Is DC Theater Getting Addicted to Trump?

Two DC Metro Theater Arts writers tackle The Trump Effect on local theater—how it has influenced what gets programmed and how it has affected how audiences respond.

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Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DC Metro Theater Arts writers. In this one, Senior Writers and Columnists John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) and David Siegel (In the Moment) tackle The Trump Effect on local theater—how it has influenced what gets programmed and its effect on how audiences respond. This conversation is meant to be open-ended, so please feel free to join it in the comment field!

John: As a season comes to a close that was mostly programmed after the election of 2016, I can look back at a lot of very satisfying times in the theater when a reference that trolled Trump got a huge positive audience response, almost like a kumbaya bonding moment. Given that DC is “the bluest state in the Union,” this should come as no surprise. And if the Trump administration has pointed a path for artistic directors to showcase of-the-moment, socially conscious material—and for audiences to share in a knowing laugh or wince about it—well, so much the better, right? That’s theater doing artistic resistance like it should. That’s audiences joining important conversations in a public forum. That’s social change in play.

But the other day I had a new worry. It was a minor one, given all the major consternations of the day, but still, it got me fretting: Has DC theater become dependent for its relevance on Trumpism the way other media have become reliant on Trumpism for ratings and circulation? And are we having what amounts to a collective addiction, the kind that we’d all have withdrawal symptoms from if and when Trump and all his toadies are no longer in power?

Andrew Thomas Pardini as The Emperor in “The Emperor of Atlantis.” Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

David: Yes, good points to consider about DC-area theater and Trumpism. Beyond a collective addiction, are too easy references to the current Administration also not in the broader interest of theater audiences and production values? We both took in The In Series with its duo of productions, The Emperor of Atlantis and The Soldier’s Tale,  about horrific 20th-century events. Both have updated English language librettos that seem aimed at contemporary audiences with references to current news and events. Then again, DC theaters regularly update Shakespeare through casting choices, costume design, scenic design, and the rhythm of how dialogue is spoken. Macbeth became MacBird! in the ’60s, and Boomers were thrilled. Will there be an equivalent now?

John: The In Series production of The Emperor of Atlantis is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. It’s an opera written in 1943 by inmates in a Nazi concentration camp. The central character is a vainglorious despot who is clearly intended as a send-up of Hitler. In my column, I called the opera “an incredibly prescient parable” because so much of The Emperor character in the libretto sounded just like Trump—a connection the translator clearly intended us to make (as with references to fake news” and “shithole natives”). Clearly, from now on, that opera will never again be only about Hitler.

John De Lancie in “Vicuña & The American Epilogue” at Mosaic Theater Company. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Mosaic Theater Company opened its third season with Vicuña & The American Epilogue, which I called in my column “an adroit political allegory.” The main character was obviously meant to represent Trump, a man of no scruples who requires his tailor to dress him for success.

In both instances, Emperor of Atlantis and Vicuña, a huge measure of the show’s pleasure had to do with the satisfaction we in the audience share watching a Trump stand-in get skewered. With hindsight in both cases, though, I’m led to wonder whether such theatrical mockery, however well done, becomes too easy an entertainment. (The same question might be raised retrospectively about the example you mentioned, MacBird!, a send-up of President Johnson’s hubris during the Vietnam War.) When we enjoy such shows—and they are very enjoyable—might we actually be spectator-consumers of what is in effect bread and circuses for the smug intelligentsia?

Dan Hoyle in The Real Americans at Mosaic Theater Company.

David: I understand that reaction. For me, I wondered if the new libretto/ book by making clear references to a current Trumpian figure, and beyond Hitler or the Devil, will be long-term effective for theatergoers. Does it perhaps cheapen original intent and associations? I even wondered if that gives too much “power” to a contemporary, and hopefully very temporary figure, over historical evil. And it seems way too early for a contemporary “Springtime for Hitler” musical medley during these Trumpian times. Though mocking and emotional release in a like-minded group event does have its clear value à la the recent Tony Awards.

Also, in my In Series review I wondered out loud if the evening would engage younger contemporary diverse DC audiences with the update. Or those with other experiences? My quick response is that for those acquainted and sympathetic to the messages and means of presentation of say, Brecht’s Mother Courage, or Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, and even Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the evening certainly can. Studio’s recent production of Vietgone is another production to add to my initial list.

God, I do fear what you mention about the “smug intelligentsia.” Or just sitting in a darkened theater as a way to resist.

Mike Daisey performing “The Trump Card.” Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

John: I just went back to read the interview I did with Mike Daisey when he was doing his monologue The Trump Card at Woolly in October 2016, just weeks before the fateful election. And something he said there jumped out at me:

What the show is starting to do is talk about the rise and fall of Donald Trump as a way of talking about the toxicity of white male privilege that has dominated our discourse and our lives, and what that means. I find it very horrifying that my gender and racial group is a group that’s supporting this person. I find that very hard to wrap my mind around.…

How did we get to a place where so many people feel so threatened that they ascribe to ideologies that are so destructive? Like, how do we begin to reconcile—because these forces do not go away and they will not go away. The fact that Trump has gathered them means that we’re going to have deal with them, and the Republican Party has to deal with them, which means we all have to.

Jason Bowen, Caroline Stefanie Clay, and Shannon Dorsey in “Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau at Studio Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

I think that gets at the reason for my concern. Trump has now become a stock character in the Commedia that is our theatrical and political landscape. Anti-Trump japes in live theater or anti-Trump expletives bleeped on live television can be a fun way for a like-minded audience to fly their fury flags. But at the end of the day, there is political, economic, and sexual-political shit going on in America that would be going on even if Trump weren’t around. And it’s messy and it’s complicated and for any audience of well-off theatergoers, it can be implicating. So I worry that the stock character Trump has become what the whole tragicomedy of America is about, and that has the real potential to distract us from lots else that needs our attention.

David: We can do better than a stock or stick figure character to represent Trumpism. We don’t have to go to develop a vecchi character from Commedia dell’Arte just yet, though I would highly relish that. If some people feel threatened because their jobs are gone, and they are committing suicide in increasing numbers with opioids, well, this is not the time to mock them.

L to R: Kimberly Scott (Cynthia), Kevin Kenerly (Brucie), Tara Mallen (Jessie), and Johanna Day (Tracey). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Kimberly Scott, Kevin Kenerly, Tara Mallen, and Johanna Day in “Sweat” by Lynn Notage at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

John: Exactly. To that point, I greatly admired what Dan Hoyle did in The Real Americans, which he based on empathetic interviews with folks he met in small towns—some of whom got gulled into being part of Trump’s “base” because the very real problems they face were not being addressed. I thought that piece went a long way toward understanding folks who got demonized as “deplorables.”

David: The multi-character, diverse cast Sweat is a better way to go. I was very taken by it as you can see in my review. Another example is Skeleton Crew. There is also the one performance of the Pulitzer Prize for Music Anthracite Fields at the Kennedy Center. That too struck me for the extensive reliance on working class, coal miners to present their perspectives and with little bombast. These are superior examples of dramas that are nuanced about economic and social dislocation with takes on the rise of Trumpism. The characters are real people with real lives. At least they were to me. They are not full frontal attacks, but theatrical attempts at understanding and nuance.

John: Let’s open the conversation, shall we? Comments welcome!

The Emperor of Atlantis and The Soldier’s Tale presented by The In Series, plays Saturday, June 23, 2018, at 8 pm and Sunday, June 24 at 2:30 pm, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

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David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David’s musings on Twitter @pettynibbler. Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.