It's one of the oldest and loftiest functions the theater has, serving as a forum for the social issues of the day. But ask many American theater artists if their work is political, and they'll squirm to avoid the scarlet letter P.
That's what happened during panel discussions at last summer's Ojai Theater Festival. "We had two public talks about political theater," recalls playwright-screenwriter Lisa Loomer, one of the participants. "I found it interesting because there were some playwrights who found the question of whether they wrote political plays offensive the way some people find the question 'Are you a feminist?' offensive."
Yet Loomer didn't, and doesn't, shy away from describing her work as political. Writing about social issues is "my urge," she explains. "It's very personal, and I don't want to be embarrassed about it. I don't have the need or energy for cynicism."
How these convictions translate to the stage will be seen this week, when Loomer's "Living Out," directed by Bill Rauch, opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday. Set in present-day L.A., the play centers on the experiences of two households: that of an affluent white Westside couple and that of the Latin American Eastside nanny whom they employ. Loomer explores the issues that underlie society's dependence on the immigrant service sector.
Yet for all of Loomer's willingness to call her work political, her peers' aversion to the term may be more than a matter of semantics. For starters, it's perceived as a commercial kiss of death.
"The problem with the term 'political theater' is that it has all the worst connotations in the world: didactic, agitprop," says Moises Kaufman, creator of "The Laramie Project," a documentary look at reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard that has recently enjoyed a run as one of the most widely produced plays in the country. Kaufman says he and his fellow Tectonic Theater Project members, who were involved in creating the play, put it this way instead: "We try to come up with new forms that address us as individuals but also as members of a community."
In this way, they are the heirs to a tenacious, if not dominant, strain in U.S. theater. "There is a tradition of plays dealing with social issues in the American theater, and some of these have been major plays," says Susan Mason, professor of theater arts and dance at Cal State L.A. "Some plays dealing with social issues, like 'Angels in America,' become enormously popular, but they seem to be the exception now."
Since the early decades of the 20th century, the popularity of social issue plays has ebbed and flowed in a way that supports historian Arthur Schlesinger's well-traveled theory that American history tends to run in 30-year cycles.
During the 1930s, two endeavors brought the socially conscious play newfound legitimacy and prominence. The Group Theatre, founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, was the first company to present the writings of such politically committed artists as Clifford Odets and Marc Blitzstein. The Federal Theatre Project was launched by Congress in 1935, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Directed by Hallie Flanagan, the Project's Living Newspaper became known for journalistic plays inspired by the headlines.
During the '40s and '50s, Arthur Miller's first major successes brought the American social issue play to new heights. Indeed, Miller's triumphs stand as testimony that there's no inherent incompatibility between social issues and compelling drama. However, apart from Miller and a few others, politically engaged theater went into a period of comparative dormancy that lasted until the brink of the 1960s.
Reflecting the upheaval of the times, the 1960s brought not only a new tide of socially engaged plays, but also troupes specifically committed to more overtly political fare, including the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread and Puppet Theatre and El Teatro Campesino.
Yet even at its heights, socially engaged mainstream theater has remained the exception rather than the rule. One reason is economics. "Theater in the U.S. is hardly subsidized at all except for the 40 years of the NEA, and that didn't compete with the subsidies in most European countries," says Mason, whose book on the San Francisco Mime Troupe will be published in 2004. "Theater in the U.S. is primarily a commercial enterprise and has been for over a century.
"The decline in the popularity of plays about social issues in the U.S. coincides with the rise of the role of the producer early in the 20th century and the increase in theater as a commercial product. Playhouses got bigger to accommodate more paying customers, and socially relevant theater moved into smaller venues and became fringe."
The documentary approach
Since Miller, there has been a place -- if only a limited place -- in the mainstream for the social issue play. Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson, for one, has presented many contemporary issue plays since his theater was founded in 1968. Also in L.A., such smaller troupes as the Actors' Gang and Cornerstone Theater Company have demonstrated a commitment to politically engaged fare.
Many of these plays have been documentary in nature, using verbatim interviews, trial transcripts and other "found" texts.
There was a surge in popularity in the documentary format in the '90s, led by Anna Deavere Smith ("Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992"), who was adapting a technique pioneered in the U.S. by playwright-director Emily Mann, now artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. Mann's work appeared on Broadway in 1986 with "Execution of Justice," which was based on the trial of Dan White for the murders of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, and in 1995 with "Having Our Say" (seen at the Taper in 1996), based on a memoir by two sisters who lived to be more than 100.
More recently, Actors' Gang last April presented "The Exonerated," a new play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen based on interviews they conducted with former death row inmates whose wrongful convictions were eventually overturned. "The Exonerated" is currently playing off-Broadway, featuring a rotating cast of celebrity actors.
Fictional social-issue plays, such as "Living Out," have also found a nurturing ground at the Taper, which began this season with "Nickel and Dimed," a play based on Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling book chronicling her experiences as a temporary member of the working class. Still, most theaters have not held as fast to the liberal party line as have the Taper and the McCarter.
What's more, observers see the theatrical landscape as increasingly inhospitable to socially engaged work.
"It has certainly gotten worse with the de-funding of the NEA since theater companies have had to turn to corporate sponsorship," Mason says. "Since the causes of many of our social problems can be traced to corporate interests, corporations are not likely to promote or encourage art criticizing their policies and behaviors. Thus, theaters exercise a kind of self-censorship, avoiding what might offend the largest donors or patrons."
Finding the right approach
Playwrights such as Loomer can get their work produced at places like the Taper in part because they continue to be in line with the worldview of the subscriber base. They present social issues in a classically liberal way, with emphasis on the personal.
"I am talking about social issues, and I try to do that in the context of a human story," says Loomer, whose previous plays "The Waiting Room" and "Expecting Isabel" were staged at the Taper in 1994 and 2000, respectively. "I take out anything that sounds overtly political. I often deal with a social issue in terms of a personal story. I've written a lot about Latino-Anglo relationships, and this play is certainly about that."
In the case of "Living Out," Loomer was careful to avoid stacking the deck. "I chose for the Anglo couple good liberals," she says. "I have increasingly felt the responsibility to make both families sympathetic and relatable and to give the more satirical viewpoint to the chorus."
Kaufman's strategy is more about finding new approaches than creating sympathetic characters. "All other art forms have evolved from their 19th century counterparts, but theater feels stuck in realism and naturalism," he says. "We need to find new forms that allow us to look at the theater itself in a way that is still alive."
In Kaufman's first hit, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," and the more recent "The Laramie Project," that has meant not only using documentary materials and methods but also showing on stage how the actors went about creating the plays.
"We are continuing to try to find ways in which the theater we do addresses the audience as individuals as well as social and political beings," says Kaufman.
"For us, that is the main question all the time: How can we use this medium to become part of the national conversation in a way that only theater can do it?"
'I am talking about social issues, and I try to do that in the context of a human story.'
-- Lisa Loomer
Author of Living Out, which opens this week at the Taper, and the previous 'Expecting Isabel' and 'Waiting Room'