and the experiences faced by oppressed demographics are not up for debate. Those experiences and people exist, whether you personally see them or not.

Stage Right Theatrics, https://conservativefestivaloh.com/         

Jonathan Reynolds, https://www.broadwayplaypub.com/the-plays/plays-by-jonathan-reynolds/
                https://www.timeout.com/newyork/theater/jonathan-reynolds-abortion-drama
                https://denison.edu/academics/theatre/playwright-in-residence-program

Karl Popper, https://tigerpapers.net/2012/05/24/the-paradox-of-tolerance/

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